Attending the Austin Music Awards at ACL Live on Wednesday, February 28, 2018, reminded me of the joy of music discovery and music’s potential! That night, Joe Ely was the recipient of the Townes Van Zandt Songwriting Award. He is only the second musician to receive the award after fellow Lubbock singer/songwriter Terry Allen’s win last year.

John Hiatt, Charlie Sexton, Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards © David Brendan Hall

Joe Ely was still an up-and-comer when I first met him in 1979. He had released his second solo album, Honky Tonk Masquerade, the summer before and it was in constant rotation on KBUY, an Amarillo FM radio station that featured “progressive country” music. KBUY was FM when no one had FM radios in their car and few had it on their stereos at home. But I had discovered it and absolutely loved the songs “Fingernails,” “Boxcars,” and “Cornbread Moon.”

The songs I heard by Joe Ely and Steven Fromholz and Rusty Weir and, of course, Willie Nelson kept me by the radio, entranced. It also led me to a career in radio. I wanted to be a part of that music and bringing it to people.

Fast forward a few months and I was working at KBUY from midnight to 6AM. We were having a big summer concert at the Amarillo Gold Sox minor league baseball stadium, and I was ecstatic that Wendel Adkins and Joe Ely were performing. I wasn’t so interested in the headliner, Hank Williams Jr. As the “low man on the totem pole” at the station, I didn’t get to introduce any of the performers. I was relegated to being on stage after Joe Ely’s performance and leading the applause and thanks and the effort to “get him back up here, folks.” As it turned out, Joe ended up BEING the headliner because Hank Jr. was unhappy about something and refused to step off the bus.

Over the years, I watched as Joe Ely opened for The Clash around the world and gained a huge European following. I moved to Austin and it thrilled me to run into him from time to time and to see him again and again in a variety of settings, whether performing in front of hundreds or in intimate listening rooms with just him and his guitar.

Now when I see a young, talented performer, I have to wonder if they have what it takes to be a working and award-winning artist 40 years from now. Joe had the drive, the desire, the talent, and the songwriting ability to persevere and succeed in his long career. I’m glad the AMA’s rewarded him for it with the Townes Van Zandt Songwriting Award and I’m glad I was there to witness it.

You can hear Joe Ely’s music on several of our Core Programs, including Honky Tonk Tavern and Roadhouse.

– Submitted by Janice Williams, Music Design