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 was a Flatlanders house. Was it as crazy as I imagine? Was there a lot of stuff you wouldn’t want your mama to see, or was it more about the work?
JE: It was a place where there was always somebody up and working on a new song or trying to figure out a riff. It was always like, “Hey, listen to this.” We’d get [West Texas music legend] Tommy Hancock over to play fiddle with us, or one of the guys in Buddy Holly’s early band. The house was just a beehive all the time.
ES: Did you think of yourself as a particular type of musician? I was interested to see last fall’s Vanity Fair photo essay on country music. There you were, on the one hand, with Kid Rock, who doesn’t seem like a country artist to me, and then, on the other hand, with all these hat acts. How did you feel about that?
JE: It was a strange mixture of people. But you know, I admired each and every one of them. It’s just that we didn’t have too much in common. I never really thought of myself as a country musician. Even though we played at the honky-tonks, I never thought of the Flatlanders as a country band. We thought of ourselves as more connected to the folk scene or the rock scene. And I grew up playing in rock and roll bands.
ES: Look who you’ve played with over the years: Bruce Springsteen and the Clash and other people outside the realm of country music.
JE: Right, but all of those guys have this romantic idea of where country came from. The Clash loved Marty Robbins ballads about El Paso and the streets of Laredo, and Bruce always brings in country stories. I guess you never really define what you’re doing, because once you define it, you almost destroy it.
ES: The counter to that is that if you don’t define yourself in a recognizable genre, it’s hard for you, as an individual artist or a band, to present yourself to a record label or a radio station and have it know what to do with you. In other words, the eclectic nature of your career may work against you commercially.
JE: Oh, I’m sure. But it also gives me huge freedom to do whatever I want without having to fit in. If I was a Top 40 country guy in the seventies, I don’t think I’d still be making music now.
ES: Would you have preferred more success?
JE: Absolutely not. In fact, every time I would get right to the edge of national attention, I would always back off. In the late seventies or early eighties, when we were literally on the road for a year and a half, in Time magazine, playing with the Stones and the Clash, I started feeling that I was losing the very thing that had inspired me. My songs were turning into things that I didn’t even recognize. So on New Year’s Eve of ’82, the band just dissolved and didn’t play a single gig for a year and a half. I think we’d played five hundred shows straight without ever coming home, and then all of a sudden we just stopped. And it was the best thing I could have done, because even though I could have probably parlayed that into a corporate business and flown my flag over a building downtown, that was not quite what I considered success.
ES: There are an awful lot of people in the business who would trade their left arm for that kind of success. They say, “Well, I don’t want to sell out,” but that’s mostly because they don’t have the opportunity to. You had the opportunity but chose not to.
JE: Yeah. I have no idea what things would be like now if I had gone in a different direction. But I can’t think of anyone who I was recording with on the MCA label during that time who’s still up and running, except Tom Petty.
ES: Like you, he’s not a young man anymore. I just don’t understand how you guys do it, how you keep up the pace at your age.
JE: I always admired guys like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, who spent their whole lives on the road telling stories, you know? I just thought that was the most romantic way to spend your life. And I still to this day really enjoy going up and down the road telling stories.
ES: Are there issues with being sixty out there on the road? Do you get tired more easily?
JE: Absolutely. I don’t do as many dates.
ES: How many shows did you play a year back in the day?
JE: Three hundred.
ES: And today?
JE: Maybe a hundred.
ES: A hundred shows? I’ll tell you what—that’s still two days a week. You’re still on the road nearly 30 percent of the year.
JE: Between January 13 and March 19, I’ll have hit 35 cities with my old songwriting buddies John Hiatt, Guy Clark, and Lyle Lovett.
ES: Isn’t there a point when you think, “I want to sit on my butt and watch a football game”?
JE: That does not appeal to me in the least. I’ve never had any thought of slowing down, retiring, doing anything like that.
ES: You’re going to be one of those guys who goes off and dies with a guitar in his hand.
JE: Or a pencil. You know, I really enjoy living, and I feel like it’s important to make a note of what comes through your experience. I don’t care what’s on TV. I don’t care what football team is number one. It might be sacrilege to say that, but I really don’t get wrapped up in any of it because I have to keep moving to finish everything I’m working on. I’ve got four albums coming out!
ES: All in 2007?
JE: I’ve got a companion piece to the book that’s coming out in February or March, and then a set of acoustic songs from the Flatlanders days that I’ve never released, and two spoken-word records. Then, later in the year, I’ve got some other things, like compilations that need to be put together.
ES: Your label relationship right now is what?
JE: That’s another thing I’m excited about. After thirty years working with record labels, I started my own.
JE: Rack ’Em Records.
ES: This is for you only, or are you getting into the record business?
JE: I’m not interested in the record business. The only reason I started it is because I talked to different people and different labels about some of my projects, and it seemed to just scare everybody to death when I said, “I’m going to put out twenty albums in the next five years.” They didn’t know how to handle it.
ES: That’s your plan: twenty in five years?
JE: Well, as I said, some of these are compilations.
ES: How has the whole move away from brick-and-mortar record stores and toward digital distribution of music affected your plans?
JE: I think the music world is forever changed. The guy at Tower Records holds up an iPod and says, “This is where I get my music,” and shuts down his company. It’s created a whole new way of thinking. It used to be that a CD had to have at least ten songs. Now a collection can be four songs. Or thirty. Or a hundred. I don’t think the CD has more than five years left on it.
ES: Do you still get excited listening to other people’s music?
JE: Not so much. I do if it’s a really great song.
ES: Whom do you listen to these days?
JE: There’s a kid out of eastern New Mexico named Ryan Bingham. He came up and played a few songs with me in New York. He’s about 25, but the way he tells stories he sounds like he’s 50. I really think he’s going to be great.
ES: You like anything by anybody who’s conventionally popular?
JE: Dylan’s last record. And Tom Petty’s.
ES: What’s become of your old running buddies? Are you doing anything new with Jimmie and Butch?
JE: Every time we get together there’s a hurricane or a flood or a drought. We’re talking about doing another record.
ES: What would keep you from doing it?
JE: Our complete lack of ambition. Each one of us has a small lack of ambition, but together we have a monstrous lack of ambition.
ES: It’s nice that after all these years you can still be friends and not hate one another.
JE: We don’t do it for any reason. That’s probably why we’ve managed to keep going for as long as we have. We have no reason whatsoever.