Joe Ely’s stolen guitar returned, nearly taken again

There are few people so well suited to pull a song out of a recent sequence of surreal events than Texas country rocker Joe Ely.

Ely had a one-of-a-kind custom guitar stolen from him 27 years ago, and he recently learned that it had turned up. On Tuesday night at a gig in San Francisco, the instrument was returned to him by Matt Wright of Merced, Calif., who’d bought it at a pawn shop years earlier, discovering later who the rightful owner was.

“It was amazing,” Ely, 66, told Pop & Hiss on Wednesday. “The guy came and brought the guitar yesterday, and presented it to me onstage last night” during his performance at the club Slim’s. “After he told the whole story onstage, we figured out where the guitar had been stolen, and it was only about three blocks from Slim’s.”


The stolen guitar was a solid-body electric made for him by Austin, Texas, guitar maker Ted Newman-Jones, who, at Ely’s request, created an instrument with a billiards theme that was painted pool table felt blue and with pool ball-shaped inlays on the neck.

Ely said that when Wright presented it to him, it looked “exactly the same” as when he’d seen it last, “right down to the broken hinge on the case.”

“We were all exhilarated,” Ely said, “we were dancing around and passing the guitar back and forth.”

The celebratory mood lasted all of nine hours, until Ely, his touring partner Jeff Plankenhorn and road manager Don Bowles stopped for breakfast Wednesday morning at a Denny’s restaurant in Valljeo en route to a performance Wednesday night in Sacramento. His tour also includes Southland stops on March 16 at the Mint in Los Angeles and on March 17 at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown.

“It was a real nice little Denny’s,” Ely said, “perfectly perched up on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. Jeff went to get something from the car and found the window had been smashed and somebody had stolen two bags of equipment, our computers, iPads, all the stuff we use for business, and all the money.

“So here we are, starting all over again, like I’ve done so many times,” he said.

The Newman guitar, however, was not taken a second time. “That guitar was real close to the window,” he said, noting that Denny’s management let his party copy its parking lot surveillance video as evidence to submit with the report they filed with the Vallejo Police Department. “It barely escaped. Unfortunately, Jeff lost his passport along with all our computers.”

Back in 1986 when the Newman guitar was stolen, along with a 1957 Fender Stratocaster that Ely says “is worth a small fortune,” thieves took all the band’s gear as well as the road manager’s briefcase with contracts, hotel reservations and other business paperwork.

Now, Ely said, his manager has copies of all the documents and touring information contained on the stolen computers, but Ely admitted the loss of devices containing personal and professional data is troubling.

“That makes me kinda nervous,” he said. “I’m just glad nobody got hurt.”

Might this find its way into the songbook of the man who wrote “Me and Billy the Kid”?

“I’ve got something that’s starting to kick around,” he said.

He also looks philosophically at the episode, which appears to prove the axiom that “No good deed goes unpunished.”

“It seems my whole life runs in long circles,” he said, noting the recent release of “The Odessa Tapes,” a collection of recordings he made decades ago with the Flatlanders, his band with fellow singer-songwriters Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. “For 35 years, those tapes had been sitting in a closet in Lubbock. Everything seems to kind of go in a great big circle. When you’re out there playing music, everything kinda comes back to you in one form or another.”

The difference this time around is that he and Plankenhorn have their instruments and equipment with them to move forward with their next performance.

“Thank goodness we can still play this music,” he said. “We got knocked down a little bit by this, but at least we can get onstage tonight and play and let it all loose.”


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