Songwriter Interviews

Joe Ely

by Dan MacIntosh

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There aren't many country artists who can call both Bruce Springsteen and The Clash friends. Joe Ely (pronounced "E-Lee") is one of the few members in this exclusive club. Springsteen has sung on Ely albums, and also joins him on stage periodically. As for his original punk rock connections, Ely sang backup on The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Yep, that's Ely chiming in on that hit song's Spanish/English call and response chorus.

In addition to building up a healthy solo catalogue, Ely has also been an active member in a few significant bands. One of these is the Tex-Mex super group Los Super Seven. The term "supergroup" is not used lightly when describing Los Super Seven, as Ely's fellow band mates in the group have included the late Freddy Fender, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, and accordion legend, Flaco Jimenez.

Ely still records and performs with the trio The Flatlanders, which are more active today than when they first started back in the early '70s. Ely formed the group with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, and the case could also be made for The Flatlanders as a supergroup. All are topnotch songwriters, in the best Texas songwriting tradition. Nashville wasn't ready for this triple play back in the days before, and they're still a little left of center – even nowadays.

Of course, Ely is a fantastic songwriter, exemplified by songs like "I Had My Hopes Held High." But even when he sings someone else's song, as he does with Hancock's "She Never Spoke Spanish to me," he makes it his own. Best of all, he's a great story teller, in conversation, as in song.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): How are you doing?

Joe Ely: I'm doing pretty good. I was in the studio putting the guitar part down and didn't hear the phone ring.

Songfacts: Well, I'm glad to hear that you're putting music first.

Joe: Yeah. I'm always working on something in the studio.

Songfacts: Is this the new Flatlanders thing or is this a solo?

Joe: No, the Flatlanders thing was completely 40 years ago. It was recorded and finished all in one night. Friend of mine called me up and said, "Hey, I've got this old tape and you need to hear it." And I said, "Well, I think I've heard everything." He said, "No, you haven't heard this."

We had gone in, we'd driven down from our place where we lived in Lubbock, Texas, down to an oil town named Odessa, kind of a beat up old town - if oil prices are up, everybody's driving Cadillacs and when they're down, they're driving old wrecked cars and stuff. It just kind of goes with the flow.

We came to the studio on the outskirts of town and it didn't look like a studio at all. It just looked like an old cinderblock building with a gravel parking lot. There were no windows or anything. We ended up going in there right about sundown and staying in there till sunrise, and recorded 14 songs as kind of a demo tape to send to Nashville for a guy named Shelby Singleton, who had a record label called Plantation, but he had just bought the Sun label.

So we ended up going to Nashville about two or three months later and recording a record which is the record that we recall making. We don't even remember going to Odessa, but we never listened back to the tape or anything. It was just immediately sent off to Nashville for them to hear what we sounded like.

So what we're releasing now is what we're calling "The Odessa Tapes." And it's just a thrill to find something that you didn't even remember recording. And it might be the most definitive Flatlander recording, because it was actually our first recording together.

Songfacts: You guys have never done things the usual way.

Joe: No, it's never been the correct way. What I'm working on now is some tapes that I made in my studio after the Flatlanders. We really didn't stay together after we recorded in Nashville, because that record never came out. I guess they thought it was not commercial, and so they never put it out. Made a few 8 track tapes and pressed a couple of singles, but the radio stations didn't play them. So they never put that record out.

We'd always thought that if it was put out in San Francisco, it would have probably been a smash, though, because it was so out of the ordinary from what country music was doing in those days that it would have probably found a good market in New York and San Francisco. But they tried to put it into the country stations, and in 1970 the country stations were narrow, you know.

But here it is 40 years later and we're glad to find this record and put it out. I'm going to later on release another record that I recorded on a 4 track recorder 10 years later, in about '83, that has never seen the light of day. It's a great time to have projects like this. And still, I'm working on another record side by side of these songs that I've been writing over the last couple of years.

Songfacts: Well, I first heard about you because when I discovered the whole punk rock thing, one of the bands that I really liked was the Clash.

Joe: Yeah. I remember they were a great band.

Songfacts: And I'd read things that you opened for them and that kind of thing. But then I was poking around and I saw some stuff where it said that you actually sang on "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Is that right?

Joe: Yeah. I'm singing all the Spanish verses on that.

Songfacts: That's you?

Joe: Yeah. And I even helped translate them. I translated them into Tex-Mex and Strummer kind of knew Castilian Spanish, because he grew up in Spain in his early life. And a Puerto Rican engineer kind of added a little flavor to it. (Laughing) So it's taking the verse and then repeating it in Spanish. We recorded that at Electric Ladyland Studio in New York City.

Songfacts: Whose idea was it to do the call and response with the Spanish?

Joe: I really don't know. I came in to the studio while they were working out the parts. They'd been working on the song for a few hours already, they had it sketched out pretty good. But I think it was Strummer's idea, because he just immediately, when it came to that part, he immediately went, "You know Spanish, help me translate these things." (Laughs) My Spanish was pretty much Tex-Mex, so it was not an accurate translation. But I guess it was meant to be sort of whimsical, because we didn't really translate verbatim.

But it's kind of a funny little thing that happened. Me and Joe were yelling this translation back while Mick Jones sang the lead on it, and we were doing the echo part. And there was one time when the song kind of breaks down into just the drums right before a guitar part. And you hear Mick Jones saying, "Split!" Just really loud, kind of angry. Me and Joe had snuck around in the studio, came up in the back of his booth where he was all partitioned off, and we snuck in and jumped and scared the hell out of him right in the middle of recording the song, and he just looked at us and says, "Split!" So we ran back to our vocal booth and they never stopped the recording.

Songfacts: I always thought that it was intentional, because it fits the song. It's like he's wondering if he should stay or should he go, and then when he says, "Split"...

Joe: Then it jumps into kind of a drum part and a solo. So, no, that's actually our mischievousness.

Songfacts: It's nice to know that they were fun, because I saw them on the Sandanista tour, I think that was around '82.

Joe: Yeah, '82 or '83. Yeah.

Songfacts: They just seemed very serious and it was the only band that matters, and all this kind of stuff. And to hear you tell that story it makes me feel like, well, they had some fun, too.

Joe: Oh, it was a great fun band. We met in '78. My first record with MCA had actually done really well in England and was in the Top 10 of the country charts there. And I guess Joe had heard the record played on the radio, and he was a big fan of Marty Robbins' country stuff and also the rockabilly stuff from the '50s, and very knowledgeable about it.

And so they came to our show, and after the show, invited us to go show us around London. They took us to all the late night spots, the Hope & Anchor pub and all the places that were on the hitching post late at night in London. We got to talking and he said, "Man, I'd love to come to Texas." And I said, "Well, why don't I just arrange some things and we'll do some shows together in Texas."

So I went back and talked to some promoters. None of them knew who the Clash were, but I was doing pretty good at the time. So we just played some of the places that I was playing. But he also wanted to play some really out of the ways places because he just liked the name of the town. Like, he wanted to play Laredo, because of "The Streets of Laredo," and he wanted to play Lubbock because of Buddy Holly, so we arranged about four or five shows around Texas, and then went out and did the Monterrey Pop Festival, which they were trying to revise. That was in 1979.

So it was really a great fun time. And then we kept in touch and did some more shows together in I think '82 or '83, something like that. And then I was really thrilled to record "Should I Stay or Should I Go" with them, because we never knew that it was going to be such a giant song. If I had known, I would have signed up for royalties. But I never even got paid for the session. I could have made quite a bit of money singing the accompaniment to the verses. (Laughs) But I was kind of crazy and just shooting from thing to thing and I never looked back.

Songfacts: Yeah. When we're young we do a lot of things that we could think twice about...

Joe: I did that all the time. Just jump from place to place and left a few things smoldering in my rearview mirror.

Songfacts: I want to talk about songwriting. I love your songs. I think there's a cinematic quality to the way you write, which is wonderful, because you really paint this picture and you put people into your stories. Now, when you do work with the Flatlanders, do you guys ever write together, or do you bring things in separately?

Joe: We only write when we're all three in the room. And every once in a while when we're working on something, we'll bring in like the little piece of a song, maybe like a line or two of a song that never came to being finished. We'll bring something to the table and then start working on that. But everything we work on, we work on together. And it's actually kind of maddening, because each person is so meticulous in the way that they think that it should sound, and of course me and Butch and Jimmie are all about as different as you can possibly be. That's why it's so difficult for us to write together.

Songfacts: And yet somehow you're able to create things that you can all agree on.

Joe: Somehow. I mean, it takes forever for us to write a song. Literally years to finish some of them. We really do it like painting a picture. We do it one piece at a time. Instead of a whole idea, we actually take one line at a time, sometimes one word at a time and just argue over the meaning of the word. I have a way of working where I work on ideas at a time and places, and I find characters and put them in a place and then I try to imagine what happens there. With the Flatlanders, we invent places and the characters are not meant to be day to day characters. They're meant to play a part in the overall song. It's more smoke and mirrors than everyday reality, and it somehow works. We're always amazed at what comes out when we start working on something.

Songfacts: I imagine it's different when you write by yourself, probably easier.

Joe: It's much easier. But of course, that's what we do most of the time. We never wrote together early on. I really didn't meet Butch and Jimmie until I was out of high school. And then I met Jimmie because he was playing in the coffee shops around town. And we started going around working up some songs together and going around Texas Tech where Lubbock had kind of a beatnik population that was left over from the '50s. Because it was a university town, it had some real interesting characters there. And an unusual amount of musicians, I guess because of Buddy Holly and Bob Wills and all those guys. There was a fount of musicians that sprung from that whole era.

And then I met Butch later on. And when we first starting getting together, it was absolutely against the law to write a song together. That was something that guys did on Tin Pan Alley. (Laughing) That was against the rules.

Songfacts: Is that like a Texas rule?

Joe: It was a universal rule. I never met anybody that wrote songs together until years later when I started recording in Nashville. Nobody that I knew, and I can't think of a single person from Austin or Lubbock during those early days in the '70s and '80s that ever wrote a song with anybody else.

Songfacts: Wow. That makes the Flatlanders seem more and more like a miraculous occurrence.

Joe: (Laughing) We admired each other's writings, you know. During that time I was just beginning to write, because Butch and Jimmie were three years older than me. And I was just beginning to write, and then running across Jimmie, he amazed me with his really delicate songs. Then when I met Butch, he amazed me with his inside rhymes and how he always finds words with double meanings and plays them against each other. So that was a fascinating thing.

Songfacts: Well, let me ask you, then, what are some of the songs that you've written that maybe you're the most proud of that you really enjoy doing in your sets?

Joe: Some of the early ones. There was one West Texas kind of a ballad called "Because of the Wind." It kind of asked why the trees bend in that desolate part of the country, and it always comes back to they bend because of the wind.

The ones that I seem to always play are songs like "Me and Billy the Kid Never Got Along."

Songfacts: I like that one, too. Tell me about that song. How did that come about?

Joe: I always loved going to New Mexico because it was such a changing landscape going from Lubbock, which is flat - as flat as a skillet - and not a single tree, and no streams or rivers or anything. It's kind of dry cotton land. I always loved going to New Mexico, because there's a lot of magic there, especially in the stories of the Spaniards and the outlaws and all. And I was always fascinated with Billy the Kid.

One day I stopped in the Billy the Kid museum in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. I paid my admission, and went in and looked around and realized there was not a single thing in the whole museum that had anything to do with Billy the Kid. And all the accounts that I'd read of him, you really couldn't tell which account was on the level and which wasn't. So I decided to make up my own story. I always like to bring guys from other eras into the present day and follow them around and see what they would do. Kind of like what would Billy the Kid do if he grew up in the '80s and the '90s.

Songfacts: Have you ever talked to any historical scholars that have questioned your story?

Joe: Well, everybody takes it not as a biographical piece. They take it as a whimsical piece. Because I'm always giving him a whole different role. And kind of stole his girlfriend from him. So I'm always loving those kind of things. I did the same thing with St. Valentine. An Irish poet met me in Dublin one time and took me to the church where they had a vial of St. Valentine's blood in the back of this church. A pope had visited Ireland like 100 years ago and brought this vial of St. Valentine's blood as a gift to the city of Dublin and told the story of how St. Valentine, against Caesar's wish, married couples who were in love, but there was a war going on and Caesar forbade anybody to be married, because unmarried men made better warriors. But St. Valentine married them in secret, and was found out, and had his head cut off. The legend goes to where the blood met the dirt, these rose bushes grew with big thorns on them and with flowers the color of blood.

I just thought that was an amazing story, so I incorporated that story into a modern day loner guy who drove a low rider in a small town in New Mexico, and gave him the role of St. Valentine. I just followed it to see where it went. I never expected anybody to think of it as a direct correlation or anything, but it just makes for a fun story.

Songfacts: So do you think at heart you're a storyteller?

Joe: I like to tell stories. I like to take things that happened to me and things that I have witnessed and create characters and put the characters in a scene, and then I follow them around and just try to see what they would do. I did a whole album of stories like that a few years back, the record was called Letter to Laredo. It had that St. Valentine's story, and it had a story that was actually called "Letter to Laredo," a song about a guy who was on the run and was thinking back to an incident that happened. And because of the whole thing that had happened, he had to lie in order to protect the woman he loved. So that gave me a scene and the chorus was just take this letter to Laredo, to show her that he was still alive.

So yeah, I like to take things like that. Another song that was on that album was called "Ranches and Rivers." I'd been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy at the time and I took a couple of lovers that crossed the border and were found out by the girl's father, who was a bad ass rancher. And they stole away in the middle of the night in a stolen car. There's a certain kind of romance that I have in me as far as when I start dealing with characters and landscapes and everything.

Songfacts: I wanted to ask you, have you ever talked to your friend Bruce Springsteen about how similar you guys are? It almost seems like you're sort of a southern Springsteen and he's like an Easy Coast Joe Ely.

Joe: Well, we have talked about that, about the similarities. We both grew up playing in bands when we were real young. We grew up reaching a certain age where we discovered storytellers like Woody Guthrie and read a lot of the same books. We read a lot of the rambling poets, Gregory Corso and those guys. So he was in a very urban environment, and I was out in the dusty plains. So he ended up being more inspired by big city things, big city groups and a lot of soul music and stuff like that, which I didn't really have access to. So my access was more towards the country stuff.

And Townes Van Zandt was a big influence on all of us in Texas because he was a pure romantic, too, but he had this hard edge about him, and could paint a desolate picture and make an intriguing song out of it. Bruce followed the workers in mining towns and steelworker towns.

I grew up playing rock and roll. My first band in high school was just a pure balls to the wall rock and roll band. And it was later when I met Butch and Jimmie that I started seeing the other side of music, because I was so influenced by Buddy Holly. And of course he had just died when I first picked up the electric guitar.

And then Bruce was influenced by, I'm sure, Buddy Holly, too. But he was more with the big city times, more the kind of working band with Clarence Clemons and the soul stuff and Atlantic City and the boardwalk. And my influence went from West Texas. Then when I moved down to Austin, Austin was a mecca of music from all different places. So the equivalent of my later influences to Springsteen's were when I moved to Austin there was a huge Spanish music thing, with the Texas Tornadoes, with Augie Meyers and Flaco and all those guys.

Songfacts: I just met Flaco for the first time the other night. I was so amazed.

Joe: How's he doing? I'm surprised he's still alive.

Songfacts: He played with Los Lobos on their Cinco de Mayo.

Joe: Yeah. We put a band together with Flaco and two of the Los Lobos and Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm called Los Super Seven.

Songfacts: Right. I remember that group.

Joe: Actually won a Grammy in '98 for our first album together. It was quite a great experience. And it was great fun playing music and recording with those guys.

Songfacts: I kind of felt like I was in music heaven, because I was watching Los Lobos in Los Angeles on Cinco de Mayo, and I thought there couldn't be a more perfect place to be.

Joe: I know. In fact, we were going to do Cinco de Mayo two years ago with Los Super Seven. And we got together and figured it out, we were going to play about five shows together, including the Hollywood Bowl on Cinco de Mayo. And then the guy that had helped produce the record told us that we couldn't do it or he would sue us - we couldn't use the name Los Super Seven. He owned the name. And I went, Hey, we're not reforming the band and making an album and everything. The record wasn't even for sale. It kind of vanished. So we were real disappointed that we couldn't go and do that. But I guess that's somehow important to him, I don't know.

Songfacts: That would have been great.

Joe: That was really a strong influence when I was growing up. My daddy had a used clothing store in downtown Lubbock where all the migrant workers that came up from Mexico would come. Lubbock would have, in the summer, an extra 50,000 migrant workers come up and work the cotton fields - that was before machines. So whole little towns would spring up all around Lubbock that were immigrant towns, and they would always come to my daddy's used clothing store to buy work clothes. They were really cheap. It was a disabled American Veterans thrift shop.

And so I loved the Mexican workers. They brought their instruments with them and we'd just play out on the streets. That was a huge influence on me, I just loved the sound of the accordion and the bajo sexto and there'd be a couple of guys with trumpets. And it's so incredibly romantic and exciting for a kid, 10 or 11 years old, that had never been surrounded by people playing in the streets and all.

July 25, 2012. Get more at
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Comments: 2

  • Jimbo from Over ThereHeh heh. Nice stuff on The Clash. But it's the Hope and Anchor pub.
  • Boatman from Austin Via Lubbock Via OhioSaw Joe and Jesse and Lloyd and the boys many times in the early '80s in Lubbock. Incredible period-- Joe at his best rock and roll period, every bit as exciting as a Springsteen show. I was very lucky to be there at that time.
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