BY JON HOULON In the beginning, there was The Word – i.e. Townes Van Zandt – and Townes hitchhiked across the desert. And in his wanderings, Townes flagged down Joe Ely who drove him from one side of Lubbock to the other. And, in return, Townes handed Joe a tablet – i.e. a vinyl platter — that Joe shared with his friends, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. And they played the platter over and over and in the fullness of time became the Flatlanders. Or so it is written.
My biblical allusions are surely suspect here: my memory of the Good Book is a rusty, old testament to my not having paid much attention in Hebrew school. But, still, there is something mystical about the way the Flatlanders (Ely, Hancock, Gilmore, and a host of other Lubbock weirdos) coalesced in a 14th Street flophouse in the Texas Tech “ghetto” as it was called back in the early ‘70s. A convincing case could be made that with the death of Gram Parsons in 1973, the mantel of “cosmic American music” was passed to the Flatlanders. They wrote and recorded music that, for a variety of reasons, was ultimately shelved for many years but is, arguably, the beginning of what today we would call Americana.
When the Flatlanders dissolved in 1974, Ely ran away to join the circus. Literally. He quit when the world’s smallest horse kicked him and broke his ribs, then returned to Lubbock to cool his heels, heal, and regroup. He put together one of the great honky tonk bands of all time and cut some peerless platters himself on the MCA label, pulling on his own songs as well as Butch’s and Jimmie’s. His second LP Honky Tonk Masquerade is often cited in those greatest albums of all-time lists. If that’s the sort of currency you trade in.
Ely was also a pioneer of home recording. In the early ‘80s, he put together an album on an early iteration of the PC. MCA rejected it, but Joe eventually released it as B484, part of an ongoing archival series on his own Rack ‘Em Records. Apple architect Steve Wozniak wrote the liner notes. Woz and Ely? Unlikely bedfellows: computer nerd and high plains honky tonker non-pareil. But Joe’s always defied categorization which is why his champions include Bruce Springsteen as well as the late great Joe Strummer.
In 1990, Rounder records finally released the Flatlander’s first album – some 18 years after it was recorded. They called it More a Legend than a Band. But for the last 20-plus years, The Flatlanders have re-convened on a fairly regularly basis. Are they now a band? Still a legend? In advance of their upcoming show at City Winery on November 16th, Phawker got Ely on the blower to discuss where the Flats have landed.
PHAWKER: It’s been over 20 years since the Flatlanders reconvened at the behest of Robert Redford and recorded “South Wind Of Summer” for the Horse Whisperersoundtrack, and then again for the Now Again LP a couple of years later. At this point Joe, would you say that the Flatlanders are more a band than a legend?
JOE ELY: [Laughing] Well, that has been debated. I would go either way on that. You know when we were growing up in Lubbock, Texas we kind of ran into each other because of our common interests, then we got a house together and just started playing all of the songs that we had connected over time and up until this very day that’s still kind of what we do. We don’t really think of ourselves as so much of a band, just kind of as a group of friends that go out every once in a while. You know, work on projects and play shows and stuff.
PHAWKER: I think that’s one of the things that makes you guys so great. The friendship really comes across on stage and in the recordings you guys make. I have to say, I’ve been guilty of this more than once: calling you “the legendary Joe Ely” or the “legendary Flatlanders.” Do you mind when people call you a legend?
JOE ELY: Well, you know, that’s a word that has many definitions. We don’t really think of ourselves as “legendary” because we never planned anything. I guess everything that we’ve ever done has been kind of unplanned and kind of… not really with any future project in mind. I like to say that the Flatlanders have absolutely zero ambition. We love to just get together and play. We’ve always recorded each others’ songs, so you know, that brings things together too.
PHAWKER: Do the Flatlanders have any future recording plans?
JOE ELY: Yeah, we have several things that we have already recorded that never have been out and we were talking just the other day about doing a new set of recordings. So there are some directions that we might follow, and would result in a new record.
PHAWKER: I really, really love the Lubbock Tapes that you put out about a year ago. In fact, I reviewed it for this very publication. As much as I love your early records, I thought that those Lubbock recordings were even better than the ones from Nashville.
JOE ELY: That was real interesting to come across those. I agree. I felt the same way. Those recordings have a real freshness and all because it was the first time some of those songs had been recorded.
PHAWKER: Do you have any other archival releases in the pipeline? I’ve been keeping track of all of them, including B4 84. I love that one. Are there other archival releases in the Ely tape archive?
JOE ELY: Well, there’s several dozen groups of songs that we have thought about putting together and recording. In fact, a few months ago we were thinking about doing it soon, and all of us had projects going on so we had to push it back a little bit, but I’d say the first of the year we’ll probably all start working on it together.
I have so many songs that I have written, and Butch does, and Jimmie, and we have stuff together and separately that we have been talking about putting together, and I just found a group of five reel to reel tapes from an old friend of mine that had ‘em. We seem to run into things like this all the time but this is about 40 songs that were recorded in the ‘60s.
PHAWKER: Wow, was that with you alone or rather with Jimmie and Butch too?
JOE ELY: I haven’t heard ‘em yet ‘cause we have to transfer ‘em. We have to bake ‘em and all because they could be fragile because they’ve been in a house that long. We’re anxious to hear those.
PHAWKER: I wanted to ask you about a particular song on your “B4 84” release. It’s called “Isabella” and I noticed that it’s attributed to you, Butch and Jimmie. I was wondering if that was the first actual recording of a song that the three of you wrote together? ‘Cause I was under the impression that you guys didn’t really start writing songs together until Now Again.
JOE ELY: Yeah that’s a good question. I can’t really think of anything that we did before that. That is a good question. That’ll make me–– when we hang up–– make me want to go look and see.
PHAWKER: I know you’ve told it many times, Joe, but for the sake of our readers could you recount the story of picking up Townes Van Zandt hitchhiking around Lubbock? And I’ve always wanted to know, if you could recall, what kind of car you were driving, and what compelled you to pick him up?
JOE ELY: I’m pretty sure that I was driving an old ‘62 Volkswagen, something like that, and I was out by this archeology site, out in Lubbock, called the Lakeside and I see this guy coming–– way on the outskirts of Lubbock, out on Clovis Highway. I see somebody carrying something walking down the highway and I did a u-turn and came up and asked him where he was going and he told me he was going back to Houston. He’d just finished recording an album in San Francisco or somewhere out close to there. So he jumped in the car and I gave him a ride through Lubbock and out the other side. He had recorded this record and he had just hitchhiked through the desert and that was kind of amazing since he was carrying the records in his backpack… he reached in and handed me a vinyl record for giving him a ride and it was so weird because nobody had a vinyl player. We went over to Jimmie’s house and his daddy had a record player, we listened to that record for weeks and it really became the inspiration for us to get together and kind of live in the house together and write songs.
PHAWKER: That’s a wonderful story, Joe, thanks for retelling it. Did it surprise you when Townes became far more famous after he passed than during his own lifetime?
JOE ELY: Yeah, well when you got to know Townes the answer to that would be apparent because Townes was pretty messed up in his later years. The last time I saw him I was playing a show in Northern Italy, somewhere around Lake Maggiore, and he got up and played the end of the set with me, and wanted to keep playing but he could hardly even walk on the stage and we went back and forth, we must have gone from the dressing room to the microphone about seven times, and pretty soon I was playing his guitar and pretty soon he was singing songs that I didn’t know [laughs]. That was kind of a precursor of what was to come. Townes was a wonderful human being and a lot of people think that he was a real down depressed person but he actually loved to laugh and tell stories.
PHAWKER: I love the jokes he told on stage. I always thought that it was brilliant the way he would kind of put a totally corny joke in there to somehow change the dynamic after singing something real depressing like, you know, “Lungs.”
JOE ELY: [laughing] Yeah, he did do that.
PHAWKER: Say, kind of talking about the past I know you had an association with Joe Strummer and The Clash, one which you’ve spoken about a lot before. One thing that I was interested in was– how did The Clash go over when you booked those gigs for them in West Texas?
JOE ELY: Well, some of those gigs scared people to death, I think. The show in Lubbock–– I was just up there this last weekend–– even though everybody talks about that, even though there is hardly anybody old enough to even remember it, it’s become kind of a legend in Lubbock and also in El Paso. I was talking to Beto O’Rourke, and he saw The Clash show in El Paso.
JOE ELY: Yeah, he was a big Clash fan, and he saw that show; and we did a little thing for him in Austin and another one in Fort Worth and he liked to talk about that Clash show, and so that was an odd connection that I never expected. The Clash show in Laredo was in a high school gym and it was a part of a high school assembly [laughing]. I’m sure the kids still talk about that.
PHAWKER: That’s a really interesting connection, the Beto connection, because I know he used The Clash song “Clamp Down” at some of his rallies and on that point– I presume, Joe, that not all of your fans in Texas were enthusiastic about you being involved with Beto and doing a fundraiser.
JOE ELY: No, there was quite a bit of opposite support [laughing] but he really liked to talk about the Clash show in El Paso. The Flatlanders actually wrote a song about the border wall that we’re gonna be playing on the shows coming up, it’s called “Borderless Love.”
PHAWKER: Oh yeah, from the Hills And Valleys record?
JOE ELY: From Hills And Valleys, yeah.
PHAWKER: A couple more for you here. Why was it that when the Flatlanders did their initial recordings, both in Odessa and in Nashville, there are no recordings of your songs? I know you were writing songs by then and I imagine you were playing them at that house on 14th Street. How come they weren’t on the records?
JOE ELY: You know I really don’t know. I was not writing a whole lot, but that was when I first started writing and I guess I just had so much respect for Jimmie and Butch that you know, I was still kind of in my phase of where to go, what to write about, and it was during that time that I sort of developed a sense of where a song came from.
PHAWKER: So it was kind of an apprenticeship for you in terms of the songwriting?
JOE ELY: I think that’s what it was, yeah. We all lived in the house together in the early ‘70s and that’s when I first really started writing stuff that I considered to be a keeper.
PHAWKER: Can you recall the first Butch Hancock song you ever heard?
JOE ELY: You know, I think it was “Bluebird” and I was just amazed, lyrically and the beauty of the melody and everything; and then we ran across a guy who was hanging around our group of friends, a guy named Al Strehli, that was also one of those songwriters that had real mysterious beginnings and endings to songs and strange wonderful melodies and storylines that were woven in, so for me that was a time where I was actually observing more than I was participating.
PHAWKER: Compare the Austin that you moved to in the late ‘70s early ‘80s and Austin today.
JOE ELY: There is really no comparison, there is nothing to compare it to, they are two separate, different cities. The Austin of today is a big, rich, fast city, where people are looking more into the business side of music than the creative side, and although Austin has a lot of things in its favor, beautiful city, lots of stuff to do, and a million things going on. But in the old days Austin was so slow, and it was just not a business city, just so many different people from all different walks of life came and joined together. There’s a lot of people now in present Austin that are joining together in writing, and you know, playing with each other, but it just has more of a business feel than just a feel of the wonder of what’s gonna come together when a group of friends get together.
PHAWKER: Is Austin still weird?
JOE ELY: It’s weird, but everybody’s got their windows rolled up.