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Joe Ely and other Southern troubadours bring their lives and music to Tacoma

Joe Ely will tell you a story or 15 Saturday night in Tacoma. Press photo

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In the late '60s and into the '70s, there was a sea change in the world of country music. Rather than drawing from the glut of radio-ready folk and country that dominated the airwaves, a new class of country singers came up through the ranks, bringing with them a more progressive world-view and a more idiosyncratic sound. People like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson would become the face of progressive country, lending a more personal sound to a genre that had grown complacent with cookie-cutter artists that were as interchangeable as they were popular. Eventually, this scene would spawn even more disparate artists and influences, creating the slippery genre known as alt-country.

At the forefront of this developing genre was Joe Ely, whose immersion into the scene was through the most circuitous of routes.

"People don't understand how crazy my whole life has been," says Ely, "as far as growing up in Amarillo, Texas, moving to Lubbock, Texas, playing in little bands when I was a teenager, and then I got in some trouble on the very first day that mushrooms and psilocybin and mescaline became illegal. I got on probation and decided to leave the country after joining a theater troupe in New York City. I went traveling around Europe for nine months, and ran into a guy in Munich that was an opera conductor who had the first Moog synthesizer in Europe. He called me and asked me to work on a project with him. So, the first record I ever released was on this German label - an experimental record on this Moog synthesizer. I came back to Texas and ran into Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who were complete folk singers, and we put together a band called the Flatlanders. All of these different influences kind of stirred together."

Ely was destined to never have the average career. From working with the Flatlanders, becoming more integrated into the progressive country scene, eventually recording and touring with the Clash, and finally arriving at his most left-field record yet (B4 84), Ely stood out from the crowd. Just last year, Ely released B4 84, which was recorded in 1983 on an Apple II computer, which makes it one of the first albums to be recorded on an Apple product. The record is a fascinating collision between outlaw country and drum-machine-propelled New Wave - recalling similar music made by fellow alt-punk-country mavericks the Mekons on Fear and Whiskey. Songs like "My Baby Thinks She's French" give bands like the Talking Heads a run for their money in terms of multi-cultural inspiration and quirkily specific lyrics.

"I really didn't know what a standard country singer-songwriter was," laughs Ely. "I just completely bypassed that influence, because I never listened to country music when I was growing up, although I love the old classical stuff from the '50s. ... The country stations didn't play me here, but in the UK, on the BBC, they played all of my records. I ended up playing over there a lot, which is when I ran into the Clash and recorded ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go' with them."

Joe Ely has no shortage of stories to draw from in his long, astounding life - which is good, since he'll be appearing in Tacoma to sing some songs and tell those stories, on a show called Southern Troubadours in the Round. Joining him are two other country singers from different generations and backgrounds: Ruthie Foster, who brings with her some soulful folk and blues, and Paul Thorn, who touts a muscular brand of Southern folk-rock. Joe Ely alone could fill book after book with his experiences, so consider this an embarrassment of riches.

SOUTHERN TROUBADOURS IN THE ROUND, w/Joe Ely, Ruthie Foster, Paul Thorn, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 14, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $19-$69, 253.591.5890

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