This boyhood introduction to exotica set the tone for a life that centers on a fiercely independent sense of creative individuality. Best known as a songwriter and the leader of some of Texas' toughest rock bands during the past 30 years, Ely is also a high-energy solo performer who has released nearly 20 albums under one guise or another since the late '70s.
Ely produces albums, paints, has written a novel and plays 20 shows a year with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. Ely has opened for the Stones and the Clash, and his resume also includes a stint as an off-Broadway actor and a performer in independent films. And there was the time he rode the rails across the country and traveled with the circus as the caretaker of the world's smallest horse. That's not to mention winning a Grammy in 1999 and performing in the off-again, on-again Flatlanders band with old friends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.
Tick this list off to him and Ely laughs. "Well, I've done all that," he says. "But you know, everything has just kind of unfolded. I've never planned these moves or career or anything. These are the kind of things I really like to do. Things that aren't 'big plans' by some corporate office. I like to follow my instincts."
Ely's latest addition to his solo recording catalog is "Streets of Sin," a terrific package of original tunes that captures the flavor of Ely's Texas roots and reveals his talent for bringing the small detail to a song lyric.
"I kinda did that whole record almost like it was some small town newspaper," Ely explains. "You know, you'd find a story on page six, way down, something that happened to somebody. Sometimes the things that happen in people's lives are huge, life-changing events for them, but they're not really news stories to anybody else. Like the guy that loses the farm. I kinda wanted to make an analogy with what was happening in the country but not in big headlines."
Ely will perform both old songs and tunes from "Streets" during his upcoming show at Ashland Coffee and Tea. Texas accordion master Joel Guzman no slouch as a performer himself will provide instrumental support.
So, one wonders, with all the touring and projects, does Ely ever relax? The explanation of his down-time might stretch the truth a hair, but it's vintage storytelling Joe.
"I love to mow grass," he says with a flat Texas twang. "Yeah, in fact, when I get off the road, I volunteer to mow people's yards. Someday I'll maybe get the state of Texas to let me drive one of their mowin' trucks from Amarillo to Lubbock on both sides of the road. That's what I really want to do. That's my real goal, yeah." S
Joe Ely plays Ashland Coffee and Tea, Tuesday, Oct. 19. Tickets $22.50 in advance. Show at 8 p.m. Charles Arthur opens. Call 798-1702 for more information.
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