“When I was growing up, I never expected that I would be in my 70s, still playing and enjoying it,” the singer and storyteller from West Texas said from his home in Austin. “But now that I look back on it, it’s the only natural thing to do.”
Keeping busy writing songs and books, traveling and recording, Ely will appear Saturday at the Red Dragon Listening Room.
“It’s part of me,” he said of the life he’s led since his teen years in Lubbock.
An ace songwriter and interpreter, Ely pivots handily from rocking dance hall numbers to intimate ballads. In 2016, the Texas Commission on the Arts named him Texas State Musician. That same year, the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association inducted him into its hall of fame. In 2017, Ely became the first musician inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.
Ely’s early career included the Twilights, a band that played speak-easies and honky-tonks in Lubbock. Circa 1968, a chance encounter with Townes Van Zandt inspired him to write songs. Ely’s early 1970s membership in the Flatlanders alongside master songwriters Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore further spurred his songwriting ambition.
Because the Flatlanders were ahead of their time, Ely moved on to a solo career. He’s since written hundreds of songs and released dozens of albums. His latest release, “The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle,” arrives Aug. 17.
"The Lubbock Tapes” features demo sessions recorded by the Joe Ely Band in 1974 and 1978.
How did you react to these tapes after not hearing them for decades?
Disbelief. I didn’t recollect recording them. But I think we did 15 songs in a day. Because that’s all the money we had. Fortunately, by then, we were well rehearsed. We’d been playing about four nights a week for about a year. All we had to do was turn it on and cut it loose. You can hear that the band is hot, but still innocent. It had that feeling of — we were a real dance hall band back then.
In the 1960s, before the Flatlanders and the Joe Ely Band, you were a teenager performing with the Twilights. Were there a lot of young bands in west Texas back then?
It was not like it is today. There were very few bands in west Texas. But the ones that were there were really good. Because they had to be. Or else.
How did Townes Van Zandt inspire you to begin writing songs?
He was hitchhiking to Houston, and I gave him a ride from one side of Lubbock to the other side. He told me he had just hitchhiked across the desert and he’d made a record in San Francisco. He gave a copy of it to me. I really loved the songs. So, something rubbed off. After I met Butch (Hancock) and Jimmie (Dale Gilmore) and Townes, I told myself, ‘I can do that.’ ”
Did you consciously mix rock ’n’ roll, country, rhythm-and-blues and singer-songwriter music? Or did it all flow naturally into something new?
Really, it was just the situation that I was in. Where I grew up, Buddy Holly was a great example of the combination of music that happened out in west Texas. The music reflected the change in society during the ’50s. And then the ’60s came along and there were no rules whatsoever. I was fortunate to live through that era, because that was a big change in how songs were written and what the rules were. I was lucky to be born at the crossroads.
After Years on the Road, Joe Ely Takes a Literary Turn-