I’ve already written about my introduction to Joe Ely and my affection for his work, and I’m happy to revisit the subject, because I owe him a lot. Beyond the great songs I learned off his records, and the records themselves, it was a whole attitude toward music. Along with Doug Sahm and Peter Guralnick, Joe was one of the people who taught me that genre categories are just a barrier to listening. If I listen rather than filing, what I like about Willie McTell may be the same thing I like about Buffy Sainte-Marie, what I like about Merle Haggard may also be what I like about Chuck Berry, what I like about Belle Stewart may be what I like about Pablo Casals playing the Bach cello suites.
Which said, since I mostly worked as an acoustic single I tended to limit myself to to the more countrified or singer-songwriter songs in Joe’s repertoire — until I got together with Robbie, Peter, and Mark as the Street Corner Cowboys and had an opportunity to play rock ‘n’ roll with an electric guitar in my hands and a solid bass kicking me. That was a chance to try a bunch of songs I’d always loved but never played solo, among them this smart reimagining of the western outlaw ballad.
I interviewed Joe several times, and in one of our conversations he explained that he got the idea for this one when he was driving home to Lubbock from California and happened to pass through the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid was killed:
They had a museum and we stopped in to look and it had nothing to do with Billy the Kid. It was old wagon wheels and spurs and stupid old western stuff and they had made this museum and there are two known photos and that is all they know about him, and all the legends and the stuff that Pat Garrett had written about. He couldn’t known him that well — I mean, he shot him, but he just heard stories too.
I got to thinking that he is one of those legends nobody knows much about, so I figured I could say anything I wanted to, and I just put myself as one of the guys that ran with him. Some of these movies make him out to be an outlaw hero type, and I wanted to put that completely down and say what a lowdown guy he was, and add some humor to it.
So from between Fort Sumner and Clovis, New Mexico, which is about 70 or 80 miles, I wrote the entire song. I wrote it down verse-wise, didn’t have a guitar, came back to Austin and put a few chords to it that seemed to work. It was one of those things that came without a whole lot of struggle — it pretty much just rolled out.