Happy Birthday Joe Ely: The Lubbock Flash Turns 65
I was living in Holland in 1977 when my younger brother, who had attended Wayland Baptist University on a track scholarship until booze and girls were discovered in his dorm room, came for a visit. While living in Plainview, his stomping grounds had been the gin joints of Lubbock. Upon arrival, he immediately opened his suitcase and pulled out an album he said I had to hear. It was some guy he had seen play in Lubbock who had just put out his first album.
Courtesy LC Media
It was what is known as Joe Ely's "white album." Self-titled, it has sometimes been referred to as the "No Loud Talk" album because of the sign on the wall behind the band on the back photo.
Dropping the needle on side one of Joe Ely, my entire musical horizon changed.
"Well, I left my home out on the great high plains / headin' for some new terrain / standin' on the highway with my coffee cup / wonderin' who was gonna pick me up / I had my hopes up high / I never thought that I / would ever wonder why / I had my hopes up high."
I'm from those same plains and I'd done my share of hitch-hiking, and "Had My Hopes Up High" just branded itself to my consciousness. If I have a musical hero, ever since that day it has been Joe Ely, who turns 65 today.
Long before anyone coined the term "alternative country," Ely was out there on the waffling edge, mixing up genres and sounds into a nasty roadhouse stew that was as tough as the back end of a shooting gallery and as Texan as cactus. Led by Ely, who came across something like Buddy Holly on meth, this band charged hard with Jesse "Guitar" Taylor and steel guitar whiz Lloyd Maines dueling like gunslingers.
I wouldn't actually see Ely live until New Year's Eve, 1979, at a little joint down near the intersection of Gessner and Southwest Freeway. It was an icy, frigid night and the crowd was disappointing, but Ely and his band of badasses attempted to melt the walls. At one point my brother and I stood at the rear of the club and the band was playing so loud the cigarette machine was shaking. I was convinced.
Not long after I saw him at the Pasadena Rodeo. It rained buckets that day, so the concert scene was basically a large mud hole where people sat on folding chairs or blankets. Ernest Tubb opened for Ely. As usual, in spite of a smallish crowd, Ely and band exploded like a hand grenade.
And then there was the St. Patrick's Day gig at Fitzgerald's, circa 1980. The Leroi Brothers were a hot new Austin thing and they opened. It got so rockin' and so crazy during Ely's set people climbed up on the picnic tables (in the old days, there were picnic tables upstairs at Fitz) and were pogoing up and down long before anyone had heard the words "mosh pit." Ely had been running with the Clash and he was one ball of fire.
Since then, I've since seen Ely more times than I could ever remember. A few highlights:
My son was living in Denton, playing in a band based in Dallas. He called one afternoon to inform me that a friend's band was supposed to open for Ely that night at the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Elm but had to cancel due to illness. My son's band was now the opener. I phoned my brother, he picked me up at my place, and we headed north posthaste. In fact, so posthaste we got a ticket before we got to Conroe.