Joe Ely and his wife, Sharon, have lived on the same ranch outside Austin, Texas, for 38 years, and in that time they’ve accumulated enough memorabilia to fill an entire building on the property. So it’s ironic that Ely’s latest “lost album,” Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes, came not from his own personal effects but from those of his longtime pedal steel player, Lloyd Maines.
“He found this record just about a year and a half ago in a cardboard box,” says Ely, sipping a cup of coffee in his living room one September afternoon. His silver hair is slicked back and he cracks a delighted grin at the sheer unlikeliness of the find. “[Maines] had moved it about five times and said it was just a miracle this cardboard box survived. It’d been through Austin summers and Lubbock winters.”
Recorded in two different sessions at Caldwell Studios in Lubbock — the town in west Texas where Buddy Holly was born — in 1974 and 1978, Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes were released in August on Ely’s Rack ‘Em label and include the Flatlanders member’s first known recordings as a solo artist. As such, they fill in a crucial part of the singer-songwriter’s storied career that had previously been a blank spot.
“I didn’t remember even recording these. I remember going into the studio and messing around. In one of those sessions we did something like 14 songs in a day, and the next session we did 12 songs in a day,” Ely says. He figures they were done as rehearsals rather than as proper demos. “To me, it was just a miracle when we found these.”
This isn’t the first time that Ely has stumbled upon a forgotten part of his own history. Six years ago, his band the Flatlanders released The Odessa Tapes, a series of 3-track demos that had, unknowingly, been in the possession of bassist Sylvester Rice, a hired hand who played on the session. That discovery helped kickstart Ely’s larger mission to organize his own archives. The Lubbock Tapes represent the next chapter in that story.
“At this point in my life, I’m almost 72 years old. So [the question] is, ‘Why not now?’” Ely says about the timing of releasing The Lubbock Tapes, which required the skill of producer Ray Kennedy to resuscitate after years in limbo.
The origins of these recordings trace back to the fall of 1972, when Ely left Lubbock for New York City after the Flatlanders’ debut album All American Music flopped, due in part to its limited release on 8-track tape. (Many of those songs saw wider release in 1990 as More a Legend Than a Band.) He spent six months hanging out at songwriters’ spots like Kettle of Fish and the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, before returning to Texas and taking a job with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“My grandfather worked on the Rock Island Line and my dad worked on the Santa Fe for 37 years. He had a moving van company and drove Route 66, and Route 66 went right through Amarillo,” Ely says of his wanderlust at that time. In his younger years, he’d taken to hitchhiking and learned to hop trains. “If I heard Woody Guthrie singing about a plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, I had to go there. Even though it was in the middle of nowhere, I had to go there just to be there.”
“It seemed that no matter where I was, I would come back to Lubbock” – Joe Ely
Reality caught up with Ely in a painful way in the summer of 1973 when he was kicked in the chest by a horse during a Ringling Bros. performance in Houston. Knocked to the dirt with three broken ribs, he realized it was time to give up on the circus. “I said, ‘This is a message from above that I need to be working on these songs and get a band together,’” Ely remembers. “I realized that this suitcase full of songs that I had brought back from New York City, I had to make sense out of them, put them in some kind of order.”
Once again, Ely headed for the wide-open plains of west Texas in order to recuperate. “It seemed that no matter where I was, I would come back to Lubbock,” he says. “That flat, endless land out there did something to me, it opened my head up. [Flatlander] Butch Hancock said you could see 50 miles in every direction, and if you stood on a tuna fish can you could see 100 miles.”
Ely got together a group of players that included Maines, guitarist Jesse Taylor, and accordion player Ponty Boone, who developed into a tight unit as they gigged several nights a week in local clubs and honky-tonks. “Back then you had to play four-hour sets, sometimes six-hour sets. You’d have to play everything you knew to cover six hours of music, but it was a good workout,” Ely says. That same lineup later convinced MCA executives to offer Ely a contract.
Much of the material on The Lubbock Tapes would appear in different forms on Ely’s first three solo LPs: Joe Ely, Honky Tonk Masquerade and Down on the Drag. As such, these recordings don’t offer surprises so much as a glimpse into just how fully evolved the arrangements had already become. One exception is the opening track, “Windmills and Water Tanks,” which features Bob Wills’ fiddle player Curly Lawler. “I had not recorded that before but the Flatlanders had, so that’s just me doing my own take on it,” says Ely, who singles it out as one of his personal favorites.
By the time of the 1978 session, the band had taken on a rougher, more rock & roll edge, aided by a busy touring schedule that included at least one visit to Europe. The beginnings of Ely’s modern-day archive had begun to take shape as well. “Sharon always collected stuff. When we’d come back from the road, she’d throw it in a plastic trash can and stick it in the barn,” he says. One half of a wall is now nothing but press clippings. Another wall features master tapes, another still his notebooks, and there are troves of other artifacts like a signed copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and a self-portrait of Bob Johnston, who produced 1979’s Down on the Drag.
Among stacks of rare black-and-white photos is one of Ely onstage with the Clash at the second Monterey Pop Festival. He and the British punk band met not long after the second session from The Lubbock Tapes, and even played gigs in Texas together. “I think they thought they were on the moon. In Lubbock, the lanes will be big enough for a diesel truck, there’ll be six lanes, and maybe three cars go by every 10 minutes,” Ely says. He laughs. “I took them to the Alamo and they said, ‘Oh, it’s so small. It looked bigger in photographs.’ Across the street, this military surplus place had a bunch of clothes, and the Clash all bought military outfits.”
Figuring out what to do with all of those gems has proven a major undertaking for Ely — so much so that The Lubbock Tapes is his first release in three years, dating back to 2015’s Panhandle Rambler.
“There are a lot more questions than there are answers — like, ‘OK, I kind of remember that.’ I’m glad that it’s all here because it tells a story, in some odd kind of way,” Ely muses. But the archiving has done more than given him a new perspective on his life’s work. It’s also given him some fresh ideas. “There are all these writings in notebooks that I carried around the country and hadn’t looked at in 30 years,” he adds. “I found half-written songs and said, ‘Damn, I’m gonna finish this!’”
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