Evan Smith: February is a big month for you. You turn sixty. You have a book out and a record about to come out, and it’s exactly thirty years since your first record was released. How’s all that sitting with you?
Joe Ely: Well, you know, it’s been a busy thirty years, with thousands of cross-country trips. I never made it out of high school, so I was really lucky to go around the world and get to see all this stuff. Of course, it doesn’t feel like thirty years. I was always in motion, and when you’re in motion, you don’t really feel time. You feel like you’re passing through time, but you don’t really feel like you’re leaving any time behind. You’re kind of in the moment, because the wind’s in your face and there’s always another highway.
ES: How clearly do you remember your early days in Lubbock?
JE: When I actually think of how things happened to me—it was unreal. I had absolutely zero resources, but Lubbock had a little underground music scene. I always laugh about how we had a pretty good built-in crowd in Lubbock. We’d go to the outskirts of town, where the honky-tonks were, because Lubbock was freshly wet—it had been dry for seventy years. There weren’t package stores, but there were bars.
ES: If you’re going to play music and attract crowds, alcohol helps.
JE: It helps! We started getting a little bit of a following out at the bigger honky-tonks and among the [Texas] Tech kids. I remember on a Monday morning someone came over to the house and said, “Man, the preacher at the First Baptist Church did a sermon on the evils of honky-tonks, on the drinking and dancing.” And he said, “He mentioned your name specifically!” I went, “Oh, man, I’m finished! I’m washed up!” This is before I’d even started recording. But you know what? The next Saturday night, we had a line four blocks long to get into the honky-tonk. It was advertising, and from then on we had great crowds.
ES: You were born in Amarillo and got to Lubbock when you were eleven or twelve, right? What do you remember about growing up there?
JE: My first memory of Lubbock is a knock on the front door and there’s a guy selling steel guitar lessons. My mother invites him in. He has an Oahu amp with a palm tree on the front, and he sets up in the living room and shows us his steel guitar. I thought that was amazing.
ES: Had you ever seen anything like it?
JE: I had never seen anything like it, so of course I had to take lessons. I was already playing a little violin; in Amarillo they had an orchestra in grade school. But that steel guitar sounded like what it looked like outside: dusty and windy. It had kind of a lonesome howl, and it really fit into the environment. And then [I found out that] the guy down the street had an old Stratocaster with a Fender amp. So the violin took a backseat to that. It was only a few months after Buddy Holly had died.
ES: You arrived just as Holly passed? There must have been a big shadow hanging over the town.
JE: See, nobody in Lubbock even knew Buddy Holly was from there. None of my friends knew; they thought he was from New York or something. It wasn’t in the papers. And yet Lubbock went through this renaissance because of Buddy—it was a wonderland compared to Amarillo. It started developing a rock and roll scene. Everybody was playing music. All over Lubbock, bands were sprouting up with kids playing Telecasters.
ES: When did you meet your partners in the Flatlanders, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock?
JE: I didn’t meet Butch until, like, ’69 or ’70, but I met Jimmie in the sixties—maybe ’65. Jimmie knew the real beatnik scene, all the writers and poets and piano players. There was a big line between Berkeley and Lubbock. People went back and forth between Berkeley and Lubbock all the time.
ES: Of all the places to be sister cities!
JE: I found it real fascinating. In fact, I started going out to Berkeley and Venice, California. We’d jump on freight trains in Lubbock, and we could be in San Bernardino in three days.
ES: Were your parents receptive to the turn your life took from that point on?
JE: My dad died when I was thirteen, so that was a big thing. Because of that, I had to get a job after school at the Chicken Box, washing dishes and cooking chicken and stuff. When my band started getting better, the nightclubs started hiring us, so I dropped the day job and took on a night job. Which, of course, annihilated my grades, but they were pretty much annihilated anyway.
ES: Was your mom supportive of this?
JE: Man, she would turn our living room into a practice room.
ES: Very forward thinking, wasn’t she? She loved her son.
JE: Yeah, she did. The cops would come and tell us to turn it down, and she would run them off.
ES: You weren’t the only ones doing this.
JE: Night after night, we would go to different houses, and there was always something interesting going on. We had to roll our own—you couldn’t wait for things to happen. But everybody seemed to be making things happen.
ES: That kind of self-motivation was a good life lesson.
JE: It had a great influence on me as a kid—you could actually do things, and you weren’t just stifled by your environment. Lubbock was a cotton town, an oil town, and it had nothing to do with the arts. But you could create that, and we’d get people who would suddenly, accidentally end up there, like [writer] Michael Ventura, who came from Brooklyn to the Flatlanders house in 1971.
ES: That’s right—there