Panhandle Rambler: Joe Ely on His New Album, Townes, and Helping the Homeless
Panhandle Rambler (9/18/15, Rack’em Records) is near the top of the Americana Music Association Chart and garnered a spot on the No Depression Reader’s Poll “Top 50 Albums of 2015,” in spite of its relatively late release date.
From the ominous pumping oil wells of “Cold Black Hammer” to the smugglers and drugglers of “Coyotes Are Howlin’,” Ely mined the barren, windblown West Texas landscape for inspiration and wrote nine original dusty story-songs, adding covers of Butch Hancock’s “When the Nights are Cold” and Guy Clark’s melancholy “Magdalene” to round out the disc.
Ely has opened for the Rolling Stones and has both shared the stage and recorded with the Clash and Springsteen, but he’s clearly not ready to rest on his laurels. In addition to Panhandle Rambler, he’s published the semi-autobiographical book Reverb: An Odyssey, sifted through his archives to release B4 84, and was appointed the Official Texas State Musician for 2016.
Ely released his debut album in 1977 and with Panhandle, his 14th studio album, there is no sign he’s lost his spark. This time around, he dialed back the electric rock and relies heavily on accordian, fiddle, mandolin, and Flamenco guitar. Panhandle Rambler is a superb album of Southwestern sketches from one of Americana’s most gifted performers.
Hal Bogerd: I recently caught “An Evening with Joe Ely” in Raleigh, North Carolina, and noticed how the new album really lends itself to a solo show.
Joe Ely: It’s a reflection on the place I grew up, the dusty old plains, and I took a slice of the landscape, the characters, and some of the political things that are going on like the cartels and drug wars. I kind of made up stories about people and places going back to my childhood, to the present day. Making stories about the place that I know the best.
The place where I really started writin’ songs was up in that old dusty plains: West Texas, from the cotton fields to the Rio Grande River, including Mexico. I hadn’t done a record quite like that in a while and it led me there by a couple of different turns and twists. I had actually started the record to be a completely different record, then I wrote some new songs that made the course change. So yeah, I think it turned out pretty good. I never know about a record until I stand back from it a while. I think it holds up.
The last song on the album, “You Saved Me,” is perhaps your most personal song. A song you wouldn’t have written or maybe couldn’t have written until now.
It was kind of a reflection too. That was actually the very last song that I wrote for the record and I actually put it on as the last song on the record. Almost a year ago, I got stuck in a blizzard 40 or so miles outside of Lubbock, Texas. I was up in Turkey, Texas, playing a benefit for the Bob Wills Association. It was the night before New Year’s Eve and I was supposed to play Lubbock, Texas, on New Year’s Eve. The ice hit so I bypassed Lubbock. They literally had the highway shut down for about three days and I checked into a roadside Comfort Inn with a Burger King and a gas station next door. It was miles away from the nearest town and the roads were all iced over and closed, so I spent three days in this motel room eating three meals a day at the Burger King. Trudging down the driveway of the motel to the Burger King!
I wrote that song and finished two other songs that are on the record, so that was another weird change. It took a bunch of strange turns but I like it when things take turns. It adds a new twist. And even though that song is not exactly in the same vein, I think it worked real good with the record, to close it off.
You must be pretty proud of the artwork on the album. The cover photo was taken by your daughter Marie Ely. She’s the baby girl that you referenced in “You Saved Me.”
Yeah, [laughs] she’s grown up now and doing photography and art. I thought it would be a nice touch to give her a little spot.
I had a great time working on the record and wish they all were that much fun. I’ve worked on some where I had to pull my hair out before they came together. This one changed a lot, but it was fun watching it change.
Could you pick a couple tracks that you’d like someone who hasn’t heard the album or wasn’t familiar with your music to hear?
Sure. “You Saved Me” would be one.
“Here’s to the Weary” had to do with growin’ up in West Texas and the musical influences from Lubbock, Texas. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings were all from that area. That song talks about the old Route 66 that goes through the top of Texas. All of the early musicians [came through there], starting with Woody Guthrie going up through Bob Wills and the rockabilly guys like Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, and then Chuck Berry and those guys. So that was a historical thing of how those guys came through Route 66, which is now called Interstate 40. Telling about drivin’ that old highway from Chicago to L.A., across the big old desert, naming a lot of my influences growin’ up, and putting them into a song.
Another would be “Coyote’s Are Howling”. It takes place out in the desert and you’re not really sure what’s goin’ on. It has to do with the new danger, with the cartels and the drug smugglers out there crossing the desert. When I was a kid, we used to go to Mexico to have fun. We’d go there and my band would sit in all night long in the border towns. Now you can’t really do that because there’s this danger out there.
“Here’s to the Weary” and “The Coyote’s are Howlin’ ” would be the opposite ends of the subject matter of the record.
You’re a great songwriter and you also have an ear for great songs other artists have written. You’ve covered songs by Dave Alvin, Guy Clark, Tom Russell, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Robert Earl Keen. Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever” has been a staple of your live shows.
The first time I met Robert was in the early ’90s. We were out on the road doing a songwriter tour with myself, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Guy Clark, somewhere on the Eastern Coast. It might have been Virginia Beach. He came up and sat in with us and he played “The Road Goes On Forever” and “Whenever Kindness Fails.” I ran into him the very next week in Nashville and asked him — well I didn’t really ask him, I told him I was gonna record those songs. [laughs] He was very gracious and agreed that I could record them. Both those songs blew me away!
Robert Earl Keen called me a couple of months ago now and said he was redoing his No. 2 Live Dinner album. He asked me to come down to Helotes, Texas, where he had recorded the album. He was recreating those songs with some of the people who have recorded them and he asked me if I would come down and do “The Road Goes on Forever.” I did, it was great fun, and it should be out sometime next year .
I just finished reading Reverb: An Odyssey and together with Panhandle Rambler it gives a sense of you now and you in the 1960s.
Reverb was talking about the ’60s and it was a bit autobiographical. I used the places where I grew up and my early bands and the trials and tribulations. I put in some mythical characters. I’ve never really talked about that part of my life when I first started playing music, especially when I first started writing songs. I just tried to tell what was going on, the turmoil in the world and actually it is a lot like what’s going on now. With race riots and an unpopular war that turned bad, and all these things that are going on now were also going on in the ’60s. I was trying to draw parallels to the two different eras.
Reading Reverb I couldn’t help but think back to “I Had My Hopes Up High,” when I read the section where Earle, the protagonist, is hitchhiking, gets a ride from a truck driver, and asks, “What are you carrying? Your load?” The driver answers, “Explosives. Dynamite.”
That would have been before “Hopes Up High.” [laughs] I included that verse in the song and that was an actual thing that happened to me hitchhiking out of Lubbock one time. I recreated the whole story in the book. You just get a piece of it in the song:
Well, the first ride I got was in a dynamite truck
The driver kept tellin’ me his bad luck
As we swerved around the curves, I began to shout
I said, ‘Hey mister would you let me out?’
You get the whole story in the book.
Have you thought of doing any readings from Reverb?
I actually have a studio recording of myself reading the whole book. It’s funny you mention that. I was just talking to a guy last week about making those recordings available so people could download it and listen to me reading it. It’d be a good story to listen to while you’re driving.
A common theme in your songs is the West Texas wind. It’s this powerful, yet invisible force. It’s almost a character.
The wind plays a huge role in my songs and in many of Butch Hancock’s songs, and the wind does becomes a character in a lot of them. It is this force that is around you all the time growing up there. Between the wind and the dust, you you’re always kind of battling it. The wind creates static electricity and every time you touch a door knob you get shocked. [laughs] It’s irritating. You open your car door and it slams it shut. Everything you try to do, the wind is a part of it. It becomes a force of the landscape and takes as big a spot as the grass or anything else.
There are very few trees out there, especially out in the cotton fields. You won’t see a tree for a hundred miles, so the wind and the sky are the two things that are the most prominent in the landscape.
You wrote the foreword for a book called Signs.
Yeah, a publisher that does avant-garde books based out of Austin (Pentagram) approached me about that. They had heard I had been collecting signs from the homeless people. I was actually buying their signs and I had a couple a hundred of them out in my barn. When I’d see a colorful sign, I’d just ask if they would want to sell it. I’d give him whatever he said as long as it was reasonable. Ten or 20 bucks. And I’d say, “Make another one” and he’d say, “I’ll make a better one next time.” I felt like he’d changed from a panhandler into a sign painter.
I did that for several years until a couple of times I asked a guy if he would sell his sign and he’d say, “No, I’m not going to sell it.” I’d offer him 20, 40, 50, maybe even a hundred bucks and still he wouldn’t sell. I’d ask, “Why wouldn’t you want to sell it? You can make another one. You just did it with a Marks-A-Lot in five minutes.” He said, “Oh, you don’t understand. I made a hundred and eighty dollars with that sign yesterday.” Then I started thinking of it in a whole new light. And another guy I asked if he would sell his sign said, “No. This is not my sign.” I asked him if someone loaned him the sign and he said, “No, somebody issued me this sign.”
I found out that there was a group of guys, kind of a homeless mafia, that were hiring beat-up looking old guys to stand out there holding a sign and at the end of the day they’d take all the money and give them a couple dollars an hour for standing there. That showed it in a whole new light.
I talked to Pentagram about that and they knew there was a photographer around Austin taking photographs of the homeless. We decided to include some of the signs I collected and some of the photographs and do a coffee table book and give all the profits to Loaves and Fishes, to distribute among the homeless. It raised $40,000 so I was glad it turned into something positive.
When I realized they were throwing these really desperate people off the mostly popular street corners in town, I thought that was a really chicken-shit thing to do, so we countered it a little bit.
Would you mind retelling the story about how you met Townes Van Zandt?
Sure. It was one of the most unlikely things that has ever happened to me. I was a musician in Lubbock and it was before I’d even got together with The Flatlanders. As near as I can tell, it was about 1968 because Townes was hitchhiking back to Houston from San Francisco, where he had recorded his first album (For the Sake of the Song). I was just out driving on one of those windy dusty days outside the city limits of Lubbock and there was this guy hitchhiking into the city on the other side of the road. Kind of a tall, skinny guy carrying a guitar case with a backpack on. I thought, man that’s strange, you never see anyone hitchhiking through Lubbock with a guitar. There were very few musicians in West Texas at that time and I probably knew all of them. I just thought I’m gonna pick that guy up and see where he is coming from.
We drive all the way across through town to the other side, where I figured he could get a ride. I got to talkin’ with him and he told me the story about how he had just finished a record in San Francisco and was heading back home, and in his backpack all he had was a bunch of, probably 20, 25 record albums.
When I dropped him off at my favorite hitchhiking spot, he gave me a record. I was kind of dumbfounded that he had hitchhiked across the MojaveDesert and this record was still intact. I thanked him and he introduced himself as Townes Van Zandt. I let him out and went back into Lubbock and found Jimmie Gilmore, who I had met not too long before that. We played that record on his turntable and we just played it again and again and again. Then we found Butch, who Jimmie introduced me to, and played the record for Butch, and we played that record over and over. It was the first person I had met who was a songwriter as a trade. We considered Townes as the Flatlanders patron saint by that whole incident. It was such a random meeting that I couldn’t really hardly fathom it.
When did you meet Townes again?
The next time I met him would have probably been around 1971, maybe 1972. We were over in Clarksville, west of Austin, with a bunch of musicians and hippies at this party house that was owned by this old black man, Uncle Seymour. There was a big party and Townes was there and I got to talkin’ with him and told him that I had picked him up hitchhiking, and he remembered it. It must have been ’72 because we had just recorded that Flatlanders’ record.
I saw him was about a year after that and then I did my first record and I started running into Townes in cities all over the United States while I was touring around. It was unusual because I would just run into him all the time and we’d get together and tell stories and hang out.
The last time I saw him was in Sesto Calende, Italy, when I was doing a show by Lake Maggiore and Townes was there with Rick Danko. He was pretty wasted but he asked if he could come out and sing a song at the end of the set. I said, “Well sure, man.”
He came out and he couldn’t play his guitar, he couldn’t make the chords with his fingers, but he made it through the song. I thanked him and the audience for coming and started walking off the stage. Townes grabbed me by the collar and said, “C’mon, let’s do one more.”
Every time I’d want to stop he’d say, “C’mon, let’s do one more.”
We ended up playing about five songs, of which about three of them I didn’t know even, though I was his guitar player.
Townes was like that — you never could predict him. He didn’t play by the rule book.
And Townes died about three or four months later.
Picking him up threw a whole change in the direction of myself, the Flatlanders, and the songs that we wrote. Townes’ songwriting was a new standard that we had to live up to.