Joe Ely: Songs Become Conversations | A Rich History of Bands, Records, Tours, and Songs

Joe Ely’s long career in the music business is reflected his story songs.

From a certain perpective, Joe Ely’s doing the same things now that he has done for more than the past 40 years. He writes songs. Gets a band together. Makes a record. Then he goes on the road and brings his music to the people.

And Ely has been in bands with some incredible artists. He formed the country combo the Flatlanders with his friends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock back in the early ’70s. He joined up with fellow songwriters Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, and John Hiatt during the ’80s. Ely recorded with John Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, and James McMurty as part of the hit-making Buzzin’ Cousins in the ’90s. He was a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Los Super Sevens along with Freddy Fender, Flaco Jiménez, Doug Sahm, Rick Trevino, and Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas. He has toured and had reunions with all of these artists over the years, and performed in Davenport as part of the Flatlanders just six months ago.

And this list does not even include those artists who have recorded and played with Ely, such as Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Nor does this mention that Ely has shared the stage with artists as diverse as the Clash, the Rolling Stones, Merle Haggard, Paul McCartney, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Ely will perform with his new band at the Iowa Arts Festival in Iowa City at 9:00 p.m. on Friday, June 3, as he tours to promote his latest release, Satisfied At Last. The new disc offers nine original story songs and a spirited cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever.”

“I’ve known Billy Joe since my Lubbock days in the early ’70s,” Ely said over the telephone from his Austin, Texas, home. “About four or five years ago, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in Nashville, and Billy Joe asked me if I would play one of his songs at his induction. I chose this one, and I have been singing it ever since. I told him I was going to record it someday, and I thought it fit in well with these songs.”

Ely continued, “But you see, I don’t really consider what I do a cover—or any of the songs I do, whether it was written by Butch Hancock or Robert Earl Keen or Buddy Holly—as cover songs. I won’t record a song unless I have a direct connection to it. I grow into them. The songs are as much a part of me as if I wrote them.”

Other musicians have covered Ely’s material, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Marty Stuart, and Kelly Willis. The songwriting on his new record is top notch and  chock full of notable lines, striking characters, and creative images. And these are just a tip of the iceberg. Ely said he has hundreds of unreleased songs back in his studio, and that he continually pens new ones.

“Each record I make offers a little slice of where I am in my life at the moment. They are the stories I have heard, the thoughts I have pondered, the people who have affected me, the different places I have been, and the feelings I have had,” Ely said.

“As for the title song, I’m not completely satisfied forever—that’s not what “Satisfied at Last” means. It is just that right now, at this minute, after making it through life’s ups and downs, storms and sunny days, I have gotten to a good point in my life,” Ely said. “It’s like after taking a long drive and finally arriving at the designated spot. You look around and smile and sigh, and you are glad you made it.”

But Ely cannot explain the creative process any more than that. I pointed out a line from the song that I thought worked especially well, “If time was a river, my breath was a whale.” He laughed and said he liked that line, too, but he had no idea where it came from. And as to what it means—that is why lyrics are an art, not a science. The notion of a whale as something too big to be contained by boundaries is clear, but after that, it’s just a mystery.

“Hey, I know it sounds weird, but the pleasures I get from writing what I might not understand is one reason why I make music,” Ely said by way of explanation. “But making music by oneself is an isolating phenomenon. That’s why I tour with a band. It lets you share with other musicians. The songs become a conversation. You show them where you have been, and it is fun to do and see what happens.”

Ely’s new album has a terrific song called “Not That Much Has Changed.” In a sense, it’s an allegory for Ely’s own life. He has been a professional musician since the ’60s. He writes songs, gets a band together, etc., over and over again—but in new combinations and styles. One can look at his life from the outside and think, Ely really isn’t much different than he used to be. The main character of “Not That Much Has Changed” revisits his old town. Appearance-wise, everything looks the same. The old water tower, the drug store, and the houses may need a new coat of paint—but seem essentially what they were. “The guy coming back is nostalgic, shrugging off what is different. But he is returning home after being at war. He has changed. He is fooling himself, everything means something else now,” Ely said.

“Everything constantly changes. The one thing that is consistent is the thing in me that makes me want to chronicle the stories I run into in my life. It keeps me going,” Ely confessed. “And I know I have changed, so that even when I sing the old songs they mean something new to me every time.”

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