Out on a walkabout with Joe Ely, official Texas State Musician for 2016
To get to Joe Ely's place, keep driving until the road ends. Past the pavement, down the dusty dirt track, the path concludes at a rustic, artsy estate with an ancient Cadillac docked deep in the grass. All cell phone service vanishes.
Are we still in Austin? The 68-year-old force of nature standing in the driveway, looking eternally cool in his Ray-Bans and boots, nods.
"Oh yeah," says Ely. "They're building a big old development about a mile that way. I never thought I'd see this sleepy town grow like it's Houston."
While remaining a Texas treasure – designated official Texas State Musician for 2016 – he's repeatedly witnessed the local become (inter)national. A unique example: Stubb's barbecue sauce, the product his late friend C.B. Stubblefield first bottled in Ely's kitchen three decades ago, was recently sold for $100 million.
"Hard to believe, especially thinking back to playing in Stubb's restaurant in Lubbock to 15 people," he smiles. "Things don't stay how they are for too long."
Ely's been a working musician for 45 years, beginning with alt.country godfathers the Flatlanders before sojourning solo through 18 studio albums of Tex-centric country rock. Latest, Panhandle Rambler, arrives Friday. The train hopper-turned-troubadour still spends 150 days a year on tour, and when he's home he records music and cuts the grass.
"I love to mow," he confirms, surveying his 18-acre ranch. "I always wanted to mow the side of the highway between Amarillo and Lubbock."
Those cities are the first two stops of Ely's real-life panhandle ramble. Born in Amarillo, he grew up there until age 9, playing violin in the local orchestra. Walking his property, Ely reminiscences about his childhood until we're interrupted by four strapping young deer approaching cautiously. He identifies one with newly spouted antlers as "Bucky."
"Where we lived in Amarillo was kinda like heaven," he continues. "There were railroad tracks in the back and trains would crash into each other to form new trains all day and night. It was the intersection between the Illinois Central Rock Island Line and the Santa Fe Line. There were trains coming east, south, north, and west right where I grew up."
Those rail yards, where hobos would jump out of boxcars to beg a bowl of beans from Ely's mother then build campfires by the tracks to play cards, inspired Panhandle Rambler gem "Four Ol' Brokes." Typical of the album's dreamlike poetry, the song finds them wagering against a mystical trickster.
"Gobble gobble gobble!" yelps Ely, spotting two wild turkeys. He picks up a fallen feather from the grass and pockets it.
Because Route 66 crosscuts Amarillo, its native son received a musical education early. There was Jerry Lee Lewis pounding piano during a dust storm on a flatbed trailer at a Pontiac dealership, and Bob Wills, who he spied through the back door of the Aviatrix Club. Both idols are saluted in new musicians ode "Here's to the Weary."
Otherwise, Panhandle Rambler forgoes reflections on his youth, instead offering lyrical scenes set under canyons and on highways, sung over a delicate, atmospheric mix of gut-string guitars, percussion, and accordion that perfectly portrays the dusty landscape. Think of it as the North Texas sequel to 1995's Letter to Laredo.
"I didn't put any scene or character in one spot," he reveals. "I wanted to tell the story, but not tell it all in order to let the listener fill in what was missing. You don't really know what happened before the girl with bruises on her wrist in 'Wounded Creek,' but you have a feeling about the place."
As we walk along the frog-filled Little Bear Creek, which was blasted so hard by spring rain that a new arm jutted into Ely's backyard, talk turns to a new LP by the Flatlanders, his Panhandle super trio of 40-plus years.
"We're getting together in San Fran in a few weeks to play Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival," he says. "We do it every year and that's usually when Butch [Hancock] will play a new song or something will trigger it and we say, 'Yeah let's do it.' Butch and Jimmie [Dale Gilmore] are such strong influences on my writing. I love to get together and see what comes out."
Asked about "Borderless Love," a sly folk lament on U.S. immigration policy from the Flatlanders' most recent studio LP, 2009's acclaimed Hills and Valleys, Ely sings me a few lines: "Walking the line between pleasure and pain/ Biding my time between loss and gain/ I've run out of roads, I've traveled them all/ Down at the border by the one-sided wall."
He pauses, then sighs.
"I've been playing that song again because Donald Trump is such a maniac," he says shaking his head. "Has there ever in history been an instance when building a wall helped? The Berlin Wall? The Great Wall of China? No matter how big or long, physical walls can't keep cultures apart."
Ely's played muse to statesmen across the decades. In 1972, a long-haired, late-life Lyndon Johnson sat down front to watch the Flatlanders play the first Kerrville Folk Festival. Thirty-six years later, Barack Obama sang "Boogie Back to Texas" with him and Ray Benson at a fundraiser.
"I miss those swashbuckling senators and governors," he says. "Ann Richards was great at that, and LBJ was larger than life. Now there's a homogenization of people who want to be strong but don't want to offend anybody. They're concerned with their party over the good of the people."
Our walkabout summits at Ely's cabin studio. I sit on a stool that Terry Allen branded: "All artists try to be God and will burn in hell." Prompted, its owner assesses the state of his own artistry.
"It's important to find new perspectives in songwriting," he says. "I'm not interested in making up a song that I could have done when I was 18 because I'm not thinking the same way. You have to keep widening your scope and never re-create something just because it was successful. I've spent my whole life, and I'm almost 70, looking to make that next different song.
"To me, that's success."