Joe Ely remembers the last time he played a songwriters show in Virginia Beach quite well, thank you. He was on stage at the Pavilion in 1991 with John Hiatt, Guy Clark, and Lyle Lovett when Lovett invited an old college buddy, Robert Earl Keen, on stage. Keen played a tune off his latest album, “The Road Goes on Forever (And the Party Never Ends).”
Ely was so struck by it that he leaned over and told Keen he was going to record the song the next week.
It may not have been the next week, but Ely recorded “The Road Goes on Forever” for his stellar 1992 album, “Love and Danger,” and it’s become one of his signature songs.
Now, Ely is headed back to Virginia Beach, to the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 22 to play another songwriters’ night, this one with fellow Texan Ruthie Foster and southern blues man Paul Thorn (both of whom played the Attucks Discovery Series in recent years).
‘The three of us have not played together as this combination,” he says one morning from his place outside Austin. “It’s going to be a real treat. It’s always fun when you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
Like hearing a song for the first time that you’ll play for the next two decades.
In Ely’s case the road really does go on forever. He’s a restless soul. His parents worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, moving from his birthplace in Amarillo to Fort Worth, San Antonio, and finally Lubbock in desolate west Texas when he was about 11. “I’ve been traveling one way or another since I popped out of the womb,” he says.
Ely writes epics. He writes sketches. His songs portray the distance and the longing, the romance and the regrets of the road. He’s a honky tonk, chasing lost souls and lost dreams across the border in a voice that lingers like smoke in a sweaty bar. New Jersey created Bruce Springsteen; Texas created Joe Ely.
So it’s fitting that “The Highway Is My Home” is the first cut on his latest album, “Satisfied at Last.” The evenings sitting around and playing with Hiatt, Lovett, Clark and others have gone off and on for 20 years now. They are nights, he says, when he learns to look at a song in a different way, nights he sees things he didn’t know were there.
Not surprisingly, he’s a fan of songwriters. He’s championed songs penned by Tom Russell (“Gallo Del Cielo” is almost always in his set) and Billy Joe Shaver (his “Live Forever” is an emotional high light of Ely’s latest platter), among others.
“As I was traveling around, it seems like songs would find me,” he says. “All of a sudden, I’d feel that I have something to do with that song. I’m able to fell that story. I feel a duty to pass that story on because it’s a good story.”
He heard Russell’s tune on a jukebox while touring Norway. What, he wondered is a song about going to Mexico to fight roosters and win back land doing in Norway? It turned out Russell had lived in Norway for a while. Shaver asked him to play “Live Forever” when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in Nashville.
“I’ve known Billy Joe for years and years and I’ve always wanted to do one of his songs,” Ely says. “I just want to pass it around. People might hear my version who wouldn’t hear Billy Joe’s. When there’s a good song, I feel an obligation. It should be heard.”
Ely has created his own cast of memorable characters with his story songs over the years, songs like “Me and Billy the Kid,” “Sleepless in Love,” and “Ranches and Rivers.” He played in bands for years, but it wasn’t until he landed in jail that he says he got serious about song writing.
He started violin about 10, playing in the school orchestra. Then a neighbor had an old Fender Strat and amp for sale. Goodbye violin. He took guitar lessons in the house, he learned years later, in which Buddy Holly had lived.
As a teen, Ely formed a band with some buddies, listening to the 50,000 watts pumping Wolfman Jack out of Mexico (immortalized in The Blasters’ song, “Border Radio”). “Out in the cotton fields, we’d put a six pack on the dashboard and listen to Wolfman Jack playing stuff we’d never heard before — Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker,” he says.
When a song came on, one band member would memorize the first verse, another the second and so on. Sometimes it took them months to learn a song if it wasn’t in heavy rotation. But the music filled the emptiness, the desolation. “There’s nothing out there. Nothing. Except trouble,” Ely says. “I never did take to school. Or maybe it didn’t take to me. Filling up that big emptiness with music seemed to be something to do. It seemed to have a purpose and a place. And there was plenty of emptiness to fill up out there.”
So how did he end up writing songs in jail? It was about the time Merle Haggard’s “Branded Man” hit. Ely and his buddies scored some mushrooms and some peyote from the Big Bend Desert, but the problem was the stuff had just been outlawed. Busted. Busted on the very day it became illegal. “Just my luck,” he says.
He started traveling with the band. Their first road gig was at Louann’s in Dallas followed by a fateful show in Clovis, New Mexico. They were pulling a trailer, driving home through the night when Ely woke up to an orange glow. Someone had flipped a cigarette out the window and the tarp on the trailer caught fire. They left the trailer with all their gear, guitars and everything, smoldering by the side of the road.
If jail provided a prod for his writing, meeting a couple of fellow Texans, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, further transformed his writing. They wrote about the landscape, populating it with characters. “The three of us just kind of locked in together and from then on, I wrote songs day and night,” Ely says. He figures he wrote 20 or 30 songs in the six months they shared a place during 1972. They were, of course, the illusive and legendary band, The Flatlanders, whose first album came out on a few eight-track tapes, then was finally issued to the masses 20 years later as “More a Legend Than A Band.”
Gilmore was the country guy. Hancock was the folk guy. And Ely was the rock guy. They were among the first to break down barriers, to lay the foundation for what would be called Americana.
It helped that Ely seems to have a knack for meeting people at the right time. One day he was driving on the outskirts of Lubbock and saw a guy with a guitar hitchhiking. He picked him up. The guy said he’d come from San Francisco and had just cut a record. When Ely dropped him off on the other side of town, the guy handed him the record. He took it over to Gilmore’s house and the three of them ended up listening to the first Townes Van Zandt record over and over for weeks.
“We called ourselves The Flatlanders, but we never thought of it as a band,” Ely says. We never got hired to play anywhere. We played in the living room, sharing songs in a little house over by the university. People would drop by at any time of day or night. Just as quick as we came together, we all went different directions.”
Only decades later did they reunite and release a string of albums. “One guy said the Flatlanders was the only band that lived their careers in reverse,” he adds. “That’s kind of true. We’ve released more stuff now than when we were together.”
That time, though, got Ely thinking more deeply about song writing, about storytelling. His songs would have a place, an anchor. “To me, once I actually gave it a place, I could feel the story better,” he says. “Not all songs were like that, but a lot of them were. I was able to pick out the characters. I am always careful not to write about anything verbatim and true. I leave it open, where new people can come in and add twists to the story. I liked doing it that way. It intrigued me.”
Ely always carried a notebook in his guitar case. He kept a journal and made drawings (some released as a book, Bonfire of Roadmaps). Now, he also carries a camera.
“Sometimes I’d write only a line or something going by the window,” he says. “Maybe add something from the days before that and I’d have a theme and I’d start digging into it and trying to uncover the puzzle. A song is a puzzle and you’re always trying to break into the secret part of it. “
Some songs gestate for years. “Ranches and Rivers,” a cut from “Letter to Laredo he likely will play at the Sandler, took seven or eight years. Ely had the verses but never could find a suitable chorus until one day, while flipping through other songs, he found one that fit perfectly. “All of a sudden, the song was finished,” he says.
Songwriting skills earned him a major label deal in the 1980s and an interesting assortment of fans. His early records didn’t get any play in the U.S. they were too rockin’ for Nashville and too twangy for LA. But they were played by the BBC. Ely toured the UK, playing the Wembley Festival and soon found Joe Strummer and The Clash backstage offering to show him and his band around town.
They hung out, hitting nightspots, record stores, and sharing favorite poets. After Ely got back to Texas, Strummer called asking him to help with some shows. He called promoters. The Clash came to the border, playing a high school gym in Laredo, a brothel in Juarez, and a club in Lubbock. Later, Ely sang backing vocals on “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” “They wanted to play the out of the way places,” Ely says. “The same with Springsteen. He came to see us and invited me to come back and sit in with him. We figured we had the same kind of backgrounds, off the beaten path. I played the honky tonks; he played the rock clubs.”
Ely still walks the streets of towns, taking in the scene, adding to his notebooks. He figures he has five or six more books of writings and journals, things that could turn into songs. Like Woody Guthrie before him, he spends his time on the road observing and writing. In “Bonfire of Roadmaps,” he writes:
Pack up after Amarillo show for a 2 a.m. drive to Lubbock I argue with crew; I’m at the end of my rope Like horses in a pasture everyone can smell the barn ‘Fine,’ I say, ‘I’ll just ride on the roof!’ And this tour ends, at least this leg With a carload of crazy musicians on Highway 87 And me, riding on the roof of the van screaming with glee On the Amarillo Highway with the wind in my hair…
Packing up is what he has to do now, ending our interview, going home to the road, falling under the spell of wheels.
“I’m headed out,” he says, “I have to drive 400 miles to Lubbock today.”
Joe Ely, Ruthie Foster, and Paul Thorn at The Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Nov. 22, 8 p.m. Tickets are $30-$45. http://www.sandlercenter.org