Happy Birthday Joe Ely: The Lubbock Flash Turns 65

Courtesy LC Media
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.

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.

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My first sight of Joe was at the original Soap Creek Saloon up a then muddy Bee Cave Road on the oustskirts of Austin at that time....Joe and the band tore that place apart.....it was hippie heaven.. and I was blown away.....I had the bug, bad to go back home to Odessa and open a joint like that...with a little taste of The Armadillo...well I did and I booked Joe as soon as a could...it was solo show with a full house of Tech Alumni .....nuff said! The bar I openned and ran for 20 years "Dos Amigos" was inspired by that first night seein Joe at The Soap Creek. He's been out here many times and it's was always special...sometimes insane..."I wish hard living didn't come so easy to me"


after hours gig in the basement of some hotel, 1990 during SXSW.  We rolled up in there probably around 2:30am, the place was packed, the A/C wasn't working, but Joe absolutely  burned the place down.  Grissom had a little something extra that night, and that just drove Joe harder and harder.  I remember "Letter to LA" going on forever.  Me and my friends left before 5am, completely worn out.  But the place was still jammed full of folks, and Joe still hadn't taken his foot off the accelerator.  There are very, very few artists who can do this - Bruce, for sure, but Joe's one of us.  Every single night, you get your money's worth.


Aww... Mr Ely! My best moments was having a drink or two on his bus sitting outside of an Austin bar listening to his story's . Happy birthday Joe. Cheers! Eva

Craig Hlavaty
Craig Hlavaty

The best Ely moment I have is seeing him about two years ago in Corpus at the House Of Rock, and having the pleasure of nodding at him as he waited for me to finish washing my hands in the restroom sink. I didn't want to be creepy and tell him how I discovered him through The Clash.

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