Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Joe Ely continues the tradition of great Texas music
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Joe Ely continues the tradition of great Texas music

The old cliché holds true in Texas, where there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. And a lot of it is good.

Not only has the state been a hotbed for great talent for decades, but something about the dust and sun and the cross-cultural pollination of being so close to Mexico has made it possible for artists to ignore lines between genres.

So blues pioneer T-Bone Walker laid the groundwork for Chuck Berry’s later quintessential rock-and-roll guitar licks. Freddy Fender warbled about being lovesick and letting his teardrops fall in both Spanish and English, his music infused with the galloping conjunto rhythms and accordion melodies, and hit both the Country and Pop charts. Clarence Gatemouth Brown played killer blues, stone country and toe-tapping swing. Lyle Lovett could veer from his James Taylor folkie-isms to his big-band (er, “Large Band”) forays into swingy rhythm and blues.

Doug Sahm, about whom an entire encyclopedia of music could be written, started as a country guitar prodigy but quickly absorbed blues and rock and played music like the British Invasion until he met marijuana, and scooted to San Francisco to become a psychedelicized hippie before returning to Texas to play country again. His shows could run the gamut from conjunto music to rich R&B to killer blues and rock.

Jerry Jeff Walker’s a folkie and a country legend but he’s just as remembered for sloppy, drunken rock and roll about sangria wine and a killer pop song, “Mr. Bojangles.” Another signature tune, “London Homesick Blues,” written by yet another Texas songwriter, is the theme song for “Austin City Limits,” the PBS show that brings all these wonderful Texas sounds to a genteel, yuppified national audience. Genre-busting is a sport in Texas.

There are so many stories to tell about music from Texas, that some get lost in the flood. One that deserves telling is the tale of Joe Ely, a singer-songwriter who’s always had one foot in stone country and the other in rowdy rock and roll, and a hand in R&B and the other in folk music.

Ely was born in 1947 in Lubbock, Buddy Holly’s hometown, and was hitting his teens when Holly died in 1959. With that legacy for starters he absorbed everything on the radio: roots rock to country swing. His forceful singing fit well with two Lubbock pals who were also songwriters, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Ely’s first foray as a recording artist was with those friends, as the Flatlanders, in 1972. Unfortunately, that album didn’t see the light of day for over decade, and the trio split, although they remained friends and contributed t each other’s recordings.

Since the late ‘70s Ely has released a shockingly solid string of albums, peppered with songs written by Hancock and featuring various combinations of Texas-bred and therefore, genre-busting, bands. Even his 1977 debut album, “Joe Ely,” which sported a pencil drawing of the musician in a cowboy hat that promised country, was flavored with much more. Some of the songs from that first album still stand alongside the best that Ely, and perhaps all of Texas, has produced: “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me” is a heartbreaker penned by Hancock; Ely’s own “I Had My Hopes Up High” would be a huge hit today for any country star.

In 1978, Ely and his band toured England where they ran into the burgeoning punk-rock scene and met the Clash. In the U.S., roots rock bands in the late ‘70s weren’t noticed amidst the disco glitz and the Eagles/Fleetwood Mac pop sheen. But in England, rootsy American rock and roll was at a premium, so Ely’s band ended up touring with the Clash, and earning a righteous reputation for their intense, energetic live shows.

That energy – the equal of shows by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band of the time – was captured on a 1980 live album, “Live Shots.”

Ely followed up with the 1981 classic “Musta Notta Gotta Lotta” (the line in the song goes, “Musta notta gotta lotta sleep last night”), in which he fused his rocking persona with his country soul (or maybe the other way around), which remains one of his strongest albums, and one of the best albums of that decade. Critics raved about it, but Ely remained merely a critic’s favorite, and didn’t break into the mainstream music charts.

His career unfortunately remains a well-kept secret, shared by fans of Texas music and those who have followed Ely’s career for three decades.

Over the span of his prodigious career, Ely has released almost 20 albums under his own name, and several with the Flatlanders (Ely, Gilmore and Hancock regrouped after recording a track for Robert Redford’s “Horse Whisperer” movie) and a couple with Los Super Seven, a Texas supergroup of musicians from all genres that deserves a write-up of their own. He’s even published a book, “A Bonfire of Roadmaps,” which collects his tour journals and drawings and reflects the itinerant life of a musician.

Now, Ely has a new CD coming out, and it falls into place in his pantheon of fine recordings.

“Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch,” a companion to “A Bonfire of Roadmaps,” probably won’t push him into the spotlight of mainstream pop stardom. But the songs, all penned by Ely except for one by Hancock, “Firewater,” are as rootsy, rocking and catchy as they’ve ever been. Ely’s voice is as strong and powerful as it’s ever been. The instruments weave in and out effortlessly, from grungy guitars to punchy horns, and bits of genres color the fabrics like splotches on a tie-dye shirt, here a knot of blues, there a splash of mariachi.

The slow-burning, purposefully but almost unbearably leaden “July Blues,” is a killer track, with the guitars screaming of heat and humidity, and Ely setting the scene like one in the James Dean movie, “Giant”: “I got the July blues, I got hornets in my hair; my baby’s suckin’ on ice cubes that ain’t even there….”

The album’s full of vivid, literate imagery and Texas storytelling, framed and presented with a band that adapts to suit the scenes. On “Miss Bonnie and Mr. Clyde,” Ely snarls like he’s narrating a film noir plotline, “I was minding my own business down on Deep Elum Street; The sun was comin’ up and the birds was about to tweet (sangin sweet); When a car come around the corner, long and lean and brown; Pulls up to the curb by me and rolls their widow down; A man throws me a dollar and I ask him what’s that for; A pack of Luckies and a paper over at the corner store; I peer into the window, there’s a man and a woman inside; Holy jumpin’ bolts of lightnin’ it’s Miss Bonnie and Mr. Clyde.”

It could be a middle-era Bob Dylan dreamscape, except a screaming wah-wah guitar punctuates the verses and brings it all home again, to Texas, ZZ Top-style.

If the world’s hasn’t noticed Joe Ely’s talent, it’s the world’s loss. Someday, Ely may tip over into the mainstream, but even if he never does, his fans will continue to follow his work and support his art, and sing the praises of the artist who makes genre-busting Texas music … the good kind.