JOE ELY HAS A NEW ALBUM out this month called Love & Danger, his tenth in an illustrious career that has spanned three decades. Besides having a solid bunch of songs and sparkling production, it features Ely’s usual energetic delivery and David Grissom’s guitar pyrotechnics. Even so, Love & Danger probably will not be the vehicle that carries Ely over the top and into major stardom. That really doesn’t matter, though, because the whole point of Joe Ely has always been hearing him live, not listening to him on disc, vinyl, or tape.
This realization came to me one summer evening while I stood thirty feet from the bandstand at the Broken Spoke, an Austin honky-tonk that was so mobbed that all I could see of Ely was his black hat bobbing above the swirling crowd. A stranger might have thought the sight lines were lousy, but for hard-core fans, it was everything a live music performance should be: exciting, participatory, and energizing. If you weren’t sweating, you weren’t having a good time.
Suddenly, one of the Ely faithful—a man in his forties with a shock of frizzy white hair that suggested he was either a University of Texas physicist or a West Texas native who had been out in the sun too long—nudged me with his elbow. “Man,” he yelled over the din, “he’s better than Springsteen!” I smiled in agreement and hoisted my can of Pearl to the ceiling, which was all of six and a half feet above the floor.
Joe Ely has been flirting with bonafide stardom for twenty years or so. Back then, he seemed perpetually on the verge of a breakthrough. Today, at 45, the lines on his face are more pronounced and the prospect of captivating the masses seems faint. He has made the transition to middle-aged semilegendary status rather gracefully, though, and still has a cadre of fans who will follow him almost anywhere he goes.
For Ely, the Broken Spoke date—the sixth of eight stops in a long week’s worth of Austin-area performances—was a chance to road test a new guitar player named Ian Moore and reacquaint himself with keyboardist Reese Wynans, who had signed on again after a ten-year hiatus. For the loyalists, the tour provided ample opportunities to worship their hero up close and personal as well as close to home. And for at least one interested bystander who has tracked Ely’s progress since his first album was released back in 1974, the show was an opportunity to muse why Joe Ely is not a monster rock star on the same level as Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp.
Blame it on the roadhouse tradition. Since the thirties and forties, when Bob Wills, T-Bone Walker, Milton Brown, Milt Larkin, and Gatemouth Brown stomped around dance halls and ballrooms, the standout Texas bands have distinguished themselves playing in front of live audiences instead of in the recording studio. Back then, live performances were simply good business. The door receipts were far more lucrative than record sales.
That rule has changed markedly in the past thirty years. Today’s big acts invest months in creating the perfect album, which will reach a far larger audience than performing in front of a couple hundred folks six nights a week. For most major music acts, playing live is merely a way to promote their latest release. Consistency is the name of the game.
Look at ZZ Top. In order to replicate their album performances, the three musicians are augmented in concert by prerecorded tapes, and every show is as tightly choreographed as a Broadway production. Within such constraints, improvisation is a no-no and spontaneity can ruin a show. Fortunately, there are still people like Ely, Delbert McClinton, Marcia Ball, Jerry Jeff Walker, Anson Funderburg, and other Texas roadhouse warriors (including the late Stevie Ray Vaughan) who haven’t reached superstar status and still believe that one’s worth can be affirmed by playing the joints.
In the greater realm of pop music, Ely and his ilk are anachronisms. But in the more immediate, intimate world of Texas music, they are heroes, the main reason fans throughout the rest of the world envy us. Where else can you find musicians like these, willing to place their careers on the line every night?
Back in the mid-seventies, Joe Ely put together perhaps the most exciting band I’ve ever heard perform live. The musicians were all residents of Lubbock at the time, and not only did they look the part—right down to Ely’s scruffy bandanna and boots—but they also sounded it. Together they created an unmistakable West Texas sound, full of the energy and dynamics of Buddy Holly’s Crickets. The band, particularly guitarist Jesse Taylor, squeeze-box man Ponty Bone, and pedal-steel player Lloyd Maines, was exceptional, but so was the front man. Ely came across as a wandering bard who could sing a love song as easily as a ballad; the tales he wove of gypsies, Airstream trailers, and diesel rigs had the ring of truth. Like any good roadhouse band, Ely and company had broad appeal. They could keep the boot-scooting couples busy on the dance floor in Levelland one week and captivate a green-haired mob in London the next.
Unfortunately, the qualities that made Ely so riveting onstage made him a tough sell on the radio. Was he country or was he rock? The professionals pushing his product could never figure it out, nor could the radio programmers. Maines’s steel guitar didn’t weep the way a steel was supposed to in sad songs; it cut and sliced like razor wire, and that most certainly did not fit in with the Nashville sound. But when the record pushers tried to sell Ely as a rock act, the same radio people pointed to Maines’s pedal steel and Bone’s accordion as being too country. His third album, Down on the Drag, seemed to be a compromise in light of the “folk” treatment given it by producer Bob Johnston, but Ely himself never really tried to second-guess why he couldn’t be pigeonholed.