It seems unlikely for one person to stand at the intersection of so much history like the plot to some ham-fisted novel. But for those who know Ely's music, it's stranger still that he's not more of a legend himself.
"I don't see why Joe hasn't been up around Springsteen levels," says Butch Hancock, Ely's longtime bandmate in West Texas' roots patriarchs The Flatlanders. "He's such a phenomenal performer, and he's worked as hard as anybody I know on the planet."
The singer-songwriter and guitarist, raised in Buddy Holly's hometown of Lubbock, has crossed the Atlantic more times than Captain Ahab, released 14 solo albums, plus six more as a member of The Flatlanders and the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven. In the next month, he'll publish his first book, the Beat-influenced travelogue Bonfire of Roadmaps, and release an album of new material, Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch.
The source of Ely's Olympian drive?
"Lubbock was just a tiny town, a little oasis in a big old nothingness, and I spent every bit of my waking time just trying to figure out ways of getting out of there," Ely says, speaking from Martha, Texas, where he's visiting his daughter. "But I really loved all that sky. You gotta fill it up with something, and music is a pretty good thing to fill up emptiness with."
Now 59 and living in Austin, Ely (pronounced like "wheelie") began filling that sky early on with Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison records, later playing in bands as a teenager. But it wasn't until after high school, when he befriended Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, that the music really flowered. "I was kind of in a different world than Butch and Jimmie were, playing honky-tonks on the outskirts of town," he says. "They introduced me to the folk world and the singer-songwriter world."
As The Flatlanders, the trio recorded an eerily windswept cycle of country-folk tunes in 1972. No more than several dozen copies were released and only on eight-track but subsequent reissues have been credited with kick-starting the Americana/alt-country movement.
After that first Flatlanders album fizzled, Ely dove into his solo career. Although all of his albums shuffle rockabilly, Tex-Mex, folk, and country, each one bears an overall tone. This year's model, Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch, is painted in crisp Texas blues but ranges from the sweet "Little Blossom" to a caustic rumbler about the well-heeled and inconsiderate titled "So You Wanna be Rich?" Then there's "Jesse Justice," the kind of lilting country-rocker that Mick Jagger only wishes he could still write.
Ely's voice sounds great on Happy Songs: a razor with a silver edge that belies his gentle speaking voice. But while other rootsy singer-songwriters of Ely's age and stature have been acclaimed for craftiness and literacy including Hancock, whose sly compositions have been a staple of Ely's repertoire Ely's own cinematic storytelling seems to have been overshadowed by that voice. Lyrically, what he does better than just about anyone is blend the earthy with the mythic. "Me and Billy the Kid," from 1987, imagines the famous outlaw caught in a love triangle, while 1995's "Saint Valentine" concerns a sad-sack patron saint who "drove a Continental with a headlight out and a dent in the side."
There is at least one place on Earth where the full scope of Ely's artistry has been appreciated. Ely recalls his band's first trip to London in 1977. "We were just dumfounded that we were in the Top 10 of the charts, and we were attracting huge crowds. We wondered why it was like that in London, but not in Nashville. It was probably that the guitars were a little too rock 'n' roll for country at that time."
But those guitars weren't too loud for Brits in the thick of the punk explosion, and among Ely's new fans he counted The Clash, who saw him play at London's Venue club. Ely and The Clash Joe Strummer, in particular quickly bonded over a mutual love of Buddy Holly, Sonny "I Fought the Law" Curtis, the Beats, and the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, resulting in joint tours of the States and UK, the latter of which yielded Live Shots, Ely's wiry live masterpiece from '80. "I thought that they were an incredible band, and Strummer had an amazing sense of lyrics," Ely says. "I was glad to get to know them."
Back home, Ely never achieved pop stardom, but he enjoys a committed cult following as a solo artist and Flatlander as well as the esteem of his peers, including Springsteen, who appeared on Ely's Letter to Laredo. He even won a Grammy in 1999 with Los Super Seven, though presenter Faith Hill mispronounced his name.
Ely has brushed fame many more times than your average nonfictional character, if not quite achieved it himself. Fame, however, doesn't seem to have been the point of his journey.
Once, around age 20, Ely and a friend set out for the East Coast, jumping trains just to watch the leaves change color. "By the time we got up to New England, all the leaves had fallen off the trees and we were freezing to death," Ely says. "I guess I just always wanted to see what was on the other side of the horizon."