Do iPhones Dream of Boxcars? Joe Ely and Sci-Fi Country

by Dave Heaton

9 February 2015

In 1983, road-weary Texan Joe Ely hovers over gadgets and wires, entering a brave new world of technology. Is he creating science-fiction country music?
 
cover art

Joe Ely

B4 84

(South Central)

cover art

Joe Ely

Hi Res

(MCA)

To think of Joe Ely is to think of dust and trains, rivers and the open road. And the wind blowing across wide expanses of land in Texas. He was born in Amarillo, Texas; grew up in Lubbock. He was one of the founders of a band named the Flatlanders. He has albums called Honky Tonk Masquerade and Twistin’ in the Wind; songs with titles like “Ranches and Rivers”, “Boxcars” and “Highways and Heartaches”.  He wrote a book called Bonfire of Roadmaps. He tells stories of picking up Townes Van Zandt hitchhiking.

The last time I saw Ely play, it was in a bar next to train tracks; trains would roll past, occasionally drowning out the sound of his voice. Each time it made him crack a smile. Come to think of it, the first time I saw him play was in the parking lot of a train station, albeit one that had been repurposed as a shopping mall.

But wait… here’s another image of Joe Ely. Picture him in 1983, sitting with futuristic thingamajigs —a personal computer, one of the very first, plus synthesizers and drum machines—to record his new album. Fresh off a few years of straight touring, including tours of the UK opening for the Clash, and exhausted from it, Ely threw himself into the new world of digital recording.

In Ely’s own words: “I had recently built a makeshift studio at my home in Texas. It consisted of a four-track TEAC recorder, a few microphones, a Roland 808 drum machine and a strange contraption called a personal computer. It was the early Apple 2+ Computer with the very first sequencer card called an Alpha Centauri … This new era had reached up and bit me on the ass.”

That’s from the liner notes to B484, Ely’s 2014 ‘director’s cut’ (so to speak) of his 1984 album Hi-Res, the album he made with this equipment, with an early PC. It’s the only Ely album never to be released on CD; B484 offers the explanation that Ely was not satisfied with the original album, because the label had made him rework too many of the original recordings. B484 presents what Ely has described as the original recordings that became Hi-Res, before any record-label tomfoolery.

According to JoeEly.com, Hi-Res was “originally conceived as a soundtrack to a LP length video about a cowboy hobo transported to the digital age.” You can hear that, on both Hi-Res and B484.The future is represented in a very 1980s way—through synth sounds and drum machines, and through an album cover consisting of a digitized, “computer art” portrait of Ely.

In many ways, Hi-Res has always struck me as one of the lone examples of a sci-fi country album. Yet the songs aren’t really science fiction in any way. They’re Joe Ely songs, not that different in content from the rest of his discography. They’re songs about Texas, about cars and motorcycles, about young lust and restlessness.

Hi-Res opens with synthesizers, yes, but also rock guitars, on a song that’s not a peek into outerspace, more like a rebel’s night-life come-on to a tattooed lady in leather high-heel shoes. He tells off the bossman, gets his engine revved up and looks to the open road: “I smell the diesel in the border town.”

The album overall follows this path, with songs that Ely has seamlessly inserted into his setlists with his others (two appeared on 1990’s Live at Liberty Lunch; another became the title track for 1995’s Tex-Mex classic, Letter to Laredo). There’s electricity, yes, but also lovelorn and word-weary people living in a rock ‘n’ roll world, populating Texas border towns and New Orleans’ bourbon-soaked alleyways.

Thematically, the closest Ely gets to the future are some musings about a “Dream Camera” on the song of the same name; with it she captures her dreams, while sleepwalking with “one foot on the curb, and the other in the gutter”. The song has the sway of a leather-jacketed teen idol performing in Twin Peaks’ roadhouse, at least until the horn-like synths blast in and the steel guitar rings out.

While containing 60 percent the same material, albeit in different mixes, B484 somehow accentuates both the science-fiction/futuristic angle and the teenage rebels in Texas angle to a clearer extent than Hi-Res. (“Dream Camera” is one of the four Hi-Res tracks that’s not on B484, even.)

Moving “Imagine Houston” to the first spot (from the eighth) makes B484 immediately feel more futuristic, because that song, on both albums, has more of a future-feeling, or at least ‘80s feeling groove. Halfway through the song, when the guitar solo comes in, it’s accompanied by some UFO-ish gurgling sounds. The song itself is still in the same territory as Ely’s overall discography, it’s a hot Texas night, but our own associations with Houston and NASA (as in “Houston, we have a problem”) and the overall ominous tone of the song. Plus, lyrics like “you notice that the moon has been coated with chrome / as it begins to rise besides the Astrodome”, make it feel more science-fiction-y, even if it’s not.

If the album’s tone overall also feels more sci-fi, it’s mostly a trick of the brain. This is still very much a standard Ely guitar-based album, with songs rooted in the dust and streets of Texas. It has a cleaner, crisper sound than Hi-Res, and feels less muddled overall for it. It feels more visionary in part because it feels more like a cross between new-wave and Americana, yet it’d be hard to pitch much of the material as “sci-fi country” just because of that musical hybrid. There’s still a song where he wants to ride a motorcycle and color his ducktail hairdo red, for example. Then again, maybe that counts as futuristic.

So if Hi-Res and B484 are interesting companions and good representations of both Ely’s audaciousness and his inherent Ely-ness, but not “science fiction country” exactly, it leads to the question: is there such a thing as science-fiction country? And should there be?

I imagine someone, wrapped up still in the effervescence of 2014 and the year-end hype, would bring up Sturgill Simpson’s name, because of the way he’s united Waylon Jennings with LSD (as if they were ever that far apart from each other), but I wouldn’t agree with that hypothetical thesis. Or someone could bring up “Hey, Mr. Spaceman”, as if the Byrds count as country.

When I try thinking about sci-fi country, I tend to go more towards contemporary pop-country’s use of autotune and modern technologies to differentiate themselves, sonically, from “traditional” country. Tim McGraw comes to mind, specifically his 2010 album Emotional Traffic, but I’m not really sure why. Probably it’s the way the opening track “Halo” confuses me, combined with the song “Only Human”, featuring Ne-Yo, which reminds me of androids, though it’s about forgiveness and heartbreak.

I’m not sure any of that counts. And I might be throwing into my mental mix the feeling that McGraw uses autotune a bit more than some of his contemporary superstars—he uses it to emulate hip-hop and R&B, that is, not to “correct” his singing.

Then I start thinking about Sam Hunt, about Florida Georgia Line, about country’s intersection’s with contemporary R&B, about autotune and country music sounding more “electronic”, and it sends me down a rabbit trail of Internet sites that makes me lose my way; articles like “Strait’s ‘Cowboy Rides Away’ Albuim Butchered By Auto-Tune” and news stories on T-Pain’s upcoming collaborations with country-music songwriters. I’m not sure any of that has anything to do with science-fiction, even if somewhere in the outer galaxies of my brain it seems related.

The website i09 (tagline: “we come from the future”) did a list of the “top 100 science fiction-themed songs of all time” and included one country song, at #28: “Highwayman” by the Highwaymen, because the last verse, Johnny Cash’s verse, puts the highwayman in space. That’s a good candidate in a way; Cash’s voice sets gravity against the song’s ‘80s production. But that’s just one song, and really just a few words of that song (just the fact that “starship” appears in a country voice. Eternity is what they’re after, immortality—playing, of course, on the fact that the songs will themselves be immortal (always “around, and around, and around…”), more than science-fiction’s prescient take on the dangerous path we’re on.

And right there might be the crux of it. The University of Kansas’ Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction starts off its definition of the genre by saying, “Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change.”

Change is something country music doesn’t excel at. Change flows slowly, like rivers, like tumbleweeds blowing in slow-motion across the plains. Simply put, is country too reactionary and stand-still a genre for science-fiction, which is by its nature analytical, self-critical and forward-looking? Is that why the country musics that seem most ‘sci-fi’ to me are those most interested in getting more ‘contemporary’ in sound, and moving out of the past?

Splash image from a poster for Cowboys vs. Aliens (2011)

Topics: joe ely
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