Texas-based songwriter Joe Ely will play acoustic concert in Park City
Ryan Summerlin March 1, 2013
In the middle of a telephone interview with The Park Record from his home in Austin, Texas, award-winning singer and songwriter Joe Ely paused and said, "I just looked out my window and there are half-a-dozen wild turkeys just lounging on my front yard."
The musician said a friend told him that a group of turkeys wasn’t called a flock, but a tribe.
"He told me that turkeys travel in tribes," Ely said. "That’s interesting."
Ely, who will play the Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, March 6, was talking about his most recent album, "Satisfied at Last."
Critics have said the disc is the pinnacle of Ely’s discography, and he agreed.
"I don’t think I’ll ever do quite another record like this, and I’m glad I finished it," he said. "It wasn’t what I set out to do, though.
"I didn’t start writing that album from the ground up," he said. "I was working on a whole different set of songs, and one day, I looked at them and thought, ‘This record has taken a completely different turn.’"
With his newfound resolve, Ely went back and finished a collection of songs that he had partially started.
"I found this bunch that seemed to fit together," he said. "They were all about living and dying and human mortality and how all that comes together."
Thanks to the title track, and a song called "Mockingbird Hill," Ely thought about the cycle that comes into people’s lives.
"’Mockingbird Hill’ is about a waitress in a truck stop in Texarkana, Texas," he said. "She has lived there her whole life and her family before her had lived in the same place throughout the generations.
"I began wondering about those who have the courage to break the cycles and how brave it is for some of us to go out and face this cruel world," he said. "All that stuff led up to the record and it was fun to work on."
Ely became fascinated with music when he was living in Amarillo, Texas.
"When I was about eight years old my family was good friends with a man named Jimmy Meeks, who built violins," Ely said. "Sometimes we would go to his house for Sunday dinner and I would go back to the woodshop where he was making these beautiful violins.
"He would pick one up and play these beautiful melodies, which was magic to me," he said. "At that moment on, I was just obsessed with music. We had a piano in our house and I would always pick out melodies on it."
A year later, Ely’s parents bought him a violin and he played it up until he was 14.
"At that time, we moved to Lubbock, and it was right after Buddy Holly died," Ely remembered. "So all the kids were learning how to play Fender Stratocasters with reverb amplifiers."
That’s when Ely’s focus shifted.
"I sold my violin for a guitar and started to play," he said. "I was fascinated how I could manipulate the sound."
After forming his first band, Ely knew he wanted to be a musician, however, he learned a few years later just how hard it was to write a good song.
That came when he met Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore a few years before the three would come together as the Flatlanders in 1970.
"I had written songs, but up to the point when I met Butch and Jimmie, none of the songs I had done thrilled me anymore, because they were writing amazingly rich songs that were not only interesting to play and listen to, but also interestingly crafted," Ely said. "I realized then that songs were more than whamming out a few chords and screaming out some words. All of a sudden there was another magic to discover and that made me dig into the process more."
So, Ely took off on an adventure that could have been taken from the pages of a Jack Kerouac novel.
"I left home and jumped on trains to see where songs came from," Ely said. "I visited the places where Woody Guthrie had been and went to other areas where guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins and other blues guys played. I learned how songs got written and the many different ways they could come to life."
Even today, Ely, who was honored in 2007 with an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing, said he has to find the essence of a song before he can feel good about it.
"In fact, not 30 minutes ago, I was back in my studio wrestling with a song, trying to pin it down," he said with a laugh. "I’m very suspicious of songs that just take five minutes to write. I wish I could do that, but I am suspicious of that whole concept."
Still, there are times when a song will just appear.
"The idea comes and then the melody emerges and then you have to bend it, shape it and cook it and bake it," he said. "But that is rare. I throw away 10 songs for every one I keep. My wastebasket is full of songs that I thought may miraculously show their faces, but turned out to be dead ends."
To expand his songwriting, Ely has made it a point to play with various artists including rockers, punks, country artists and folk musicians throughout his career. While that may seem strange to some, Ely said a good song always comes from the same vein.
"The first time I went to England I went on the road with Merle Haggard and the Strangers for two weeks and then did a week with the Clash," Ely said. "While those two bands were totally different as night and day, there was something consistent within their philosophies.
"Merle talked about the ups-and-downs of life and the pain of being in prison, and the Clash talked about the social ills of London at the time," Ely explained. "So the thread of communicating via song, even though the approach was different, came from the same place in the soul."
When Ely plays Park City, he will give audiences the opportunity to hear as many of his songs as possible.
"I like to play different things every night," he said. "I plan to play old stuff, but I’ve been working on some new songs that I want to do."
Ely, who will be accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Bev Plankenhorn, promised songs from "Satisfied at Last" and said he will pull out something different all the way back to his early records.
"Bev plays the dobro, guitar, mandolin and fiddle," Ely said. "He’s a great person to work with."
Although Ely is pleased with "Satisfied at Last," he is always working on new songs.
The challenge these days is finding alternative ways to distribute the tunes.
"I don’t know what to call a groups of songs anymore," he said. "I don’t know if I should call them albums or records, because those are going away, because everyone is getting their music collection digitally. And to tell you the truth, I’m working on a set that has only three songs in it.
"Maybe I’ll call it a suite or something like that," he said. "Or maybe I’ll call them a herd of songs or a flock of songs. Or maybe a tribe of songs, like a tribe of turkeys, like the ones that are on my front yard."
Texas singer and songwriter Joe Ely will perform at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., on Wednesday, March 6, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $29 through $44 and are available at www.parkcityshows.com.