Few singer-songwriter-guitarists have led richer musical lives than Texas great Joe Ely has. In 1971, with fellow songwriters Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ely co-founded The Flatlanders, a band many consider ground zero for alternative-country music. From that springboard, Ely has since garnered acclaim for his solo albums, his riveting performances and his continued work in The Flatlanders. The sweep of his influence extends from his early impact on The Clash to the entirety of the Americana landscape.
Next month, New West Records will release The Odessa Tapes, a collection of legendary recordings The Flatlanders made 40 years ago. In addition, Ely has a new solo album ready for release this winter. In the following interview, he shares many vivid recollections, including working with The Clash and doing all-night shows with an early incarnation of ZZ Top. First, however, he talked about his famous Gibson J-45, the acoustic guitar that’s been his steadiest companion for more than 40 years.
What’s the story behind the Gibson J-45 you got all those years ago?
I had been playing at a place called the Cellar Club, in Houston, and my guitar had been stolen. This was 1967. I decided to go to Venice, California, with a friend, carrying along nothing but an old guitar amp. One day I was walking in Venice and I saw a guy sitting at a bus stop, playing an old Gibson. The guitar was really interesting. It had sea shells glued to it. I stopped and asked him, “What year is that guitar?” He just looked at me and said, “You wanna buy it?” He said he wanted 10 dollars for it. I thought, “Wow! A Gibson for 10 dollars.” I told him I wanted to buy it, but that I needed time to get the money. So, for the next 24 hours, I went around borrowing, begging, selling Coke bottles … anything I could do to scrape together the money. I managed to come up with five dollars and some change. The guy said, “Alright, I’ll take it, but I get to keep the seashells.”
And did he keep them?
Oh, yes. He started ripping them off the guitar. They were glued on with airplane glue, so it sounded like the top was going to come off. He had installed a pocket comb for the bridge, and also for the saddle. I hitchhiked back to Texas with that guitar, and had a guy go through it and put new frets on it and check out the struts and everything. Right now, as we speak, that guitar is sitting in my recording studio. I’ve used it on probably every album I’ve ever recorded. People who’ve looked at it have told me it’s probably a late ’40s or early ’50s model.
How does that guitar sound today, as compared when you first got it?
It keeps sounding better and better. It sounded great from the start, but it has a real bell-like quality now. It’s one possession I’ve managed to keep all my life – that guitar and my first violin, which I got when I was eight years old.
Have you played other Gibsons through the years?
I played a Les Paul TV model for many years, “live” and in the studio. That model was made in the ’50s and early ’60s, and was known for looking especially great on black and white television. That guitar played great. I loved the richness of its sound. I also have a pair of newer J-45s, that are probably 10 or 15 years old now. I use both those guitars a lot in the studio. I still do my writing on that original J-45.
Do you remember getting your first real guitar?
My very first real guitar was a Hawaiian lap steel. I grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and it was probably one of the few places in the country where you might find someone going door to door, selling Hawaiian lap steel guitar lessons. Someone knocked on our door, and he had a little amplifier with a palm tree on the side of it, and a small steel guitar. He asked if he could come in and give a demonstration. My mother let him in, and he set up in the living room, and I started taking lessons. I must have been around 12 years old.
Did you learn to play by playing along to albums?
That, and there was a guy down the street who played, who was a good guitar player. He showed me a lot of stuff. His name was Bob Blasingame. About 20 years later I ran into a fellow in Clovis, New Mexico, who was carrying around some information that showed where Buddy Holly had lived, in Lubbock. It turned out that one of the places where Holly and his family had lived was in that same house, where Bob taught me guitar.
When did you start writing songs?
Not until I was around 17. I was playing in a band, playing other people’s songs. When I was 17 or 18 I started running into people who wrote their own songs. That fascinated me. I thought people who wrote songs lived on Tin Pan Alley. I had never considered that aspect of music, but when I did, it set me on a whole new course. When I ran into Butch and Jimmie, they were already master songwriters. That’s why we got together, as The Flatlanders, because we liked one another’s songs.
Didn’t you once share sets with a pre-Billy Gibbons version of ZZ Top?
That was at the Cellar South, in Houston, in 1966. They were calling themselves the American Blues. They dyed their hair blue and had big pompadours. Our band alternated sets with them. We would play an hour, and they would play an hour, and on weekends that would go on from six in the evening till six in the morning. I learned a lot during that period. That was sort of my apprenticeship. Playing with American Blues – and with Johnny Winter – who used to come sit in, was great training.
Later you worked with The Clash. What was that experience like?
In 1977 and 1978, I released a couple of albums that got a lot of airplay around London. The Clash liked some of those songs, and they came to see us when we played in London, in ’78. After the show, they took me and the band out on the town, showing us the hot spots. They had just had a big hit with “I Fought the Law,” which had been written by a Lubbock guy, Sonny Curtis. I started hanging out with them quite a bit. Joe Strummer said, “Man we would love to come to Texas next year. Can you arrange a tour for us there?” They wanted to play places like El Paso and Laredo and Lubbock. So we did that, and had a great time. The next year, they invited me back to England for their London Calling tour.
And later you recorded “Should I Stay or Should I Go” with them?
That’s right. They invited me to do the Spanish translation parts. I recorded that with them in Electric Ladyland Studios, in New York City. Between me and the engineer, who was from Puerto Rico, we somehow got a translation. My Spanish isn’t perfect, but it worked out okay. We cut it live in the studio.
The Odessa Tapes – those original Flatlanders recordings – were only recently discovered. Did anything surprise you as you listened to them again, after all these years?
What surprised me was how relaxed and casual we were. We had never recorded together, prior to that. It’s amazing how low-key we all were. We weren’t thinking we were making a record; we were just playing, sitting in a circle in a room in Odessa, Texas. We had driven from Lubbock to Odessa, about 130 miles, and we recorded 14 songs, from sun down till sun up. Then, at sunrise, we got in the car and drove back. I don’t even remember listening back to anything we recorded, at the time. The whole night was almost like a dream. It just flowed.
How do you feel when people credit The Flatlanders for pioneering the Americana movement?
It’s flattering, although we didn’t really think of ourselves as pioneers or anything. We were just fascinated with how a song was put together. For the past 40 years, we’ve become a band for only about a month out of every two or three years. We just went out and did shows in more than 20 cities, and we’re doing a west coast run in late summer and early fall. As long as it’s fun, we’ll keep going for it.