Hopes up high

from San Antonio Current on

For many, Joe Ely is a man who needs no introduction, and I won’t take up much space offering one. From his brief but storied tenure with The Flatlanders, to his dozen or so solo efforts, Ely has been a driving force and an inspiration in Texas music for three decades. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for the Current in the moments before a show in Tulsa, while a train whistle blew poignantly in the background.

So Joe, over nearly 30 years of music, you’ve had ups and plenty of downs. In general, do you think that better music is born from hardship or from happiness? I’ve always written more when things were not so rosy. In fact, [when] I first started writing songs, I was on the top floor of the Lubbock County Jail. That’s where you have time to reflect on things. Usually, when the champagne is flowing and everybody’s having a great time and everybody’s happy, nobody wants to sit down and write. I generally kinda stay out of the public when I’m not playing, and pretty much just hole myself up in the studio and work for months at a time. All the notes I’ve taken before that, which I do all the time on the road, that’s when it turns into songs. I don’t think people write songs or paint paintings or do any of that stuff when everybody’s really happy.

Has that attitude changed at all over the years? No, I don’t think so, although, now I don’t rely on waiting for something to happen. I go in and work every day. I wake up every morning and start looking at things and listening to stuff. You can’t just sit around and wait for a song to come. You have to make it happen by sitting and working on it. I’ve had a few songs come in a blinding flash, but most of the time, it takes really hard work. Some songs I’ve been working on for seven or eight years, and they’re still not really finished.

Is that craftsman mentality toward songwriting something that came to you later on in your career, or have you always been workman-like in that regard? I’ve always put in the time. It came from when I first left my home in Lubbock and went out into the world. I always carried a notebook with me and jotted down all my little thoughts and ideas and stuff. Ninety percent of it, I’d throw away and never look at it again, after I’d sifted through it and found anything that was potentially worth working on. I’ve filled up a lot more trashcans than I have tape recorders.

Do you find that the majority of your keeper ideas come from your own life experiences, or observing the lives and experiences of others? It’s a combination. When you observe others, it’s actually a part of you that is watching that, and you’re putting your own story into somebody else’s situation. A lot of my songs, I talk about someone else, but it might have actually started with me. By observing somebody else when I’m writing, mainly observing them in my head, it gives me the freedom to make it more of a song as opposed to just an experience. So many songs I hear now are just somebody kinda whining about how bad they been treated and stuff. I’d rather hear a song that’s a story. It might not be a happy story, but I’d rather it be a complete circle.

As a songwriter, you’ve always been a storyteller. What do you think is bleeding that out of modern music? I don’t know. I suspect that some of it may be the people have run out of stories. They’ve taken in so much watching television and movies, listening to other songs, instead of just going out and taking in everyday life. I think when you’re bombarded by constant

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