Joe Ely Maps Out the Flatlanders, Songwriting and Recording With Uncle Tupelo
Of all the clichés of sex, drugs and rock & roll (and any other genre you could name), chemistry is surely greatest, but it has the advantage of being true. There's really no other way to explain what happens with the greatest of bands, and the Flatlanders -- featuring the three distinct voices and talents of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely -- has become a four decades-long testament to that truth.
Joe Ely is the youngest of those Lubbock, Texas legends, and though he's staring down the barrel of an AARP membership, he's still on the road, still making music with his friends and still recording some of the best songs of his career. A romantic, a realist, a rock & roller and a humane and observant storyteller, Ely (backed by young guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn) returns to St. Louis for a show on Saturday, October 27 at Off Broadway. He told us the story of the Flatlanders' recently unearthed Odessa Tapes, his growth as a songwriter and how he crossed paths with Uncle Tupelo in Austin, Texas.
Roy Kasten: The Flatlanders' recordings that have now been released as The Odessa Tapes were lost for 40 years. Did you even have a memory of the session?
Joe Ely: I did. I remember driving from Lubbock to Odessa, about 130 miles, getting down there right around dark. I remember this little concrete building, looked like a welder's shop, way out on the outskirts of town, in the middle of some pump jacks in the oil fields. I remember recording all night and walking out at sunrise. We recorded 14 songs, and I don't think we even listened back to anything. We just recorded a song and then another song. I think that was the first time all of the Flatlanders had recorded together. I recorded four songs with Jimmie Dale Gilmore with Buddy Holly's father before that, but that's long lost, and we don't expect to see those.
But we didn't expect to see this tape again. It was presented as a demo, for a guy named Shelby Singleton in Nashville, who had just bought the Sun label, and he was looking for demos. We just recorded the songs we had been playing in our living room in Lubbock. All we did was play music, morning till night, and friends would stop by, and we would put songs together. We didn't take it as a big deal. The tape made its way to Nashville and we wound up there making our first album, which included a lot of those songs.
So we just never thought about it again. It just sat in a closet until my friend Lloyd Maines, a steel guitar player and record producer, who played in my band for about ten years, called me up and said he'd found this tape. He had hard time finding a machine to play it on. He told me, "It's really good." I said, "Lloyd, there's no way that tape could be any good." He challenged me to listen to it. I was shocked. It sounded like it was recorded in a great studio yesterday. And it was recorded in 1972, in Odessa, Texas, which was 400 miles away from anywhere that would have a decent studio, in those days, there were hardly any studios in Texas.
It survived and was in good shape, but before we could hear it, we had to find a 3-track tape machine, so we could hear all the tracks. It took several months to find a machine that could play it. Chet Atkins had one in Nashville but he wouldn't let me use it! He said, "I'm sorry, but I've got too many projects on this machine. I'm real selfish about it." But Capitol Records had one in Los Angeles, four of them in their basement. They'd recorded those Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra records on that machine. At one time it was the future of recording. A stereo orchestra in the background and a third speaker in the middle where the voice came out.
You're not tempted to go back to Lubbock and start rummaging through closets?
No. I know there's another recording that I did when I was 15 or 16, with my early rock & roll band, four or five songs. I don't know where that tape is either. But aside from that and the recording with Buddy Holly's father, that's about it. Nobody had tape machines back then.