C&I talks with singer-songwriter Joe Ely about the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's latest exhibit Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s and his upcoming album The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle.
Cowboys & Indians: You’re well-represented here in the Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s exhibit. What sort of memories does it stir for you?
Joe Ely: Lots of memories, really. I see on the walls here all the people that I ran into, played with — before we made records and after. Everything here reflects all of that. So they’re kind of bittersweet memories. It was hard traveling, and not always getting rewarded for your work. But I’m glad that the people that saved all of these things did so, because otherwise we wouldn’t be enjoying them.
C&I: The exhibit emphasizes how Austin, Texas, became a Mecca for artists like yourself, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and many others during the 1970s. What made Austin so special during that period?
Joe: [Laughs.] During the ’70s, the appeal of it was cheap rent, lots of places to play. You didn’t need much to survive. Everybody knew everybody, and somebody would always cook a pot of beans, or a bowl of rice, so you’d have something to eat. Everybody just supported each other. All the musicians helped each other out.
C&I: Outlaws & Armadillos includes the clown costume you wore during your days with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. That must have been quite an odd career detour for you.
Joe: Well, I kind of accidentally got that job. I was in New York at the time, and I was just watching them put up the tents for the animals when somebody came up and handed me a sledgehammer and said, “Go help those guys put that tent together.” So I wound up getting hired by the circus. And I worked with them every stop in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Until I got kicked and broke three ribs.
C&I: Say what?
Joe: I had a couple of horses that did a little trick thing, with a rider doing flips and stuff off a springboard onto the back of the horse. That day, we had picked up some new guys, and they got the horses out of order — and the horses freaked out. They kicked me as they were coming out of the center ring to go backstage.
C&I: Maybe that was God’s way of telling you to go back to making music?
Joe: [Laughs.] Probably. It happened in Houston. I could have either gone on with the circus to Florida, or come back to Lubbock. But since I had a couple of broken ribs and no car, I had to hitchhike from Houston to Lubbock. That’s where I put a band together, and we recorded the Lubbock tapes during that time right after my circus days.
C&I: And now we will get the opportunity to hear those original recordings on your new album, The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle. This is music the Joe Ely Band recorded in 1974 and ’78, right?
Joe: Yes. I have looked at that period as one of the major crossroads of my life. In Lubbock, there were not any listening rooms or anything. If you wanted to play music, you had to play out at the dance clubs, the honky-tonks. And so I put a bunch of songs together that were dance songs, and then we started playing the honky-tonks. The Lubbock Tapes is a backwards picture of when the band first started. Lloyd Maines, who was in the band, had kept them after all these years. He was moving to another house, and he found that box of tapes. He called me up and said, “Hey you better come and get these tapes. There’s some pretty good stuff on them.” I hadn’t even heard them until just a few months ago, when we started working on them for this record.
C&I: Were you surprised by anything you heard all these years later?
Joe: Actually, I was shocked by how tight the band was. Sometimes in those old West Texas honky-tonks, you played six hours a night. Like, we’d play from 9 o’clock at night until 3 in the morning. They could go as late as they wanted to because they didn’t sell
alcohol — because Lubbock was dry. Of course, there was always a guy parked out in back of the club selling half-pints of gin out of the trunk of his car. Kind of rough-and-tumble days back there.
ON THE RECORD: The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle is set for an August 17, release by Rack ’Em Records.
AT THE MUSEUM: The Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s exhibit is set to continue through February 14, 2021, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
From the August/September 2018 issue.