Joe Ely, 66, came up in Lubbock, Texas, hung out with the Clash in London and rarely let an experience sit without writing about it.
Ely's story-songs about trains, waitresses and wandering reflect 40-plus years of moving and observing. His travels have inspired countless songs and the 2007 book "Bonfire of Roadmaps," a collection of his writings from the road.
On Wednesday, Ely will arrive at Harlow's nightclub, where he will perform in a duo with slide guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn.
The storytelling in Ely's lyrics has been as steady as his music has been diverse. His embrace of traditional country, honky-tonk, rock and Tex-Mex renders him hard to define, except as a fine singer-songwriter rooted in folk tradition and seasoned by the West Texas winds and the family business of railroad work.
Ely's styles change to suit his collaborations. The most notable of those have been with supergroups Los Super Seven (with members of Los Lobos) and the Flatlanders, his Americana-before-it-was-called-that trio with fellow Lubbock-reared musicians Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
The Flatlanders recorded a 1972 album that essentially was shelved by the studio. The group disbanded, but its members still played together occasionally. That 1972 album finally saw wider release in 1991 after its members established respected solo careers with the apt title "More a Legend Than a Band." The trio followed with several studio and live albums.
Ely also has performed with Bruce Springsteen, whose fictional Marys and Wendys share traits with Ely's Lorettas and Leonas. Early in his solo career, Ely befriended and toured with British punk legends the Clash. He also provided backing vocals on "Should I Stay or Should I Go" from their "Combat Rock" album.
Though never much of a commercial success, Ely long ago won over music critics and, later, alt-country aficionados. They discovered Ely and the Flatlanders after digging past Ryan Adams and Wilco into older alternative country. Ely even joined Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy's former band, Uncle Tupelo, on a cover of Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?"
That single collaboration offers head-spinning implications about traditional, alt- and outlaw country, and what success means in the music business.
In 2011, Ely released the acclaimed "Satisfied at Last," an album as reflective as its title suggests, but imbued with Ely's characteristic spunk and restlessness. Satisfaction, Ely suggests throughout the album, is hard-won. Or as he sings on the title track: "I didn't come here with nothing, just a slap on the ass/You can bet when I'm leavin', I will be satisfied at last."
Reached by phone at his home outside Austin, Texas, an affable and expansive Ely discussed his latest record and longtime musical associations.
Has the road always been a creative source for you?
The road has always been in everything I do, because there is just something about moving on the road that makes me feel like I am at home. I grew up in Amarillo (Ely's family moved to Lubbock when he was 11). My grandfather worked on the Rock Island Railroad, and the railroad came right through our backyard. My daddy later worked for the railroad, and I remember making trips on trains when I was a kid. Going up the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco that's a great memory of kind of the magic of trains.
What were some of the inspirations for "Satisfied at Last"?
Lyrically, there's a thinking about the whole cycle of birth and death and the whole kind of taking everything as it comes, day to day. I think that's what kind of emerged as a theme. There is a song (on the album) called "Live Forever" (by Texas singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver).
One of the songs (also on "Satisfied") is "Mockingbird Hill." I tell the story of this waitress I overheard telling her story at a truck stop in Texarkana. I kind of got as much as I could and then filled in the rest, about her life and the day-to-day thing of truck drivers coming in and hitting on her.
With "Live Forever," you cover a song by a fellow Texan. Is there a kinship among Texas musicians that doesn't exist between Texas musicians and, say, Nashville musicians?
There is kind of a really long tradition in Texas: of driving cattle across the country, and the whole campfire thing and telling stories in song.
There is this camaraderie. All the songs I have recorded that have been written by other people have been by people I have been face to face with in a room. Robert Earl Keen, Tom Russell, and my Flatlanders amigos it has been face to face, swapping songs.
Do you think of yourself as a solo artist or as a member of the Flatlanders?
Well, we never even to this day consider ourselves a band. We just think of ourselves as old friends.
When we first got to know each other, we moved into a house together. Day and night, someone was always up and someone was asleep, so it was one of those houses that was really vibrating.
We were only together as the Flatlanders for eight months, but dozens of songs were written. We put out this little record that completely did not go anywhere. It was not really a country record. It probably would have done great in San Francisco at the time, but it fell flat in the country market. It is funny how this record still finds an audience, in Europe and the United States. Every three or four years, we still get together, and we just got invited to play at Carnegie Hall.
Here it is 40 years later, and we still enjoy playing together as much as or more than ever.
You do not fit easily into any musical category. Can you describe your sound?
If I had a huge hit in the '70s, I might have had to keep the sound exactly the same. But I never have focused on trying to make a big commercial hit. The sound always depends on the band I am with at the time.
Bruce Springsteen guested on your 1995 album "Letter to Laredo" and you have performed together several times. Your songs and his seem to cover similar ground, though you are geographically far apart.
Yeah, New Jersey and Lubbock, Texas, are vastly different. But we both grew up always being in a band and we read the same books and liked the same things.
Back in the late 1970s or early '80s, my band and I were playing in New York, and he invited me to do a couple of benefits with him. I think we just kind of figured we have a lot of the same tastes. He liked Buddy Holly and Woody Guthrie.
You toured with the Clash in the late 1970s. Did you have musical affinity with those guys?
Our musical styles had nothing to do with each other. (laughs). They came to a show I did in London we used to get a lot of radio play there and they invited me out and showed me around London. They were recording "London Calling," and we just sort of hung around.
I found out Joe Strummer loved old Marty Robbins songs, like "Streets of Laredo." When they first came to the United States, I arranged for them to tour Laredo, El Paso and Lubbock. They didn't want to play Dallas or Houston, but all these places they had heard about in songs. They were a little disappointed in West Texas. They thought it would still have swinging doors and horses tied up to a pole on the street.
Then they invited me to sing on "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" I sang all the Spanish parts.
I am really sorry Joe Strummer isn't with us anymore (Strummer died in 2002). We had talked about going to Mexico and recording together. That taught me a lesson: When you talk about wanting to do something, you should do it right now.
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter: CarlaMeyerSB Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.