I first heard Joe Ely in 1979-80, when I was visiting my erstwhile washboard player, Rob Forbes, in Ithaca and a friend of his played me Honky Tonk Masquerade. Rob’s friend introduced it as a fusion of new wave rock with country music, but I didn’t hear anything new wave about it — the country sounded country and the rock sounded like Jerry Lee Lewis. Which said, the band had a unique mix of high-powered electric guitar and steel with accordion, and the songs were my first taste of the new Texas scene, which was a huge relief from the singer-songwriter stuff I was hearing back east. (I later learned that the new wave connection was kind of guilt by association: the Clash were huge fans and took Ely on tour with them, so a lot of people first heard him in that context.)
I bought that album, listened to it over and over, learned more than half the songs on it, picked up Ely’s next couple of records as well as his first, which preceded Masquerade, and eventually had the luck to see him live and solo. I saw him a few times with bands as well — a loud rock group with Bobby Keyes on sax and then the reunion of his old Lubbock/Austin band with Lloyd Maines, Ponty Bone, Jesse Taylor, and the addition of a Dutch flamenco guitarist named Teye — but the shows that blew me away were the solo ones. He would come onstage with just an acoustic guitar and I swear he rocked harder than I ever saw him do with a group. His charisma was incredible, his guitar work was as effective as anybody’s this side of Lightnin’ Hopkins — ok, that’s an exaggeration, but in context it was terrific — and I can’t think of any concerts I’ve loved more.
I sang a lot of Joe’s songs in my touring days, and ended up recording one of them, “West Texas Waltz,” because it gave me a chance to play diatonic accordion (of course that song was written by Butch Hancock, Joe’s sometime partner with Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the Flatlanders, but I’m one of the many people who mostly know Butch’s work through Joe). I rarely played this one onstage, because I had other quiet songs and was looking for something else when I went to him, but I always loved it and did it when I had the right crowd, and almost recorded it on my LP… and I still think it’s one of the simplest, prettiest lyrics I’ve ever heard. Pure Texas, without any mythic posing or overstatement.
Incidentally, my own experience of “the breeze that blows from Corpus Christi” is a good deal less romantic. I hitchhiked through there in early December, 1987, as the temperature dived to freezing, with nothing but a light wool jacket. Fortunately a friendly bum had an extra sweater, but it was still damn cold.