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At 60, Joe Ely moves full speed ahead

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 2007

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Ely's reputation grew markedly with the releases of the follow-up CDs, "Honky Tonk Masquerade" in 1978 and "Down on the Drag" in 1979.

A fourth CD - the first of three live discs Ely would eventually release, "Live Shots" - made its way to The Clash. Ely soon opened dates for the Brits in their homeland with The Clash and Ely also playing U.S. dates together.

Ely continued recording for MCA and later did several discs for HighTone Records before settling with Rounder. "Happy Songs" is only his second solo disc in nine years.

In recent years, he devoted a lot of energy and effort to The Flatlanders, which toured a good amount and released "Now Again" in 2002 and "Wheels of Fortune" 2 years later, both on New West.

He also recorded two albums as part of the Tex-Mex rootsy collective, Los Super Seven, which included Rick Trevino, Raul Malo, Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez.

Once again, though, Ely seems intent on focusing on his own career for the time being.

After "Rattlesnake Gulch, a new "old" album, "Silver City," is due in March. All 10 songs were written between 1968 and 1972, but recorded in the past 1 1/2 years.

"A few of the songs I've recorded on other albums, but I went back to the original words," says Ely.

With so much going on, why bother going back to songs that are more than three decades old?

"That's another thing of my new philosophy in this...individual age of why not? I think for one thing I... feel it's ...loosely connected with this (book) project because it's... the beginning of where I was when I started hitting the road. You can hear it in those songs. There's...an innocence there. 'Rattlesnake Gulch' is a little more road weary. I just thought that the record is not ever (going to come out) because it's more acoustic oriented, not something the radio is ever going to play. It should just be part of a collection, and that's...my new way of thinking."

"Most of them are things that I left behind because I got together with Butch and Jimmie from the Flatlanders, and we went off and recorded the songs that we...played together and these other songs were...written in my book, and I never pulled them out at the time."

"I pulled them out last year, and I thought people might want to hear these early acoustic songs." Accordionist Joel Guzman plays with Ely on the set.

"I had the melodies in my head, and I would sometime go and... mess with them and...find something that sort of worked, but it just didn't fit into the particular record I was working in at the time."

"When something becomes a song, I somehow remember the melody even if it's 30 years ago. There were a couple of them I remember having to rewrite because the melody didn't work."

"Every once in awhile, I'd hit a little snag and record a little chorus or change the chorus to make it work. It was real interesting to take songs from that era and ... look at them...from a new perspective."

Two spoken word albums of chapters from the "Bonfire" book are due in April

. Once upon a time, Ely recorded a real special disc, a Christmas present for his daughter, Marie, when she was about three.

"I put this whole record together, got the band out, and we recorded several days before Christmas. We finished mixing it about 3 a.m. Christmas morning, and that was my present to her that year and never thought anything of it until other kids around the neighborhood wanted it, and their parents wanted it. Over the years, I've given it to my friends who had kids coming into the world. Pretty funny stories, Mr. Ghost, a pretty lullaby that me and Butch wrote years ago. (There's) one that me and Jimmie Gilmore's daughter wrote years ago."

Like other parts of Ely's past, this may be resurfacing.

"Now, I'm...approaching people about making an animated film that goes along with it or possibly a book. So, that's one more example of the things I'm going to do with Rack 'Em. I'm going to do whatever I damn well please instead of the rigmarole you go through with a record company. I feel a certain freedom."

In the near term, Ely will hit the road as part of a singer/songwriter package including Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and John Hiatt, a tour that has been going on for several years.

Ely also is interspersing those with solo and band dates.

This summer, The Flatlanders may regroup for more recording. Touring is a possibility with the group set to play the first StageCoach Fest in early May in California.

The relationship between the three dates back to Lubbock, which had a bit of a beatnik scene, according to Ely.

"I was...playing those places, and Jimmie was too. We started doing...some songs together. He introduced me to Butch. The three of us hit it off so good that we decided to get a house together."

"We literally stayed up day and night playing music. We hardly ever played anywhere out in the world. Everybody ... came to us because our house always had music going on."

"We always...joked the fact that between the 5 of us living in that house, $80 a month (rent), we usually (could) come up with the $80 if we had a girlfriend who would help us out. We really didn't help out. We mainly ate corned bread and black-eyed peas. Our expenses weren't all that large. I think we had to come up with about $20 a month."

"It was probably even more serious than musicians who went out and tried to make money at their craft. Because we had no ambition whatsoever. I mean literally, and we still don't, none of us. We always looked at an ambitious musician who was trying to sell what they were making and not really trying to explore it. We were always...accused of not being serious at what we were doing. I guess we just didn't take it seriously. We looked at it as something we had to do for the rest of our lives because we loved it so much."

"When I look back at all that time, we didn't really consider ever doing anything else. I guess we've been lucky and being able to do that our whole lives."

Long-term, there are projects such as a tribute to Ely's songwriting buddies - Butch Hancock and Terry Allen or those whose songs he has learned (Townes Van Zant, Woody Guthrie).

"This is a project that probably wouldn't interest a record label, especially in the ... timeframe that I'm looking at. I'm looking at releasing three albums."

"I guess I just like to work and have all these projects sketched out."

"Several other records are recorded, but not finished," says Ely. "I don't really care if it makes sense or not...I'm at the point my life, I just don't really care about all of that stuff that I used to care about with record companies - whether something is smart or whether I should put something out in the spring or the fall and all that bullshit. I feel totally liberated about being to do these things and being able to release things as a project and not just another record coming out."

Does Ely ever need a break? "I don't need downtime. I really don't. I just don't know what I'd do with downtime. I've tried it. It just doesn't work with me. I like things to move and vibrate. And music is a way good way to make things vibrate. Touring is a good way to make things move."

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