"I didn't like the way he cocked his hat and he wore his gun all wrong" A Joe Ely, "Me and Billy the Kid"
Heroes are hard to find, or so the saying goes, which makes it all the more important that we appreciate them when they do come around. And make no mistake about it, Joe Ely is a songwriting hero.
Maybe he didn't really set up Bill Bonney or steal the desperado's woman as the gunslinger swung from the gallows, as he brags in "Me and Billy the Kid," but it still takes a special breed of man to conduct a telephone interview from inside a pool hall --while he's shooting pool. With an, "Okay, Stubb, I'll see ya," to a departing crony, Ely enthusiastically engages the cross-country powwow as he casually runs the table.
Inspired by the writing of Jack Kerouac, Ely dropped out of high school in Lubbock, Texas, and hit the road at sixteen, jumping freight trains and working a variety of odd jobs from circus hand to fruit picker to dishwasher. The restless youth crisscrossed the country for a few years until, as he puts it, "there came a point where I realized you didn't have to jump trains to see what was goin' on."
Joining forces with two other songwriters working in the area --Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock -- Ely formed the legendary country-folk band the Flatlanders. MCA signed Ely in 1977 and took him to Nashville to record that year's Joe Ely, which created a critical stir but didn't exactly overthrow the disco madness that had taken hold in the land. His second album for MCA, 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade, was chosen one of the top albums of the Seventies by Rolling Stone.
And then came the big break. Ely was invited to England to be the opening act for four angry young men in an outfit known as the Clash. The English rockers had just released a fairly well-regarded album of their own, London Calling.
"Yeah, we did the London Calling tour with them in England," Ely recalls. "Great fun, and they're great guys. They liked the Texas gunfighter-type ballads, and they saw me as sort of being part of that. When they came to the States, it was my turn to show them a few places they wouldn't have ever heard of.
"We did great in England and Texas. The only place that was weird was L.A. I mean, these guys were writing songs about England where the unemployment rate was something like 40 percent, everyone on the dole. In Hollywood you had kids pulling up in Mercedes, interpreting these blue-collar anthems like they're pop icons or something. The Palladium turned into a war for us. The Clash fought it out, too. They hated it.
"It's kind of like what's happening to rap, from the embers of the ghetto to the limos on Sunset Strip."
When the Clash returned to their beloved London, Ely toured the States with another moderately successful English group, the Rolling Stones. Shortly thereafter, he shared a bill with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And he's been on the road ever since, holing up in his adopted home of Austin just long enough to recharge his batteries before heading back out.
Ironically, this time around Ely's taking a fellow Austin guitar slinger along with him -- David Holt, whose previous employment was as designated ax-man for Miami's own Mavericks, Ely's stablemates on MCA's Nashville roster. Both the Mavs' From Hell to Paradise and Ely's Love and Danger were overseen by MCA poobah Tony Brown, with whom Ely was hanging out the night the Kendall cowpokes got signed. Small world.
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While Ely's Stephen Talkhouse gig will be his first Miami appearance, his tour mate, Lucinda Williams, is no stranger to the Collins Avenue nightclub. Her first appearance there, with Blue Rodeo on October 26 of last year, was one of the best half dozen or so concerts of 1992, and introduced Miami audiences to the Southern songstress's clear, no-frills voice and direct, soulful lyrics.
Lucinda Williams and Joe Ely on the same bill. Small world. Sweet Old World.
Joe Ely and Lucinda Williams perform at 9:00 p.m. Saturday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $15 and $20.
Ely toured with another moderately successful English group, the Rolling Stones.