Jan 22, 2009 Joe Ely is an affable, relaxed guy with a slow smile, a youthful demeanor, and a mean guitar. The singer/songwiter/storyteller/guitarist chatted for a bit Thursday afternoon before a performance at the Prior-Jolleck Hall at the Antilles School.
Ely's speech is almost as lyrical as his music, with a faint drawl. Smiling often, he tells a few stories before getting on stage. To hear Ely talk, is to hear a story.
"I started on the violin when I was eight,," he says, "and then I discovered the steel guitar, and that was cooler. I never liked the violin much."
He is just getting warmed up.
Woody Guthrie is one of Ely's idols. He says he was given a rare opportunity when a granddaughter of Guthrie's came across an unfinished songbook of children's song Woody had written.
"She asked me if I'd finish them, and, with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, we did, about eight or nine years ago. We just recorded what we thought Woody would have sung, and it sounded right."
The Antilles students 6th to 10th graders fill the auditorium. Ely starts to the stage and turns and laughs,
"I've never done this before, by myself before an auditorium of school kids."
Relaxed on a stool, Ely picks up his spiffy Taylor T-5 guitar, smiles at his audience, and asks, "Well, how's everybody doin'? Are you wondering' where songs come from?"
He doesn't wait for an answer.
"There's no rules," he says. "It's part of going out and looking at the world. We each have a different way of seeing things."
Ely is strumming his guitar as he talks.
"When I was a kid, I caught rides from Texas to the Mississippi, Memphis, Toledo, on to New York. I met a lot of people and I put them in my song about New York, 'Silver City,' where I got mugged."
He sings the song, mugging and all.
"New York wasn't what I expected," he says.
He tells the students about making songs in the desert.
"Traveling in the desert is lonesome, it's huge, from Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. You can feel the ancestors who lived there, early settlers, Indians who came over from Russia thousands of years ago."
Ely strums his guitar showing how melody can emphasize a mood, a description of place. He talks about Guthrie, how he worked for most of his life before he finally got recognition for his songs. The kids don't know Guthrie, but when Ely tells them Bob Dylan learned from him, they nod.
Ely sings "Letter to Laredo," a charged lover's lament from a jail cell:
Love will make a free man a prisoner,
Will make an honest man lie.
Love can be tough, love can be tender,
It's only an alibi.
He's got the kids' attention now, they are rapt.
Ely tells them a bit about Lubbock, about the Dixie Chicks, says he knew Natalie from a child.
"Her daddy played steel guitar for me in my band."
In answer to questions later, Ely tells the kids the first trip to New York was, "terrible, unpleasant." He says "Now that I've been on David Letterman, it's all different, and having won a Grammy doesn't hurt, either. You have to be prepared," he laughs.
"Do any of you have any songs in you, any stories?" he asks.
At first, there's silence, then with urging from teacher Willie Wilson, hands go up. A few say they are interested in music. He tells them the advantages of the Internet.
"You don't even really have to know how to play an instrument to write a song, now."
But, somehow, you know his heart isn't in this advice. He then tells them to pursue music, or whatever they are looking for, but "to be the best at it."
Then, a question from the back.
"Have you ever been in jail?"
"Yes, I didn't like it. I wrote 'Letter to Laredo.'"
Before saying good by, he says, "I'm from the states, but let's give our new president a big hand." The auditorium bursts with cheers and applause.
Ely appeared Wednesday as part of Arts Alive's Concerts in the Garden Series at Tillett Gardens. He is part of the great tradition of Lubbock artists, who include such greats as Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings. Along with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ely formed the legendary Flatlanders, who have released a number of highly acclaimed albums.
He says of his Tillett performance: "It was great, being outside. I was suppose to play for an hour and 10 minutes, but I wound up playing two and a half hours!"
Polly Watts, an Arts Alive board member, and a musician herself, arranged for Ely to perform at Antilles. She said the public schools were closed today for a professional day. Watts and her husband, Fred, perform as Harmony Dem'.
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