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At 60, Joe Ely moves full speed ahead

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 2007

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"He helped my daddy with his used clothing store. He was the most amazing cat. He was a tough old coot, but had the most amazing sense of humor (and) just had this incredibly sweet spirit that he shows up not only in this song, but has a big part in the novel that I wrote. Everybody just calls him Bob the Turk."

"When my father died, he... helped my mother try to save the store. He drove the truck and did the stuff, to no avail. He then just...anished."

On its face, "Up a Tree" is about someone caught up a tree with the dogs nipping away.

For Ely, it's political.

"It was originally just written about someone who gets themselves in a situation they can't get themselves out of, but the very first verse of it was written when Nixon was in Watergate. I just...left that (alone). When I was going through (papers) a few years ago - going through my writings and stuff - and I found that verse. It was ...ironic because I saw George Bush up that same tree. I just finished that song because some things just go around in a big old circle. I said this song has to be finished because if I wrote that song in Nixon's day, it's the same song now. I just wrote it about another leader going up the tree. He knows he has to come down sometime."

"Bonfire of Roadmaps" is a mixture of Ely's musings - many poetic, some a bit hard to decipher, about life on the road and music - from different periods of Ely's life.

"It's really a project that I've been working on all my life, so it's not something that I've been doing (only) in the past few months. The book is a journal I've been doing. Song ideas. They started being out notes for future songs, and then they ended up being a rhythm. So, they end up being 40, 50, 60 pages long of snapshots from the road."

The set is not complete because some were destroyed in a flood, and four years worth were left in the back of a taxicab in New York City, years that Ely had gotten his band together and toured with British punkers New Wave heroes The Clash.

Ely was born Feb. 9, 1947 in Amarillo, Texas. By eight, he took violin lessons, followed several years later by steel-guitar lessons. Interestingly, a door-to-door music lesson salesman, who also happened to teach Buddy Holly, taught Ely, who also took guitar lessons.

"That slide guitar just took me to a whole 'nother place. I was just instantly transported out of Lubbock...(It was) Hawaiian style guitar, and it completely mesmerized me."

"The guy who taught me how to play electric guitar also was living in a house that Buddy Holly lived in about five years earlier. There were all kinds of coincidences in Lubbock that have to do with Buddy Holly."

"After Buddy died, everybody in Lubbock was playing a Stratocaster. He was the catalyst for me anyway that made me think about writing songs and going out in the world and playing them."

"I knew that was going to be a part of my life," says Ely of music. "I had no idea that everything I did revolved around it. I knew that I had...discovered something that was real close to me."

"My granddad was always singing in the church choir when I was a kid. There was always a piano in my house. Nobody played it except me. I would tinker around on it and find melodies."

As a kid, Ely remembers seeing Texas swing great Bob Wills through the cracks in the wall of a Amarillo honky tonk and Jerry Lee Lewis playing a show at a car dealership.

Books were not where it was at for Ely. "I failed English. I pretty much left high school. I never made it through the 11th grade. I hit the road when I was about 17."

"Most of the stuff that I wrote down, I wrote for my enjoyment."

He played in Dallas and Houston, heading out to Los Angeles. Ely went to New York in 1969 to join a Texas theatrical troupe there and later hit Europe.

When he returned to the U.S., he entered a different path - tending the animals at the Ringling Brothers Circus for a few months until it hit Lubbock, and Ely's circus career was history.

Ely hung long enough to form a band with Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, fiddler Steve Wesson and mandolin player Tony Pearson. With a demo in hand, they hit Nashville, but turned down a deal. Ely went home.

A new band formed, The Flatlanders, with Gilmore, Hancock and his brother Tommy, Wesson and Sylvester Wright.

The legend of The Flatlanders soon began with the release of "One More Road" in 1970, but only on the Charly label in England. The disc was not released in the U.S. for several decades, helping The Flatlanders reach cult status although an inactive band for about 30 years.

As for Ely, a tape of his music made its way to Jerry Jeff Walker, who recommended that the folks at his label, MCA, give it a listen. The label execs apparently liked what they heard because they signed Ely, who released a self-titled debut in 1977.

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