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Joe Ely's big songs for little stories

By Brian Baker, July 2003

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"I started thinking about first getting together with Butch and Jimmie, and it was a simple time and the songs were of a more personal nature," Ely recalls. "I thought of these songs as being one column newspaper stories, not like the headlines. And I think it related to the times we're living in. They're a little unsettled and a little dark. I didn't want to do a documentary; I just wanted to catch the feeling of one little person who took a different turn. We got on a roll and just followed it."

What a roll it turned out to be. Ely, who has long championed the downtrodden and misbegotten in his songs, easily found the voices of a plucky survivor ("Fightin' for My Life"), a nature ravaged family ("A Flood on Our Hands"), a farmer who loses everything ("All That You Need") and a prodigal son (the title track), and like a true artist, he did it almost subconsciously.

"I really like the record, but I like it more now that I can stand back from it," says Ely. "When I was recording it, I didn't even think about whether I liked it or not. I just wanted to catch a certain kind of feeling, lyrically and tempo-wise. I never think of a record as being good or bad, I think of it as being complete or not. And this record is real different from the last studio records I did, which are more Mexican border-influenced. This is a little more of a feeling of my earlier days, of where I came from in west Texas."

Although Ely wrote all the songs for specifically for the album, some of the stories date back years.

"I'm always keeping a journal, and sometimes I go back and pull things out that I had completely forgotten about. They're not songs or anything, just things that happened."

The jazzy Tom Waits-like "Carnival Bum" is a case in point. "That was kinda written about the days when' I used to travel with the Ringling Brothers Circus and the South Plains Carnival. It was a terrible job. I took care of the llamas and the world's smallest horse, and I shoveled elephant shit. It was funny because the turnover in ring stock, which is taking care of the animals, is so quick that within three weeks I had the highest seniority. I got kicked in the ribs by a horse and broke a couple of ribs, and it was too painful to work, so I decided to quit, and they begged me to stay on because I had the most seniority. I stayed with them for a couple of months."

Still another project that Ely has been working on simultaneously, a spoken word recording of some of his journal entries, had an impact on the talking blues style that wound up being the foundation for both "Carnival Bum" and "Gotta Find Ol' Joe."

The spoken word project is yet another of Ely's side bets that he considers an interesting diversion without any real goal in mind.

"I do all these things,and I don't have any pre-conceived notion of where they'll end up," says Ely. "I wrote a novel in the last two years, and I have no idea where it's gonna turn up and didn't even consider that when I was writing it. It's called 'Super Reverb.' Different people have approached me in curiosity about it, but we haven't actually talked about publishing it. I do projects just to do them and not for something. It's a way of figuring it all out. And it's cheaper than a psychiatrist."

Perhaps one of the biggest departures for Ely on "Streets of Sin" was in the way he considered the songs when it came time to bring them into the studio. Rather than allowing skeletal songs to be shaped by the band, Ely composed the material very specifically and in a sense conducted the band through the songs.

"I really thought about the group of songs that I was gonna include, and I actually recorded everything acoustically and got it exactly right," says Ely. "I kept that feeling of how I did it by myself with just fingerpicking or whatever, then I brought the band and had them study these tracks because I felt like I had the tempo right. So instead of just tossing a song out and saying, 'Here, try this,' and let everyone find their own groove, I had this feeling of tempo for the entire record. As opposed to just writing something and trying to make sense of it in the studio. I was real focused on this one."

In the end, the simple messages Ely was attempting to impart on "Streets of Sin" translated into the way he eventually presented them.

"I wanted to pull it back," says Ely. "If you notice on the record, as opposed to all my other records, there's hardly any guitar solos. There's big wide open spaces in between verses, like a B3 holding one note or something. I didn't want it to be a fancy record. The songs are so simple, they're just some common everyday stories, and I didn't want to embellish it a lot."

In a lot of ways, Joe Ely has finally made the album that is most like himself. Philosophically, he's an unassuming man with simple beliefs.

Musically, although he is the product of his Texas upbringing and influences, he is also one of a handful of artists who have defined and redefined the concept of Texas music over the past 30 years. Ethically, he's a hard working man who doesn't mind work for its own sake.

That may be the rarest and most valuable commodity that Ely brings to his craft. It is definitely the reason he is still a vibrant creative force 40 years after lighting out from Lubbock, Texas at the age of 16 to see the world while finding a way to change a little bit of that world with the music that he heard in his head and felt in his soul. It is the world's legacy to Joe Ely, and it most assuredly Joe Ely's legacy to the world.

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