BY JON HOULON Any archival release from Mr. Joe Ely — one-man Texas music institution, former Ringling Bros. wrangler and founding member of the Flatlanders – is cause for celebration around these parts. This one is called Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes and it’s brought to us on Ely’s own Rack ‘Em Records.
Full Circle. Let me come. This may take a minute if you’ll indulge me.
There are holy grails and there are HOLY GRAILS. The grails that mark us.
The Flatlander’s More A Legend Than a Band, recorded in 1972 but not released in the United States until 1990, is one of those. It’s the songs, Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s high prairie voice, and that eerie saw. Way up in the mix. Because of the wind, as Ely would wistfully sing on perhaps his finest ballad.
Some say the Flatlanders (Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock) invented what later became known as Americana or Alt-Country or, lord help us, No Depression. Whatever.
I don’t care what your Burrito Brother or Uncle Tupelo has to say about it. The Flatlanders were the ones for me. When I heard More a Legend Than a Band, it appeared as some sort of talisman. The music that Butch, Jimmie, and Joe devised in Lubbock, Texas (!) at the beginning of the 70s was like no other in its reach: it ping- ponged backwards to Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and, yes, to Bob Dylan but also forwards to a way far away from the bad sounds of the 80s and the ghastly grunge of the early 90s… to something that made sense. It made me move to Texas! How’s that for sense? Or about a mover.
But I’m getting ahead of myself by going too far behind. It’s now again.
1986: I take the 1 from Columbia down to the Beacon to see Dwight Yoakam. Mighta been ’87 or ‘88. Joe Ely is the opener. I’d heard his name but never the man himself.
There he was, alone on stage, with just guitar and voice. And he stilled the room of drug-store cowboys (yours truly included) who came to see the great hope of the Bakersfield sound. It was his stance. He looked like Johnny Cash from the back row where I was seated. Or was it Jack Kerouac?
Ely did me in. John Updike describes Ted Williams’ running the bases at his last game at Fenway like this: “a feather in an electrical vortex” Close. Or maybe it was more like the way Ginsberg described Dylan as a “column of air.” Something invisible and elemental made present. All I know is that Ely exposed Yoakam and his band as imposters to, at least, my ears. And Ely did it by himself as a support act!
Two songs from that particular night still ring in my ears: Joe’s take on “Satisfied Mind” (popularized, I would later learn, by Porter Wagoner) and “Boxcars.” As the final minor chord rang out at the end of the latter, Ely named its author: Butch Hancock.
Finding Ely records back then was nearly impossible – even in NYC. I had to settle on his then current Hightone release called Lord of the Highway, titled after another Hancock gem.1 But this Lord did not weather the years. Not Ely’s best work by a long shot. Or live shot, as the case may be.2
It was only later – around the same time as I discovered the Flatlanders’ self-titled album in 1990 – that I was able to track down the records on which Ely staked his claim in the late 70s and early 80s i.e. those on MCA: Joe Ely (1977) and Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978), both recorded in Nashville, as well as Down on the Drag (1979), recorded in Seattle and Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (1981), recorded in Austin.
I found these records on cassette reissues but can’t remember why I bought them in that format. Most likely because I was crisscrossing the USA in my Chevrolet Caprice (yellow not red, Butch!) which was of sufficient vintage to only possess a tape deck.
Those tapes became a soundtrack as I drove from California to Texas to the Mid-Atlantic and back again and again. When I finally put together a band in Philly during that great Alt-Country scare in the mid-90s, the songs on Ely’s MCA records featured heavily in our repertoire as they do to this day. Boxcars is the last song our original bass player ever performed before pushing off to some other place.
Ely’s MCA records – especially the first two – are extraordinary. MCA let Ely use his own band who had been cutting their teeth in the honky-tonks of Lubbock for several years at that point and use his own songs as well as those of Butch and Jimmie. Butch’s songs – which appear in nearly equal number to Joe’s – push these records over the edge.
Ok. I’ll say it. Steve Earle once claimed that he’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his cowboy boots and say that Townes Van Zandt was the best damn songwriter in the world. Well, Steve, I’ll stand on Townes Van Zandt’s now quite valuable estate in my Chucks and say that Butch Hancock is. Butch is that great and must be mentioned in the same breath as Dylan and Townes. In fact, I wouldn’t rank Townes above Butch … and I love Townes.
The original Joe Ely band was one helluva crackerjack ensemble that brought Butch’s West Texas words and timeless melodies to maximum life – in a way that Nashville pros would not and could not have. God bless the MCA execs who allowed this. The late great Jesse Taylor (guitar) and recently deceased and also great Ponty Bone (accordion) along with pedal steel master Lloyd Maines put together complex yet perfect harmony lines that answered and cajoled Butch’s zen wisdom and cowboy poetry non-pareil as best presented in Ely’s confident yet sly timbre. To call these recordings unique is only to capture a fraction of their appeal. You gotta hear ‘em.
Maines went on to sire Dixie Chick Natalie– who went on to dis the now seemingly reasonable G.W. (that can’t be right, right?) – but also recently located what are now called The Lubbock Tapes in his garage and Ely’s released them here. Full Circle.
So what is this circle in the sand? A work of art? Actually, they’re demos3 that the Ely Band cut in Lubbock in 1974 and 1978 in preparation for their MCA recordings. No radical reinventions, alternative versions, etc. here. The arrangements were already in place when Ely & Co. knocked these demos out at Don Caldwell’s legendary studio in the Hub City. All in all the differences in the Full Circle versions versus the MCA versions are of degree, not kind. Nothing of the kind, as Butch would later write, and Jimmie memorably record on his Spinning Around the Sun LP.4
But don’t worry. Your trusty correspondent A/B’d these biscuits for you. See Figure A, above. Here’s what I’ve got: Full Circle wins on 5, the MCA versions on 4, and the remainder are a draw. Given the greatness of Ely’s original records, this is no poor showing!
Having Ely’s acoustic up in the mix – as it is on The Lubbock Tapes – is one of factors that edge the demos ahead of the “official” recordings. Who ever knew that behind every great band is a great rhythm guitar player. The adage generally references bass and drums. But, man, Joe could strum. Perhaps this is his link to Joe Strummer.5
On perhaps Butch’s finest composition – “If You Were a Bluebird” – it’s Lloyd’s lovely steel that picks the winner. I hear at least one overdub contributing to what sounds like a West Texas orchestral wind. On Ely’s own “Maria,” it’s Joe’s vocal. By the time the Ely band recorded this one in Seattle for 1979’s Down on the Drag with none other than Blonde on Blonde producer Bob Johnston at the controls, Ely somehow sounded deflated. Coulda been the weather. Because of the wind, indeed.
All in all (or all my love, as Joe might have it): Full Circle is no HOLY GRAIL but it may give you an idea of the excitement the Ely Band generated when they blew together on the high plains of Lubbock lo those many years ago. And if, somehow, you’ve never heard Joe (perish the thought!) this is as good a place to start as any.
I never thought that I // would ever wonder why // I ever said goodbye // I had my hopes up high. –Joe Ely
1Finding Hancock’s own records back then was well-nigh impossible. But I did eventually start ordering tapes from his own Rainlight label around 1990. Butch recorded 140 originals over six consecutive nights at the legendary Cactus Café in Austin in 1990 and called it No 2 Alike. He then released them in a tape-of-the-month mail order format. My mother asked me why I kept receiving “strange” packages from Texas. It wasn’t anything I could explain but I learned more from those 14 tapes than I did in college! At least about songwriting. When Butch reprised his No 2 Alike shows in 2010 at the Cactus, calling it No Two More Alike, he pulled me up on stage to sing “Already Gone” which my band John Train recorded on our 2007 release, Mesopotamia Blues. What a thrill that was! I mentioned the No 2 Alike tapes and their profound influence on me, including the fact that college did not compare favorably. Butch, without missing a beat (he never does) commented that it was the flats and sharps that were lacking in school grades! Plus or minus, I don’t know. In 2015, I did my own five-night run calling it No 2 Unalike and featured several of Butch’s songs – the idea was 75 originals and the 75 I stole ‘em from.
2I saw Ely many times after that initial Beacon show. Solo or with the Joe Ely Band Mach II who themselves could blow the roof off of any joint including the Lonestar in NYC as well as the old 23 East and Chestnut Cabaret. Check out Live in Chicago 1987 which was released by Rack ‘Em several years ago. This recording demonstrates why many of us rank Joe with the Boss in terms of live performance.
3I mean no disrespect calling these “demos”. Cf. Rhino’s Costello reissues where the demos often out-do the “official” versions. Goodbye Cruel World anyone? There is indeed often energy lost from demo to studio that cannot be relocated no matter the number of takes. A vanishing return if you will. Or the Pollard axiom as I like to call it.
4Ely and Hancock were relatively late bloomers in so far that they began their recording careers in proper in their early 30s. Gilmore was prominently featured on the Flatlanders’ first recordings (he is the lead vocalist on all but one song) but didn’t emerge as a recording artist of his own until the late 80s. You may know him best from the Big Lebowski. “Mark it zero, Smokey!” Jimmie’s voice is an instrument of wonder that pushed those original Flatlander recordings into HOLY GRAIL terrain.
5Strummer saw something in Ely’s stance long before I did and invited Joe and band over to England for a series of shows in 1979. Some of these shows were recorded and turned up on 1980’s Live Shots release which makes a powerful argument that Ely’s best forum is live. Ely subsequently brought the Clash over to play Lubbock, Amarillo, and Juarez: cities that no booking agent would touch back then … or now for that matter. Legend – what’s with all these legends? – has it that Clash drummer Topper Headon nearly overdosed out there on the Llano Estacado.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jon Houlon fronts John Train and the Donuts, both of which are based in Philadelphia. Between the two bands, he has released 12 albums to international acclaim. John Train plays every Friday Sept-Oct at Fergie’s Pub (1214 Sansom Street) from 6-8PM. Free! The Donuts will cover Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure in its entirety on November 17th at Kung Fu Necktie (1248 N. Front St). A Donuts cover band will open the show!