Both sides of Ely's family followed the railroad lines looking for work at the turn of the last century. "We moved to Lubbock when I was 10 or 11, and my daddy had a used-clothing store downtown. On the weekends, all the migrant workers would come in, and at that time, there were tens of thousands of migrant workers who came to West Texas to work in the cotton fields," he says. "On the weekends, they would all come in and shop at my daddy's store in downtown Lubbock, and they would play music on the streets, and there would be accordions playing and wonderful tortillas cooking, and it was just one of the happiest times of my life. I've always had this real connection with that whole period of time and growing up."
Since starting his first band at age 14, Ely's traveled the world, and trod the border of the dark side, with generally good humor, no little pain, a poet's instincts for detail and some mighty itchy feet. In his youth, he hitchhiked and jumped trains whenever the spirit moved him, ran away to join the circus, played anywhere for whatever was in the tip jar, organized a music festival successful enough to cause the Lubbock City Council to forbid music in Buddy Holly Park, got in lots of other trouble and befriended hundreds of musicians, including Los Lobos, the Clash, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Townes Van Zandt and the Dixie Chicks. More recently, he's toured almost constantly behind his own solo records, or those of the Flatlanders with childhood pals Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
For all his travels, the Southwest's music, culture and geography have never left his music. "Any excuse I have to take a trip through the desert, I jump at it, because it's my favorite part of the world. I just like the space. I always have. I guess growing up in Lubbock, which is kind of a rich-land desert, I always kinda felt that thing of wanting to fill up the emptiness. I like that feeling of being able to see the horizon. It's something I grew up with. I love the sky. That's my favorite thing.
"Mainly, the thing I love about the southwestern United States is just it's a very interesting culture, and the stories are really interesting. It's great for a songwriter to take stories from, and I've always had a real connection with that."
Having played on the first release from the band Los Super Seven in 1998, Ely re-upped for its recent third incarnation, Heard It on the X, a tribute to the AM heyday of Tex-Mex border radio. Calexico backed the mostly Latino supergroup on several tracks and performed the songs live with the band at the South by Southwest Music Conference. "I'd love to see those guys, but I don't know if they're around," Ely says regarding any Calexico participation in his upcoming Tucson show. "Maybe if you put something in the paper, they'll see it!"
Since the Los Super Seven release, Ely's been touring mostly with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and Guy Clark. It's a songwriters-in-the-round affair in which the players continually surprise and inspire each other. He's also been working on new music with Super Seven-mate Joel Guzman, who will accompany him for the Tucson show. Guzman won the Best Tejano Album Grammy in 2005 for Polkas, Gritos Y Acordeones, recorded with fellow Tejano accordionists David Lee Garza and Sunny Sauceda.
"I've been recording with him since about '95 or '96," says Ely. "He kind of plays what's going on in my head. I don't know how to explain it."
Ely says the duo's show here will comprise a mix of new and old. "We're just trying out some new stuff, and then playing a lot of things from the Letter to Laredo album and a couple of things from Super Seven stuff and even throwing in a couple of Flatlanders songs. Mainly, that Southwestern kinda stuff, from Texas to California, all along the border there."
Ely's 1995 Letter to Laredo was a mostly acoustic, border-flavored break from his previous work, which had thrust him into the company of the Clash, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. Less raw and rash, Letter communicated with lyrics and vocal phrasing the emotional range of which Ely had previously conveyed primarily through his exhilarating electric guitar work. The record contains some of his most crowd-pleasing songs, including, besides the title track, "All Just to Get to You" and Tom Russell's "Gallo del Cielo."
In recent years, border themes have given continuity to Ely's music the same way his empathy for colorful down-and-outers continues to inform his most compelling lyrics. And his wild ride through life keeps bringing him back to Texas ("I found myself like I had a rubber band on my back"), particularly the weirdness that is Lubbock. The city council banned music in Buddy Holly Park after Ely's Tornado Festival brought 30,000 visitors to town in the '80s, threatening to make the place a music mecca. Like that would be a bad thing. Holly, whose influences and connections thread through Ely's life almost like a haunting, must have turned in his grave.
Although he now lives in Austin, Ely returns frequently to his old hometown, where the combination of conservative politics, desolate terrain and, perhaps, the well-documented reports of flying saucers in the 1950s, somehow generated a mother lode of talent in Ely's generation. His high school hanging-out pals at the Hi-D-Ho Drive In continue to contribute extraordinary music, performance pieces, plays, paintings and stories to the Southwest's unique cultural traditions. Besides Hancock and Gilmore, the crowd included Jo Carol Pierce, Terry Allen, Jo Harvey Allen and wife Sharon Ely.
Today, Ely finds Lubbock little changed. "There's kind of this walk of fame there that has Holly and myself and the other Flatlanders and all these musicians that have grown up around there, Bob Wills and Waylon Jennings, but they refuse to put the Dixie Chicks on that Walk of Fame because of that scrap ..." (referring to Natalie Maines' now-notorious pronouncement that she was "ashamed" to be from the same state as George Bush).
"It's such a weird city," he says. Maybe, but it's home.