Payin' Dues: Joe Ely

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Texan singer and guitarist Joe Ely honed his craft in The Flatlanders before going solo in 1977. A close friend of Joe Strummer’s, he sang backing vocals on The Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go in 1981. He’s written two books, 2007’s Bonfire Of Roadmaps and 2014’s Reverb: An Odyssey. Panhandle Rambler, his first album in four years, is his soundtrack to life in his home state.

Tell us about Panhandle Rambler.
Panhandle Rambler was a revisiting of the place where my life and my love of music began. It’s the square northernmost top of Texas. I extended it to include the westernmost part of the state as well. It’s a landscape of great emptiness and hard beauty. It’s also a spiritual place. There has always been a danger aspect to it as well, with the unpredictable weather, constant wind and critters of all sizes and shapes that are best left alone. In the last 20 or so years, the drug wars and powerful cartels have added another element more dangerous than all the normal elements put together.

Songs like Here’s To The Weary really evoke a time and place.
I grew up in Amarillo on a street between the old Route 66 and the Rock Island and the Santa Fe rail yards. I thought of all the musicians that followed Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles and tried to uncover the passion that drove their souls between those faraway destinations.

The violin was traded for a Stratocaster…

Panhandle Rambler is your first album in four years – what have you been doing during that time?
I’ve written about 35 songs, published a novel, released another record of experimental tracks that I recorded with an old Apple II+ computer and a four-track recorder, and also released Where Is My Love, a duet with Linda Rondstadt that was recorded in the 80s.

Are you from a musical background?
There was always a piano in our old house in Amarillo. My parents gave me a violin when I was eight years old which I played until I discovered rock’n’roll. The violin was then traded for a Stratocaster.

**So rock’n’roll changed everything?
**Yeah. Seeing Jerry Lee Lewis playing on a flatbed trailer in a dust storm in Amarillo did that.

**Who were The Flatlanders?
**The Flatlanders are long-time friends from Lubbock who were instrumental in making me realise the magic that’s created when a song comes to life.

Panhandle Rambler is out now on Rack ’Em