Joe Ely’s Never-Ending Road

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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.

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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.joeelystage

 

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.Joe-Ely-Merch-Satisfied-At-Last-CD

 

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 elyor 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.

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“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

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Bill Morrissey’s Passing

Bill Morrissey, the New Hampshire-based songwriter, died in his sleep over the weekend. He was in a hotel in Georgia on his way from visiting friends and performing a house concert to see his mother in Philadelphia. He was 59.

Bill was a character who wrote great characters in his songs and his fiction (he published two novels). His voice, both on the page and coming out of speakers, was an instantly recognizable corduroy croak. He battled the demons over the years, something he documented in a 2009 post on his web site, but the word was he was feeling better lately.

On his site, the announcement of his death included a description of the last week that says he’d found some peace:  “It is fitting, though, that this last week he was staying with his dear friend, Fred Koller and his wife and he had chosen to stay in their airstream. He loved it.  And, he spent a day or two admiring Fred’s bookstores and the incredible used books and first and second editions of books that Bill has admired for years.  He also performed at a lovely house concert and had a great time playing.  He was at the motel as a stop before driving up to the Philadelphia area to visit his Mom. And he was happy and upbeat about all of these things.  “

He played North Shore Point House Concerts in 2002 . He put on a great show and was a gracious, funny, guest.  I’d fallen hard for him a year earlier, when I purchased “Something I Saw or Thought I Saw.” The album made my best of 2001 list.  “Rightly compared to Richard and Linda Thompson’s classic, “Shoot Out the Lights,” Morrissey has captured a romance fracturing, ” I wrote then. “He remains one of the best storytellers in song, portraying a lonely night at the Chelsea Hotel perfectly in “23rd Street,” the sadness of old age in “Traveling by Cab” and offering just a bit of hope with “Will You Be My Rose.”

I quickly caught up with his career and learned what I’d been missing. He could — and did — bring me to tears with his songs.  His “Birches,” about a longtime marriage, is about as perfectly written a song as you will find. Listening to his music over the past couple of days has been the saddest of pleasures.

The Boston Globe has a fine obituary.

The Socratic Showman

By the end of his long second set at my house concert series the other weekend, David Olney had sung from the perspective of an iceberg facing the Titanic, a donkey carrying Jesus to Jerusalem, and a French prostitute chronicling the unvarnished fear of a soldier headed for death on the front. He’d thrown in a bit of Socratic history, discussed his idea of the faith of the Holy Radial, and recited Coleridge.

His old buddy, Townes Vant Zandt once said the his favorite writers were Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and David Olney. Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt have recorded his songs. Steve Earle, a pretty fine songwriter, has played his tunes live, offering his own testimonial.

Olney is an inventive, masterful songwriter. The songs stand on their own as among the best you’ll hear. Go online or to your local record store and check him out.

Live, he’s a showman. Like Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Leonard Cohen, and others, he knows the experience is even more important than the songs. He wants to make his audience laugh, cry, and think. After his version of “1917,” an utterly devastating song about war and fear, the audience seemed almost unable to break out of his trance to applaud after an emotionally draining seven minutes. Watch the video below and see if you don’t have the same reaction.

It was his performances, his ability to merge his stories, wit, and pacing with the songs he crafts so carefully that first brought him to my attention. Over breakfast after a house concert, Kevin Welch, himself no songwriting slouch, said “You know who you ought to have here: David Olney. Check him out.” Months later, Kim Richey offered another endorsement, saying Olney’s songs were great, but his live show was even better.

About that time, Olney released “The Wheel,” the first album of his I bought. “The Wheel” is a sort of concept album about the cycles of life, love, and nature.

“There are hints of a concept in these songs about the spiritual and psychological struggles to maintain balance and hope. The best ones center on the search for comfort, love and simple clarity amid the roadblocks put up by demons and fate,” wrote Robert Hilburn, the venerable Los Angeles Times critic. “Backed by strikingly aggressive sonic textures (with violins sometimes dueling guitars) on such tracks as “Big Cadillac” and “God Shaped Hole” and then by only the most tender strains elsewhere, Olney gives us an album with the most original mix of heart and fury since Tom Waits’ “Mule Variations.”

Another reviewer sums up Olney well: “He writes both some of the most gorgeous love songs·and some of the most chilling character studies·that you will ever hear. And he delivers them with a mixture of grace and good humor that places him in the company of the very best of solo performers· Unlike most modern songwriters, Olney makes no big show of how sensitive he is. He just gets on with it, giving us human beings in all their glory and foolishness·  David Olney isn’t so much a singer, or a songwriter, as a tour guide for the human condition, the good and the bad that’s inside us all.”

Olney and a few of us stayed up, talking and drinking after the show. He grew up in Rhode Island, went to school in Chapel Hill, but found his way in Nashville. His revelation came early, opening for Townes Van Zandt, who he says introduced a different, fearlessly poetic and narrative brand of songwriting. The two became friends over the years before Van Zandt’s death.

Olney is an ambitious songwriter, not afraid to reach. He’s been a rocker. He’s been a folkie. He knows Woody, he knows Townes, but he also knows Buddy Holley. (He also knows Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and about any other novelist you’d care to mention). It’d be wrong to label him. For a recent album, “One Tough Town,”  he said: “I see One Tough Town as a retrospective of a hundred years of American music. Blues, country, rock, swing and all stops in between. No such vision can be complete. There’s just too much to cover to achieve that goal. But it has been my life’s work, and my life’s pleasure, to see how close I can come.”

I booked Olney shortly after “The Wheel” was released and he put on a stunning solo show. But his show the other week, a duo performance with the instrumental master, Sergio Webb, surpassed that first performance in breadth, artistry and intensity.

What strikes me about Olney and other songwriters whose performances are so entrancing is the thought and the bravery that goes into their shows. Olney puts himself and his characters out there and dares you to come along.

In Olney’s case, there’s no set list. He certainly hits some of the same notes on most nights — songs like “1917,” “Women Across the Water,” and the romantic “If It Wasn’t For the Wind” seem to appear every show. But the rest is what strikes him as right for the moment, whether it’s a cover of Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” or a neat pairing of Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise” with Olney’s defiant and playful “The Way I Am.”

Olney just kept playing the other night, going on for nearly 90 minutes in a second set that someone later said seemed like 30. He earned repeated standing ovations. They were for the songs, for Olney and Webb, but they were also thanks for a night of substance, art as commentary and thought-provoking springboard, not just escapism.

Earlier, Olney had introduced “Sweet Poison” with a Springsteen-esque riff on Socrates’s fate, ever the engaging showman merging heart and mind and rock ‘n’ roll.



Richard Ferreira Talks about new Charlotte Park Rangers Album

Richard Ferreira’s “Somewhereville” didn’t get much notice, but it was one of the soulful Americana gems of the early 2000s featuring one of the best kiss-off songs ever, “Bye Bye Baby.” Ferreira’s catchy melodies and solid lyrics made the record sound familiar from the first listen.

But those of us who heard him play the house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, know how fine a singer and songwriter he is.

Now, the veteran Nashville songwriter is back with a trio, Charlotte Park Rangers, that explores terrain both familiar and new, touching a toe in some old time country with an assist from bluegrass legend Carlton Moody and drummer Rick Lonow.

This album was – what? — seven years since your solo effort?
Yeah about 7 years, where does the time go, but I have been pretty busy with life.

Tell me how you assembled the songs.
The process was to get together and drink a lot of coffee and then start playing while rolling tape
We would play a lot of covers early in the day to loosen up, lots of R&B tunes and George Jones songs, Eventually we would find a lick or something would pop out, and we would find ourselves on the hunt of a song, Once we got to that point the songs wrote themselves for the most part. I went back later on and did more lyric writing to straighten out a few things before final vocals were put down. Most of the lyrics though were done rather spontaneously. It was also a way for me to get out of my own head and write for Carlton’s voice.

I had the concept that the songs were to be light and funky, I didn’t want to do a serious introspective type thing and I didn’t want to get into Nashville style co-writing where you sit around with yellow legal pads, It was an attempt I suppose at a big pink type of situation and I wanted to create a mythical landscape based on the characters and geography of “Charlotte Park,”, which is a real neighborhood on the banks of the Cumberland river in the northwest corner of Nashville where I live and the album was written and recorded

You co-wrote them with Carlton Moody and Rick Lonow for the most part. Were they done in the studio?

Carlton brought in “Fall In Love Again” & “Angeline” and I brought in “I Want To Get Lost. ” Everything else was written on the studio floor. We all share equally in the publishing, no matter who wrote what. It was the chemistry of the combined talent that was the juice. We have a bunch of leftovers; hopefully there will be volume 2

How did you guys get together?

Carlton’s other band Burrito Deluxe recorded a few of my songs on there last couple of records and I also played guitar and organ on those records so how that’s how we first met. Rick Lonow has played with me for years. He was on “Somewhereville.” So we had all worked together before. Originally, we were just doing some demos but it turned into a project once we saw what we had.

There’s a co-write with Gwil Owen. How did that come about?

I’ve written a lot with Gwil over the years and I produced his last 2 cds, Gravy and Ahabs Birthday which is just released. We had 3 co-writes on the last Toni Price cd

The album shifts styles from songs with your lead vocals that favor The Band and
songs with Carton’s lead vocals that are more straightforward country. Was that a conscious decision?
Well, I knew it sounded that way and I’m ok with that, if we do another record it will be probably be more seamless because everyone will be on the same page from the beginning, part of it is the quality of Carlton’s voice. its razor sharp country and I love the contrast of putting him in unorthodox non traditional settings, theres also a Burrito Brothers vibe imbedded in the record which is probably more Carlton’s .

How does that reflect your interests?

I think it makes it interesting, I guess I am known more for my R&B leanings, but I’ve been writing country songs for a long time, and I was really trying to write for Carltons voice. “Georgia Time” is a key example, and I love the way it slides into “Catfish Song.” I think it reflects my interests pretty well. I probably should point out that was done over a fairly long stretch of time. Carlton was living in Paris the whole time this was being done so on any given day I might of been feeling more country than soul but it all works for me.

Certainly your vocal resemblance to Rick Danko and a bit of Levon Helm comes across.
Well, its a very soulful style of singing, I don’t consciously try to sound like those guys though, although my natural voice does sound a bit like Danko’s. We all listened to the same records growing up; we are about the same age. I am a little big younger, I get this a lot, and Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. Really the guy who I always wanted to sound like was Al Anderson, I grew up next to Al and he was a really huge influence on me. Thanks Al.


How important are those guys to what you do?

Pretty strong I would say, anybody in this arena of music would be hard pressed to deny that, but they are only part of it, aside from there huge musical chops. It’s Robertson’s writing that really floors me.

Richard Bell makes an appearance. Tell me about that.
We are so fortunate that we got to know and play with Richard, probably the best musician I have ever known and a super guy. He passed away last year and we miss him dearly.
We met Richard through Garth Hudson, who is a friend of ours. I first worked with Garth in 1989 on my first album. Garth and Richard were best pals,
Richard of course was an original member of the Hawks. He had the best rock and roll stories you ‘ve ever heard, amazing piano player, very funny and sweet. RIP Richard

Where does the name Charlotte Park Rangers come from?

I guess Charlotte Park is sort of my Lake Woebegone , I envision future CPR outings with other guests and vocal pairings, a great outlet for songs, and a relief from being me. As I explained earlier, it’s my neighborhood. Maybe if we get famous the value of my home will get back up to where it was when I bought it.

Tell me about the origins of “Catfish Song.”
I live close to the river and I go down there a lot in the early morning and I think about bringing a fishin’ pole but I never do. It’s great, a great place for morning meditations and a creative well that I visit. So I was developing these Charlotte Park characters, and because they are mythical they do strange things, the wrongly accused murderer in “Georgia Time,” the prostitute who finds Jesus and then drowns herself in “Sunshine,” and the love-lorn loser in “Catfish” who goes downtown for a hooker and laments his lost love to her. I was looking for folks who had lost it, and what they do next. It’s all about redemption in a way.

“I Want to Get Lost” finds you trading leads. Was it written that way?
Well, not when we wrote it but I liked the effect of it, that was me just wanting to get out of town, about once a day I consider moving to a quiet place and getting out of Nashvegas.

Did you find your way to “Where the Soul…” through Hank Williams?

Carlton had that, but, yeah, it goes back to Hank, Carlton was a member of the Moody Brothers, a traditional Bluegrass/Gospel brother trio that won 2 Grammy years ago. He’s from that Carolina Moody dynasty,, Clyde Moody etc, so he’s been playing that song 40 years

Will you guys be touring?
Absolutely. We are dirt broke! Probably as a duo at first; nobody can afford a band anymore.

You can find the album online at:
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/CharlotteParkRangers
http://www.myspace.com/123562813