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Ely: "Twistin' in the Wind" suits him fine

By Joel Bernstein, May 1998

If you're looking for people who pioneered "alternative country," check out Joe Ely. Long before that phrase existed, Ely created two of the genre's greatest albums. His self-titled 1977 debut and the following year's "Honky Tonk Masquerade" are regarded by some as two of the finest albums of any type ever released.

Ely, 50, has now maintained a viable recording career continuously for more than 20 years, including his brand new "Twistin' In The Wind," without anything remotely approaching a hit.

Except for two albums for Hightone in the Eighties, Ely's entire output has been on MCA - the kind of major label people assume will give a quick boot to anyone who never goes gold.

Maybe that's why Ely seems almost ignored - or perhaps just taken for granted - by the alt.-country fans who should be treating him as a God. They'd have to question their own assumption that major labels are the minions of the devil.

When it's suggested that Ely could get more press if he followed Steve Earle's lead and got himself arrested, Ely laughs and says, "I spent enough time in jail when I was growing up to last me for a lifetime."

Nor does Ely seem bothered by his relative lack of attention. "I never get jealous. You'd have to be competitive. I'm the opposite of competitive. I really don't have time for all that. I'm a busy man."

Indeed he is. He just got back from three weeks in Europe. He'll start a cross-country tour in June, opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter and also return to England. "I played like 200 cities last year. That's what I love to do. I enjoy playing live more than in the studio. There's something about playing live that you can't get anywhere else."

But playing live is only a part of it. "For some reason, the last couple of years I've been bombarded with offers for songs in movies." The Flatlanders (Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) have a cut on "The Horse Whisperer" soundtrack album. Ely also has songs in two other upcoming films, including Sandra Bullock's next flick.

"I'm working on a Tex-Mex thing with Flaco Jimenez and Los Lobos. Los Lobos are kind of in charge of doing all the music."

Ely is also an artist, and an exhibit of his work is showing in Austin, moving later to other cities. "Back in the days when I was always leaving West Texas and jumping on freight trains, I kept a sketch book in my guitar case. I look at everything I do. I keep an ongoing journal of things. I carry a camera everywhere. I don't really separate it. I look at it all as my life."

"In songs, I try to paint a little bit of a picture, a place, a scene. Sketches and drawings are almost like notes to myself. I'm in a different city every day. If I don't write it down, it's just a blur when I get home. When I'm trying to finish a song I started three or four months ago, I refer to all of these things."

Asked how he decides what becomes a song and what becomes a picture, Ely finally answers with an anecdote. "I did a series of jail illustrations - how to make jail hot chocolate using a roll of toilet paper, a light bulb and a coat hanger. I knew a guy whose friend was going to jail, so I told him about this. I described it, and he got it all wrong. I ended up drawing a picture, and he went 'Oh, now I see what you mean'."

Ely's musical style has changed quite a bit over the years. He's gone from being a rocker to a mellower singer-songwriter.

"I've gone through quite a few different phases in my life. Different places, and different parts of my life are reflected in these records. Some are lean and angry, some kickback, some mellow. This new record goes back a little ways to the early records."

Original guitarist Jesse Taylor and pedal steel player Lloyd Maines are back in his band.

"It reflects where I'm going and what I'm doing these days. I'm more interested in telling a story than getting across an attitude."

Ely's earliest albums featured a lot of songs by Hancock and some by Gilmore. Recent albums have consisted primarily of Ely's own work.

"I recorded a couple of Butch's songs for this album I didn't use, and a couple of Townes' (Van Zandt) songs I didn't use. I thought I'd just save those for another time. I'd like to do a whole record of Butch's songs, or one of Townes and other Texas friends of mine. But they didn't really fit the feel of this album."

A full-fledged Flatlanders reunion has been discussed. The new song gives people a chance to hear what the group was really like, with its three members trading vocals. The original Flatlanders recordings were made in the early Seventies for notorious producer Shelby Singleton. "Me and Butch just didn't like the contract. Jimmie was the only one that signed." Thus, Gilmore was the only one who could sing on those recordings.

"I'm glad it was recorded. Otherwise, there'd be no trace of that band." The Flatlanders album was issued at the time only on eight-track tape. Or was it? "I got one of the eight-tracks. I put it in, and the music was Jeannie C. Riley." Ely is still wondering whether anyone got a Flatlanders eight-track that actually has The Flatlanders on it.

"When my first records came out on MCA, I was talking to a journalist in London. I told him about The Flatlanders. He and a couple of other guys who started Charly records then went over to Nashville and licensed it from Singleton," finally giving it a real release.

Ely's fans have discovered him at varying stages of his career. Some people, of course, think his first two albums are the best. "I guess it's just different worlds. A lot of people from the rock world like "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta" and the live albums. A lot of people like (1995's) 'Letter To Laredo.' I look at each record as a history of where I've been. I do songs from every record (in concert). A lot of people I talk to at shows are surprised I have other records out."

"It's funny when people find another whole piece of my life. During the middle Eighties, when I had a full-blown rock 'n' roll band, a lot of these fans were surprised the early albums had accordion and steel."

The only Ely album never released on CD is 1984's "Hi-Res," regarded by most Ely fans as an aberration. "The people at MCA and my management wanted to do a 40-minute film with a record as a soundtrack. I had just gotten into computers, and I was using early computers and sequencers. I did it as an experiment, thinking what the visuals would be. The movie never happened, and I was stuck with a soundtrack to a movie only I know. About a month ago, someone put it on. I hardly recognized it. I remembered it as sounding different."

"I've seen the business change several times over during my recording history," reflects Ely.

But one thing has remained constant. "I've never written for the radio; I've written for myself. Each song is a part of my life." Ely admits, "If there was a hit, I'd be thrilled." But the most important thing is that "all the things I've recorded are things I can relate to."