Flatlander: Q & A with Joe Ely

Country-blues-folk musician Joe Ely has been performing for roughly four decades. He's probably best known for his work with the Flatlanders, the Lubbock, Texas bred band that also includes Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. The trio recorded a single album in 1972 that became legendary, in part because it never got a proper U.S. release until 1990. In recent years the group has recorded more regularly, releasing two albums of original material since 2002. Ely has also maintained a sporadically successful solo career, releasing 17 albums over the last three decades. He'll be playing Lee's Liquor Lounge this Wednesday evening. I caught up with him by phone at his home in Austin, Texas.

CP: What are we going to see on Wednesday night? Who are you bringing with you?

JE: I'm bringing a friend of mine that I've been playing and recording with over the last 10 or so years, a guy by the name Joel Guzman. Joel is this phenomenal accordion player that won the Grammy this year for Tejano record of the year. We just went out for a little run out west. In fact, every couple of years we go out and do a handful of acoustic shows together. It's a really special thing. It's really hard for us to go out because he's got a couple of different bands and so do I. It's hard to squeeze it in, but whenever we get a chance we like to take off a month and go do this thing.

CP: What's the current state of the Flatlanders? Do you have any plans to go back into the studio or tour with them?

JE: We're planning on working over the period of fall and winter writing a whole new album from the ground up. I just talked with Butch yesterday and we're trying to find some time when we can just sit down and start working on it. There's no telling when it will be done because we're kind of slow. It took us 30 years between album one and album two (laughs). It only took us about a year and a half between album two and three, so we're getting a little bit faster. We're not like those Nashville guys that start at eight in the morning over a cup of coffee and have the song done by noon.

CP: You worked for the circus at one point? You were once saved by [famed animal trainer] Gunther Gebel-Williams? What happened?

JE: A whole bunch of new guys had come in that day or the day before and started working with what we call "ringstock." We were just kind of the lowest guys on the totem pole. We took the animals into the rings inside the auditorium and let them do their little show and then we'd bring them back out. We'd have to bring them out in order and not mix up the mares and the phillies and everything. Some of these guys had got all tangled up and mixed up their horses. As we were coming out through this narrow little tunnel, Gunther was bringing in his elephants. And it was just wide enough for two horses and a string of elephants. This horse in front of me just kicked the daylights out of me and knocked me out cold. I woke up and Gunther was kind of slapping me and had drug me over to the side and he whistled for somebody. And then he ran off into the ring to do his elephant act.

That was right after the Flatlanders. As soon as we made that record we realized that it was never gonna come out. So we all went different directions. I went to New York City for awhile and then came back down to Lubbock in the spring of '73 and joined the circus.

CP: You eventually left Lubbock? Why was that?

JE: From 1980 to 1982, after we had toured over in England with The Clash, I got an idea to come back to Lubbock and start this big, kind of a festival in Buddy Holly Park. They had just named this park after Buddy Holly and nobody had ever played music in it, and I thought, man that'd be a great place to throw a little shindig, you know? So we threw this little deal and it was amazingly successful. About 5,000 or 6,000 people came the first year and the parks department didn't think it would be near that successful for a town as small as Lubbock. And then the next year about 12,000 to 15,000 people showed up. The third year I got an outside promoter and brought people like Joan Jett and Linda Rondstadt and all these people. Like 30,000 people showed up. The city council just completely freaked out and had a special city council meeting and they all voted no more music in Buddy Holly Park (laughs). So I thought man, I better get the hell out of here. This ain't the spot for me. So I packed up my bags and went to Austin and I've been here ever since.

CP: You were expelled from high school for singing "Cherry Pie"?

JE: I had a little band in high school and there was this song--I think it was by a band called the Hot Nuts. It was really mildly suggestive. By today's standards it would be a Gospel song. They told me that I couldn't sing it. But on the day of the concert I talked with the band and I said, 'Let's do it anyway.' We did it—and they of course threw me out of school for a few days. It wasn't any big deal. I spent most of my high school days in the pool hall. Pretty soon I left high school and went down to Houston and joined a band down there and played in an ol' place called the Cellar Club. We played an hour, and then this band called the American Blues, who later became ZZ Top, played for an hour. We'd alternate from six in the evening until six in the morning. So that was a pretty good education. It was a hell of a lot better than that high school bullshit.

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