IT WAS ONLY MID-MARCH when Joe Ely sat in the recording studio at his home south of Austin, but 1998 was already shaping up to be a big year for the Lubbock-bred rocker. The night before, downtown Austin’s Wild About Music gallery had opened “Another Sanity,” a show of Ely’s art featuring everything from his pencil sketches of life on the road and paintings on canvas to pieces done with cameras or computer. He was busy working on music for a forthcoming film, Tornado Jam, whose script was co-written by his wife, Sharon, and their fellow Lubbock expatriate Jo Carol Pierce. In a couple of weeks he and his band would leave for nearly a month of touring in Europe, followed by a few months in the States, to promote Twistin’ in the Wind (MCA), the rowdy, literate, Spanish-flavored album he puts out this month. Then there’s the soundtrack to Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, which features “South Wind of Summer,” a sparkling song written and sung by Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. It was the first time the Austin trio has formally worked together since the early seventies, when they were a Lubbock act known as the Flatlanders, and the reunion apparently went well: They will appear together on Late Night With David Letterman this month and have been approached to do a new album.
Predictably, the prospect of a Flatlanders release has ignited the loudest buzz. The original group was less a working band than three guys who liked to hang out together. “We never got much done because when we got together to write, we’d always tell one another jokes and wind up laughing the night away,” says Ely. Still, they played about fifty dates over a couple of years and cut a record in Nashville that was released only as an eight-track tape. In 1980, once the three had built followings as solo artists, a British label released the record with the title One More Mile, and though a shorter version soon appeared in the States, it didn’t make it to CD until 1990, under the title More a Legend Than a Band. After the recent soundtrack experience, during which they wrote three other tunes, the trio talked about reconvening in the fall, penning eight more, and doing an album.
In the meantime, Ely is most concerned with Twistin’ in the Wind. It’s a sequel of sorts to 1995’s Letter to Laredo, whose songs— inspired by the novels of Cormac McCarthy, the ballads of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, and Ely’s childhood memories of the migrant workers who shopped at his father’s used-clothing store in downtown Lubbock—have the unmistakable sense of place that marked his earliest albums. Twistin’ rocks harder, though, and better integrates flamenco guitarist Teye into the mix. These songs feature Ely singing about himself, while Letter, whose title song was about a man on the run, featured characters he spoke through. “I probably wrote Letter to Laredo at a period when I was on the run,” Ely says. “This new one might be more from right now, when I’m trying to catch up. With each record, I’m always trying to catch up to the present and then go on.”