At a road-seasoned 73, not much fazes stoic Texan Joe Ely these days, not even the pandemic.
He’s maintained a sense of humor about it, even calling it the “pindammit,” and he’s found inspiration in it.
Issued on his own label, Rack ‘Em Records, his new lockdown-composed album “Love in the Midst of Mayhem” makes metaphorical sense of the world via thoughtful, hushed tracks such as “A Man and His Dog,” “Don’t Worry About It” and “Soon All Your Sorrows Will Be Gone.”
Sheltering in place with his wife outside of Austin, he’s busied himself daily with a plethora of projects, including the audiobook version of his recent autobiographical novel “Reverb”; an upcoming reunion album from his all-star band The Flatlanders; and other potential releases, culled from vintage unearthed tapes, one actually featuring his high school cover band The Rox Limited.
“But just getting started on all this was the hardest part,” he says.
When COVID-19 hit in late February, early March, Ely recalls gaping at news reports in disbelief every evening.
As he began cobbling “Mayhem” together from lyrical notebooks he had stockpiled over the years, he says, “I thought, ‘My work doesn’t make any sense; I don’t even recognize what I’m doing.’ Then, as I continued to work on it, it started unwinding, and then all of a sudden I realized that it made perfect sense. And then I’d jump to the next project and I’d have to encounter that in a whole new way. So I learned a lot about the process changing and twisting and turning and…and just not behaving.”
It gradually occurred to him — as it has to many — that there are different ways to view the repetitive situation, like the cynical Bill Murray character at the beginning of “Groundhog Day,” or through his grateful eyes at its heartwarming finish.
Ely is proud of the new skills he’s acquired lately. “I’ve learned how to sit still,” he says. “Because I’m usually always gone, zig-zagging around on tour, so it’s been really different to stay in one place, and I’ve found that it’a a lot harder than it looks. And I’ve also learned just how delicate our freedom is, although I must say that I can’t wait to get out and just go ride a bicycle again.”
His confidence is perhaps rooted in his adventurous teenage years, as sketched in “Reverb,” when he first left his native Lubbock, hitchhiking or hopping freight trains across America in the turbulent late 1960s.
His first California stop was in Venice, where he slept on the beach. He adds, “But then I went up San Francisco, right in the middle of Haight-Ashbury in 1968, and boy, that was an eyeful. It was like that club in ‘Star Wars’ for me. And I have to say, I enjoyed it, but it was almost too much for my West Texas mind to handle.”
By the mid-’70s, Ely had defined his roadhouse-rollicking sound with classics like “Dallas” and “Fingernails,” and found great artistic foils in fellow Flatlanders Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. He also embraced the punk rock movement, and was befriended by young firebrands like The Clash, who figure into one of the long-lost tapes he discovered, of a lively rehearsal at London’s Hope and Anchor pub from 1980.
“We were going to record a live album at a place called The Venue, and we had access to a 24-track recording truck,” says Ely of the noteworthy pre-taping night. “So we invited The Clash down, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, and we put together a little impromptu band playing Clash songs and a Lubbock song, ‘I Fought the Law.’ And Joe and I sang ‘Jimmy Jazz,’ ‘Peggy Sue,’ and a couple of others.” Ely now is searching for the proper legal channel in which to release the session.
The same goes for the curious 1967 reel-to-reel relic a Texas chum found in his mother’s possession after she died, of The Rox Limited.
She had been a music teacher and hit the record button on the group one day, and Ely was stunned to hear his pre-drawling self singing and speaking with a fake Beatles accent.
“I’d never been out of West Texas before then, or even written a song, but I guess I studied those British Invasion records pretty thoroughly,” he says.