getting to the bottom of it
5 Questions: West Texas musician Joe Ely
West Texas singer-songwriter Joe Ely has rocked his way from the original Stubbs Barbecue in Lubbock to an opening slot for the Rolling Stones. Given his decades of peripatetic wanderlust and stylistic evolution from country-rock to a sort of pan-border Tex-Mex synthesis, it’s ironic that Ely’s latest album is entitled Satisfied At Last (Rack ‘Em Records). Last May, Ely took a few moments to look back—and ahead.
CM: On the new album, “Not That Much Has Changed” is an affectionate look at returning to your roots. You’re a lot kinder to West Texas than, say, fellow native James McMurtry. Why is such hard country endearing to you?
Ely: There’s something that is just so abstract and lonesome, but also something that’s really magnificent about that emptiness. I find big cities fascinating, but there’s nothing like going back out into the Palo Duro Canyon…There’s something incredibly powerful about it that doesn’t exist in, say, New York City. Every time I start a new record, I take a drive up there and drive around through those old, beat-up towns. Just getting out in that big empty. I need that spot where nothing’s needed, where everything is taken away rather than added to.
CM: Like a blank canvas?
Ely: Yeah—a big, huge piece of space that you have to fill up. And there’s nothing like a song to fill up a big, empty space. That’s what I always thought about (fellow West Texas rockers) Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly; their melodies were so powerful because that was the only thing they could create to fill up that space.
CM: Maybe the most memorable image on the album is from “You Can Bet I’m Gone,” where the guy passed away and his friends fired his ashes out of their shotguns as a sort of 21-gun salute. Where did that come from?
Ely: That actually was a little story towards the back of the obit section that I read in some small-town paper. The guy lived in that town and he loved to shoot skeet with his buddies. And in his will he asked to be created and his ashes put in shotgun shells and he invited his friends to give him a going-away party. Within minutes after reading it, I was working on the song.
CM: You’re 64 now, and in your publicist’s bio you were quoted as saying, “Everything adds up differently than you thought it would.” Can you elaborate?
Ely: When you’re setting out in life, you really project things as the way they’re gonna be when you’re sixty. You don’t really want to think about it too much; maybe you think you’ll be in a hospital. But, really, every single thing that I’ve done, I never expected the things that came out of them, good and bad.
CM: You’ve opened for the Stones. Is “Satisfied At Last” any sort of riposte to their “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”?
Ely: No, I really didn’t think of it that way, but now that you mention it, I can hear the opposite vibe. But it’s the same kind of music.
Ely plays Antones Friday, July 29 at 9pm
Antone's, 213 W. Fifth, 512/320-8424
Tickets at www.antones.net