Jump to Content

Welcome! You’re browsing the No Depression Archives

No Depression has been the foremost journalistic authority on roots music for well over a decade, publishing 75 issues from 1995 to 2008. No Depression ceased publishing magazines in 2008 and took to the web. We have made the contents of those issues accessible online via this extensive archive and also feature a robust community website with blogs, photos, videos, music, news, discussion and more.

Close This

The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #68 Mar-Apr 2007

Joe Ely

Still running the tablesSix decades in, Joe Ely remains at the top of his game

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.

Enjoy the ND archives? Consider making a donation with PayPal or send a check to:
No Depression, 460 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94108


Did you enjoy this article? Start a discussion about it, or find out what others are saying in the No Depression Community forum.

Join the Discussion »

Find out what's going on in roots music. Share concert photos and videos, learn about new artists, blog about the music you love.

Join the No Depression Community »

Originally Featured in Issue #68 Mar-Apr 2007

Buy our history before it’s gone!

Each issue is artfully designed and packed full of great photos that you don‘t get online. Visit the No Depression store to own a piece of history.

Visit the No Depression Store »

From the Blogs

  • Your Interview with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris
    A couple of weeks ago, we announced a contest to give away some copies of the Jayhawks' remastered and reissued editions of Sound of Lies, Smile, and Rainy Day Music. In the process, we asked you to pose questions you'd like to see Jayhawks founding member Gary Louris answer. Fifty folks entered and Jayhawk Gary Louris… […]
  • Lake Street Dive Motorboats into the Big Time
    The usual pleasantries open the interview with Lake Street Dive's singer extraordinaire, Rachael Price. There’s a mention of a shared acquaintance and a nod to the band's previous appearances in town, the first before a tiny crowd at Norfolk's Taphouse in 2011. "Oh, I recall," Price says. "That was a very memorable show." I […]
  • No Depression Is Getting a Facelift: A Note About What's Around the Bend
    Ever since we announced that No Depression had been acquired by FreshGrass back in March, we’ve heard from many of you with questions, concerns, and ideas about the future of this website and the community that gathers here. We created a forum topic at that time so we could organize these comments and refer to them frequently, which we have done as we’ve dev […]
  • Danny Petroni & frank Lacy - The Blue Project (Album Review)
    Guitarist Danny Petroni teamed up with Frank Lacy to create a modern blues, jazz and soul band that he bills as the “Sound of Asbury Park” the result is the self titled release The Blue Project.  The album is a collection of hymns to the common mans struggle and inner city view of modern life mixed with good old time horsing around fun.  Vocalist and trombon […]
  • Instrumentally Speaking...Woodstock Gets Hungry for Music
    In 1992, while he was enrolled at George Washington University, Jeff Campbell had an idea that initially was inspired by a class project. The concept was to bring street musicians and other D.C. music talent together for a concert called Hungry for Music, that would benefit the Coalition Against Homelessness. These concerts were held in 1992 and 1993, and in […]
  • The Jayhawks at Shepherd’s Bush Empire (London, U.K. - July 18, 2014)
    A hot and steamy London night saw the Jayhawks' 1997 touring band play at this iconic venue in support of the recently released and remastered versions of the Sound of Lies (1997), Smile (2000) and Rainy Day Music (2003). The trilogy includes bonus tracks, alternative versions, demos, live takes, new liner notes and unreleased material from the band’s e […]

Shop Amazon by clicking through this logo to support NoDepression.com. We get a percentage of every purchase you make!

Subscribe To the No Depression Newsletter

Subscribe to the No Depression Newsletter