A fortuitous meeting with Dutch flamenco guitarist Teye cemented the new direction, and Ely came out with two distinctly flavored and gorgeous albums of new material, 1996's "Letter to Laredo" and 1998's "Twisting in the Wind," both sounding like the honky tonks and cantinas of Ely's youth.
And like so many other moments in Ely's long career, the reverie has passed, and he has sensed that it's time to move on creatively once again.
The past two years have been almost non-stop for Ely, who contributed time and talent to the recent "I-10 Chronicles" project, hooked up with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to do some roadwork as The Flatlanders once again and won a 1999 Grammy for his efforts with the Tex-Mex supergroup, Los Super Seven, the result of a one-off show organized for South by Southwest four years ago.
"You never know what's going to happen," Ely says with a laugh from his Texas home. "I've found over the course of my life that when people get together for the sake of music, it always turns out good. When they get together to try to make something that's going to sell records, it has kind of a funny smell to it. In that case, there was no possible commercial potential for that record whatsoever. When it was nominated, we were all just shocked."
If the nomination was a surprise, Ely's Grammy night experience was positively surreal.
"We actually flew out the Shrine Auditorium and were in the audience and went up and received it and all," Ely remembers. "Faith Hill was the presenter, and when she opened the envelope and read the names, she got every single person's name wrong. Every single person. She had no knowledge of Spanish, and she tried to act like she did. When she read the name of the band, she said something like, 'Los Supair Sevaugn,' like it was French or something. When she read it, I didn't even understand what she said. My daughter elbowed me, and said, 'That's y'all, y'all won.' I said, 'What?' So I jumped up and ran to the stage, and I almost didn't make it. I came up on the stage at the wrong place, and I had to crawl over Madonna's set, which was a bunch of monolithic rocks in the dark. So I'm crawling over these rocks to get to the podium. It was completely hilarious. I got up there completely out of breath."
With all of his wildly disparate projects, the one constant for Ely has been touring his own band, an experience that was slowly beginning to sound more like his roots rock heyday in the late '80's.
With the return of guitarist Jesse Taylor and the occasional appearance of pedal steeler Lloyd Maines (in-demand producer and father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines), along with traditionalists Teye and accordionist Joel Guzman, Ely was presenting a blended version of his early muscle and more recent subtlety.
The results were striking.
So, after "Live Shots," Ely's first live album in 1980 and 1990's "Live at Liberty Lunch," Ely, 53, made the locust-like decision to once again document his band onstage by recording shows for potential release.
"It's just something I've wanted to do," Ely says of the decision to release another live one, "Live at Antone's" (Rounder). "I wanted to catch the band on a hot Saturday night. It wasn't like I went to Rounder and said, 'Hey, I've got an idea, let's do a live album.' I actually put all the recording stuff together myself and set it all up so we could capture the band when it was really hot. You never know what's going to happen. Bands break up. Guys go different directions. I just thought it was important to do."
Although four other shows were taped for consideration, Ely wanted his latest live album to be representative of just one single night. The momentous gig occurred at Antone's in Austin on a January evening last year, and the results are blazingly evident on Ely's amazing third career live album,
The album contains 15 songs including "The Road Goes on Forever," "Me and Billy the Kid, " "Dallas" and Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy!"
"I listened to all of the shows, and there's a lot of good stuff in there, but this particular night just stood out far above all the rest," says Ely. "We knew it at the end of the night. Everyone was clicking together. It's a big band, and it's hard, when it's a big band, for everybody to be right in the pocket together. But it was just one of those nights. I guess I'll wait 10 years before I do another one."
Naturally, a new live album means a new tour, so Ely and his cohorts are planning to storm the country with the same intensity and brilliance that is the benchmark of "Live at Antone's."
This next circuit won't be a full-bore Ely tour assault, as he has nearly completed work on his next studio album, requiring his return to put on the finishing touches this summer sometime.
In the meantime, lucky audiences will have the opportunity to hear some of Ely's new material as he roadtests the tunes before the final studio polish.
"We're starting to rehearse it and play some of the new songs out on the road," Ely says. "I played a solo acoustic show last night, and I like to do that when I'm trying out new songs. They went over good. I like to test everything out before I roll the machine. I've got 30 songs recorded so I've got to boil it down to 12-15. The feel of the new one is more of a rock album, not like the last couple at all. Just more straight ahead."
After revisiting the music of his youth, Ely was energized, and the result is making an impact on his new songs.
"The last two albums were complete, they were almost like the same record," notes Ely. "It just kind of tied everything up, and I didn't want to just carry on in that same vein. Those were particular songs that I was writing at the time, and everything just leaned toward that. The songs that I've been writing for the new album have a whole different kind of spirit to them. I've looked over my records in the past, and I get one sound and carry it for awhile. You know, people change, and I've always thought of all the records as sort of a journal of where I've been. My life has changed, everything is different, and that will be reflected."