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Joe Ely's latest reflects on long, winding road of his life

John T. Davis

You had to appreciate the irony: Joe Ely was out of gas.

Or the next thing to it. He was calling a reporter from a gas station, muttering imprecations at the self-serve pump that refused to recognize his ZIP code. "My little gauge said 'Range — Five miles'," he said.

Ely, of course, has made a decades-long career out of extolling the joys and temptations of the open road. The first line of the first song on his first album, from 1977, was all about lighting out for the territory: "Well, I left my home out on the great High Plains/Headed for some new terrain"

As a bookend of sorts, the first song on his newest and 18th-or-so album, "Satisfied at Last," is a two-edged love song to the two-lane blacktop, "The Highway is My Home."

But if Ely's vehicle was running on fumes, the man himself is still firing on all cylinders. After a long interlude that saw him releasing a book culled from his road journals, a handful of archival recordings and two live albums, Ely is back at last with an album of new original material, leavened by one Billy Joe Shaver classic ("Live Forever") and a pair of tunes from his fellow Flatlander, Butch Hancock.

As the title suggests, "Satisfied at Last" finds the peripatetic Ely in a rare contemplative move, looking back at the landscape and land mines he has traversed while pondering what's left of the journey.

"It's a bit about mortality," said Ely who, unthinkably, will qualify for Social Security next year. "We ain't getting any younger, and you've got to look that in the eye. I'm having probably as good or better a time making music as I've ever had in my life. I've got a bunch of new mountains to climb, but I've made it through the first part. So the record is kind of a celebration."

Musically, the album continues Ely's trademark fusion of rock, country, flamenco, blues and Tex-Mex influences, propelled by a cast of longtime cohorts that includes, among others, guitarists David Grissom, Rob Gjersoe and Mitch Watkins; bassist Glenn Fukunaga; steel player Lloyd Maines; drummers Pat Manske and Davis McLarty; and accordionist Joel Guzman.

The tone of the album, to hear Ely tell it, springs from a tale of journey and return chronicled by the first two songs, "The Highway is My Home" ("I wanted to show where the struggle came from my early life, living on the highway and hitchhiking around the country, through the rain and bad roads") and "Not That Much Has Changed," a knowing, fond look back at the immutable small West Texas towns that shaped Ely's early world view. "Everything sort of looks the same," he said. "But there's that weird, different vibe about it. And then you realize that the difference is that you've changed."

Consequently, songs like the title track and "I'm a Man Now," "You Can Bet I'm Gone" (in which the protagonist arranges to have his ashes fired from shotguns as a final farewell) and Shaver's "Live Forever" all reflect on the years and miles, choices made, and roads not taken.

Ely recalled a time when all his choices were in front of him, but he was at his lowest ebb. "I was sitting in the Lubbock County Jail in about 1968," he said (he and some friends were arrested for possession of psychedelic mushrooms, he said, adding that the case ended with probation).

"Things were looking really bleak. I never thought I would actually go out and do something with music.

"But then I moved down to Austin and hooked up with (artist) Jim Franklin who took us up to New York City to help him paint a mural. And there, I joined up with an off-Broadway theater troupe because they needed a guitar player. And that ended up taking me to Europe for six months. I was in heaven — I had a job, I was playing guitar and getting paid for it. All of a sudden, I went from the depths of despair to having one of the greatest times of my life!"

So what would Joe Ely, circa 2011, have told the skinny youth moping in the county lockup?

"I'd tell him to change the radio station," he said, laughing. "'Cause I was listening to Merle Haggard singing 'Branded Man.'"

Then he added, "I think I would have told that kid in jail to hang on. Everything's going be all right. And that might be what this record is about."