He has shared international stages and recordings with the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Clash, The Chieftains and Bruce Springsteen. But delve into the fascinating Americana music that Joe Ely has made on his own over the past four decades, and you will find that all roads lead to Texas.
They might wind up in his birthplace, Amarillo, where Ely was introduced to the possibilities of rock 'n' roll. It could be Lubbock, where he discovered how the union of music and culture could transform a town. Then again, his music might take you to his current home outside of Austin, as the veteran songsmith and champion roots rocker still describes himself, at age 67, as an upstart of sorts.
"I'm kind of a noisy neighbor," says Ely, who performs a duo concert Sunday night with accordionist/keyboardist Joel Guzman at Natasha's. "So I live outside of town a little bit. I had to find a spot where I didn't have anybody within half a mile of me."
Take in his recordings, from the Tex-Mex pageantry of West Texas Waltz to the roadhouse rock and soul of Musta Notta Gotta Lotta to the proud folk balladry of Gallo del Cielo, and you get an idea of how Ely could easily wake up the neighbors. But his love of music first took hold during childhood in the heart of a dust storm.
"One of the earliest memories I had of seeing rock 'n' roll was going with my parents to a Pontiac dealership in a raging dust storm in Amarillo," Ely says. "This was before we moved to Lubbock. There was the stage with a madman wearing a bandana around his nose who was pounding on a piano. The wind was blowing so hard his microphone kept falling over. It was Jerry Lee Lewis. I just thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen."
Ely admitted that live music was far from prevalent when his family moved to Lubbock. Instead, he and soon-to-be singer-songwriter pals Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (who continue to perform together as The Flatlanders) absorbed the blues that came barreling through the airwaves via high-wattage radio stations out of Mexico. The live music that did exist in Lubbock tended to be indigenous and spontaneous.
"When I was growing up in West Texas, my daddy had a used-clothing store," Ely says. "On the weekends, the migrant workers would come in from the fields and buy work clothes. Lubbock would increase by 50,000 people when the cotton was ripe. All of the migrant workers brought their musical instruments and filled the streets, and what generally was old, drab downtown Lubbock all of a sudden was completely alive with trumpet players and accordions and (guitar-like) bajo sextos. It was really a great time."
Ely formed some of his first bands in Lubbock, but it was the fertile music community of Austin that gave his music a lasting home. That helped forge an expansive career with a catalogue of roughly 20 albums (including the newly released B484, an archival record cut as a precursor to 1984's synth-savvy Hi Res) and an increased visibility as both an author (he recently published his first novel, Reverb) and a visual artist.
"Every time I start a new record these days, I tend to go back outside of Lubbock and just drive up and down those old two-lane roads, and seeing absolutely nothing in every direction, that's somehow inspiring to me. I don't know why.
"There is just this big emptiness that hits you when you get out of Lubbock. Look in every direction, and there's just flatness. There is something about that giant sky that makes me want to fill it up. I've had my ups and downs in the town itself. But that area ... I just like that big emptiness."