There must be something about all that empty landscape that makes Texas musicians uneasy about being hemmed in. Just take Joe Ely, who's never been one to observe musical boundaries. He's as comfortable sitting on a back porch playing music with Merle and Willie as he was storming the stage with punk gods The Clash -- and performing with Springsteen, the Stones, etcetera, etcetera.
So is he a honky-tonker? Blues rocker? Americana troubadour?
Yes, yes and yes -- and more yeses, if you've got more categories.
And now all those Joe Elys return to Bakersfield. As far as he can remember, he hasn't visited since the late '70s -- "no one asked me until this tour," he noted.
The intimate show consists of just Ely and guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn, but don't think the spare setup means a limited experience.
"The best thing about Jeff is, he can play anything -- mandolin, bass, you name it. It's like touring with a Swiss Army knife -- you have a lot of options as far as what you can do."
Originally from Lubbock, Ely, 67, has been a mainstay of the Texas music scene for 50 years. Beyond his own impressive solo career and high-profile collaborations, he was one-third of the critically revered band The Flatlanders. His latest release was 2011's "Satisfied At Last."
Before his show Saturday at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, Ely took a few minutes on the phone to field some of the random stuff that popped into my head.
I have to ask -- are you a big fan of Buck or Merle? Did they influence your music at all?
Honestly, all that Bakersfield sound stuff was just so different than the scene in Texas, so I can't really say there was much of an influence on my music. But I'm a big fan of both of them -- I toured quite a bit with Merle -- we played the Wembley Festival in England together, then went out and played all over England, Ireland -- even Norway. It was great hanging out with him. Merle used to stay at Willie's place when he was in Austin, and we'd just sit around and play music for hours on end -- it was great. He's kind of in a league of his own when it comes to songwriting.
But as far as influence, well they played a lot of Buck Owens on the radio in Lubbock, and we all loved his stuff. I'm glad I'm finally getting to play on his stage.
Speaking of touring, the first time I saw you live was when you were playing with The Clash, at the Hollywood Palladium in '79. You really connected with those guys, didn't you?
Oh, absolutely. They really wanted to get a taste of Texas music. So we played a few shows in big cities, but mostly at little venues in south Texas and northern Mexico.
It was the most fun I can remember on the road. I kept in pretty close touch with (Clash frontman) Joe Strummer right up until he died -- we were planning to do an album together, but just never found the time.
Is that really you singing background on "Should I Stay Or Should I Go"?
You bet it is. That was a great day in the studio.
What is it about Texas that makes it such a breeding ground for great singer/songwriters? What does Texas have that we don't? And why are so many of you from Lubbock?
Well as for Lubbock, I think so many young people get into music because there's nothing else to do. Say what you want about Lubbock, but it's free of distractions. And scenery. (Singer) Terry Allen once said that if you look really hard straight ahead in Lubbock, you can see the back of your own head.
And the rest of Texas? Lyle Lovett, Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, you -- the list goes on and on. Is it something in the water?
Back in the 1800s, when cowboys were driving cattle up from Mexico, if you could play a song on the guitar, well that was the equivalent of seeing a movie or reading a book. So I guess that's where all this western music started, and I guess Texans just got better at it because they've always done it. And as it got handed down, it got into rockabilly with guys like Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. I guess it just kept going from there.
Well I'm sure glad that all that touring has brought you back to Bakersfield -- I can't wait.
I'm looking forward to it too -- it's been too long since I've gotten to play there. Bakersfield is a great music town.
Do you think you'll work in a Buck tune?
I'm pretty sure we'll put something together. It's hard to imagine a show at the Palace without one.