Joe Ely hates feeling boxed in. In younger days, he hopped freights, hitched rides and even worked in the circus. That urge to break through borders has remained a part of Ely and his roots-driven music for nearly 25 years.
So it seems only fitting that even while on the road in support of his new "Twistin' in the Wind" LP, the Texas troubadour insists on an escape hatch.
En route to San Francisco last week, Ely and his entourage spent 15 hours driving across the desert. During a stopover in Tucson--where the temperature was a toasty 105--the veteran singer-songwriter-guitarist explained how he managed to find a cool spot.
"I have a [Harley] on the back of the bus, so I pulled it down and have been riding around town," said an obviously delighted Ely during a phone interview. "I do enjoy that kind of solitary freedom. It's kinda funny; I wound up finding a pretty comfortable place to call you from here at the county courthouse. It ain't so bad indoors."
The 51-year-old Ely, who was born in Amarillo, raised in fabled Lubbock and now lives in Austin, has been sharing his wanderlust and affection for the Lone Star State since releasing his solo debut in 1977. Over the course of 13 albums, a spicy, nourishing mix of folk, rock, country, blues and Tex-Mex has flavored his tales of busted dreams, romantic longing and desperadoes.
Ely--who begins a three-night Southland swing with his four-piece band Tuesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--is a vivid storyteller with an eye for meaningful detail. His lyrical canvas roams from desolate plains, endless blue skies and snake-like rivers to whiskey-stained honky-tonks and dusty border towns. Listening to his mini-epics, you can almost feel the sweltering heat or smell the aroma of a plate of spicy homemade tamales.
Writing and singing about Texas just comes naturally to Ely.
"I moved to L.A. for a few months in the late-'70s, and I did find it to be really exciting," he recalled. "But I couldn't write any songs. The things I wrote about just seemed empty . . . they had no substance to 'em. So I figured it was time to return to where I came from. And don't you know it, as soon as I got back on some desolate stretch of highway, I started writing songs like crazy."
Imagery, the type that leaves a lasting impression, is a trademark of the Ely songcraft.
"My favorite songs of all time are the ones that paint a picture in your mind as you're listening," he said. "Like that kind of everyman-turned-killer on a rampage in Robert Earl Keen's 'When Kindness Fails.' That's my favorite example of that." (Keen, a fellow Texas singer-songwriter, comes to town for his own Coach House appearance July 14.)
"When I start writing a song, it could be about people anywhere. But then I try to give the characters a setting--a mood, a place and time--so it brings them to life. Because the less you know about who they are, the harder it is to identify with them."
Ely continues in that storytelling vein on "Twistin' in the Wind," released last month on MCA-Nashville: A waitress takes no guff from a group of ornery cowboys in the good-natured "Nacho Mama," while a Louisiana gravel-pit laborer has a serious case of the blues in "Workin' for the Man." In the more personal "It's a Little Like Love," Ely uses auto racing as a metaphor for a troubled relationship: "It's a little like a stock car race/You never stay in line/You just dodge flyin' steel and the rubber of the wheels/And try to make it to the finish line."
A harder rockin' follow-up to 1995's intimate, acoustic-based "Letter to Laredo," "Twistin' in the Wind" features a dozen tracks, all written or co-written by Ely. It also reunites him with several key ax men from his earlier recordings, including David Grissom, Jesse Taylor, Mitch Watkins, steel-guitar/Dobro ace Lloyd Maines and Spanish flamenco guitarist Teye.
"It really is a homecoming record, where I've come back to every kind of music I was ever influenced by," Ely said. "Not only that, all these guitarists who've put their own stamp on my work helped create a real loose, celebratory vibe. I mean, the mood was so relaxed and harmonious. Plus, we recorded the songs at this studio out in the country, about 30 miles from Austin, so there wasn't the high-pressure environment of a corporate studio.
"I really learned a lot too, in terms of approaching how to do a record. I feel like I now can really just get down to work, with an understanding of how to make my musicians comfortable and confident. Heck, it's not like we're creating some monumental record or masterpiece. It's all about music and songs that feel right, that sound natural and ring true."
Another recent homecoming of sorts reunited Ely with longtime pals Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. The three musicians formed the core of the Flatlanders, a group whose legend far exceeds its recorded output. Originally released only on eight-track in 1972, the group's one recording was reissued in 1990 on Rounder Records, fittingly titled "More a Legend Than a Band." Twenty-five years later, the Flatlanders re-formed to contribute the ballad "South Wind of Summer" to the "Horse Whisperer" soundtrack.
"The thought just never dawned on us that we could do another Flatlanders record," Ely said with a laugh. "Then, when we all got together to write new material for [Robert] Redford's movie, there was just this huge amount of magic happening--and it was like there was no work to it. We had such a great time that we said, 'Man, we should just make another record.' After my tour is over, we just might look at a Flatlanders project. I know all of us really want to."
Though Ely's authentic brand of west Texas roots music has been generally lauded by critics and his progressive-country comrades, his commercial imprint has been limited to a cult-size following. Still, he said he has no regrets.
"I played music for 15 years before I ever recorded anything," he said, "so I've never really approached this thing as a commercial venture. Honestly, I've never connected with the world of . . . radio, marketing and all of that. I look at each of my albums as kind of a record--or map--pointing to a certain period of time in my life. I've got the freedom to make the kinds of records that I want to make, and believe me, that's a great freedom to have."
* Joe Ely performs Tuesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15-$17. (949) 496-8930. Also: Wednesday, the Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros, Solana Beach. 8 p.m. $10 (619) 481-9022; Thursday, the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 7:30 p.m. $15 (310) 276-6168. (The Troubadour performance will be broadcast live on the Internet at http://www.mca.com, http://www.mca-nashville.com and http://www.lalive.com).