Amarillo native Joe Ely reflects on his songwriting life ahead of intimate show at Hoot's
"Cold Black Hammer," Joe Ely
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
In the course of his acclaimed career, Joe Ely has learned that "nothing but a song can fill up an empty space like there is in West Texas,"
But when Ely, the Amarillo-born, world-renowned troubadour of Texas, was coming up, the art of songwriting was little appreciated and often overlooked in this area.
A chance encounter with one of the state's most iconic writers helped lead Ely down a road that eventually led him to forming the Flatlanders with two of his Lubbock brethren, touring with The Clash, becoming an acclaimed author and, now, being named the 2016 Texas State Musician.
"When I was growing up, there were no songwriters. There was a few in West Texas, Butch (Hancock) and Jimmie Dale (Gilmore) and some of the guys passed down from Buddy Holly's day," said Ely, who'll return home for an intimate show at 10 p.m. Saturday at Hoot's Pub, 2424 Hobbs Road. Cover is $15.
"Then one day, I picked up Townes Van Zandt hitchhiking and took him across Lubbock ... to where he could get a good ride to Houston," Ely recalled. "He had just recorded his first album in San Francisco and gave me one of them. I thought, wow, this guy is writing these amazing songs, and I had never considered that.
"I'd written a few songs, but I always thought a serious songwriter was someone who lived in New York City, working on Tin Pan Alley, or in Nashville, working on Music Row," he continued. "I didn't know that somebody could just do that as a way of life. That was big."
His education continued when he first met Hancock and Gilmore.
"I just respected those guys so much, and the songs they wrote about West Texas — not just about West Texas, but songs (in which) you could feel the wind. The dust actually got in your eye when you heard the song," Ely said. "Things that were powerful and that gave you a sense of place."
Those are lessons that come through clearly throughout Ely's career — and, especially, on his most recent album, Panhandle Rambler, released in September.
The contemplative album has inspired a series of intimate shows, including a 10 p.m. Saturday concert at Hoot's Pub, 2424 Hobbs Road.
"I'm going to dig into my songbook, just kind of reflect over all the time that I've spent putting songs together," Ely said. "That goes back to the early days in Amarillo when I was a kid first learning how to play instruments, and a lot of the images in my song and my books have to do with those early times.
"I'll kind of talk about how just the plains of Texas have influenced my work going all the way back to the early stuff and all the way up to Panhandle Rambler," he said.
Just how have Amarillo (where Ely lived until he was 12) and Lubbock influenced him?
"I guess it always comes down to the emptiness of everything and the desire to fill it up," Ely said. "It's flat. There's sky forever. And the only way you can fill it up is with a good song. That kind of idea has guided me and inspired me."
And the cities and their atmospheres still influence him, he said.
"Every record I've ever done, I always go back to Lubbock and Amarillo just to, you know, be there, to be in that empty space. And there's always a song that comes to me from that," he said.
Ely said he's in a more introspective mood these days not only because of his age (he turned 69 in February) but also because of the recent passing of his longtime friend Guy Clark.
"You spend so much of your life doing things that have no meaning whatsoever, and every once in a while something comes that inspires you in other ways, and some of them are spiritual and some of them are just kind of day-to-day living," Ely said. "But you take the ones and you try to find meaning to everything. A lot of times there is no meaning to something you're looking for, and sometimes, the meaning comes out and hits you in the face.
"You have to constantly be open," he continued. "That's been probably the hardest thing — to stay open."