There was yet something boyish about him as he stood taking leave of the family. He stood in the frame that had always contained him, the great circular frame of the plains, with the wind blowing the grey hair at his temples and the whole of the Llano Estacado at his back. When he smiled at the children…he gave them the look that had always been his greatest appeal — the look of a man who saw life to the last as a youth sees it, and who sees in any youth all that he himself had been.
– Larry McMurtry, In A Narrow Grave
Love is love and not fade away.
– Buddy Holly, “Not Fade Away”
It was the Kerrville Folk Festival, sometime in the early 1980s. Storm clouds, as purple and black as bruises, were swirling above the Medina River valley and piling up across the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Suddenly the wind came gusting from all quarters, setting dervishes of dust dancing among the apprehensive crowd of music fans at Quiet Valley Ranch. There was one of those moments of silence and stasis when you could almost imagine the weather gods were flipping a coin.
Then a volley of lightning and a cannonade of thunder exploded over the heads of festivalgoers, and it started raining sideways.
The rain did not abate or move on, as is the pattern of spring storms in the Hill Country. If anything it began to rain even harder. Lightning flashed venomously.
And the Joe Ely Band kept playing.
“This humongous thunderstorm and wind came up and blew over one of the speaker stacks,” recalled Lloyd Maines, the celebrated steel guitarist who hooked up with Ely in the mid-1970s. “We were protected, but the crowd wasn’t and the sound equipment wasn’t.”
With an ozone-searing crash, a bolt of lightning knocked the Kerrville Folk Festival back into the Stone Age. No lights, no sound, virtually no power. Festival producer Rod Kennedy came out, gesturing apologies to the tempest-tossed audience huddled under garbage bags and sheets of plastic.
“Kennedy said we’d have to call the show,” Maines continued. “But Ely grabbed a microphone out of his bag and plugs it into this old Super Reverb amp that he’s had for years…”
With the band huddled behind him under cover, and with one hand clutching a live mike and the other cradling an electric guitar, with the rain and wind swirling about him, Joe Ely reared back and howled straight into the eye of the storm: “I’m a-gonna tell you it’s gonna be/You’re gonna give your love to me…”
Ely sang out Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” with all the passion and fury of the storm itself as the crowd waited for a stray lightning bolt to light him up like a Broadway neon sign.
Twenty years later, the memory remains undiluted and inviolate — a moment that endures as a distillation of everything dangerous, edgy, exhilarating and utterly alive in Joe Ely’s life and music.
Jesse was a rovin’ gambler
Nine-ball was his game
He kept one step out ahead of his rep
One city out ahead of his fame
– Joe Ely, “Jesse Justice”
Joe Ely turned 60 in February, but he still has not come to terms with repose. Sitting on a couch, he twists and stretches, crosses and uncrosses his arms, and arches his back. Part of his restlessness is motivated by a laundry list of chores — he’s leaving on a two-month tour the next morning. But most of it is pure second nature. The boy can’t help it. His father’s family were railroad people who settled in the Texas Panhandle. Lonesome winds and empty highways are encoded in his DNA.
Ely at three-score-and-counting is not the same guy who danced with lightning on the Kerrville stage. His body has thickened a bit in middle age. The lines at the corners of his eyes, the legacy of squinting into a million spotlights, have deepened into furrows that evoke the cotton rows of his west Texas origins. His hair is flecked lightly with gray.
But the eyes are still the same black pools, avid and lively with curiosity, that stared out of Paul Milosevich’s charcoal portrait of the 30-year-old Joe Ely on the cover of his eponymously titled 1977 MCA debut. Ask him how it feels to look in the mirror and see a 60-year-old man, and he banks the question off of a tangential answer, like making a three-cushion shot in nine-ball.