Joe Ely and the Question of “Sci-Fi” Country Music

There’s a great article by Dave Heaton of PopMatters about Joe Ely, one of the great Texas songwriters.  Entitled “Do iPhones Dream of Boxcars”, it covers the recently re-released digital recordings Ely did in the 1980s (long after the Flatlanders split and after Ely toured with the Clash) and uses it to ask some questions about SF and country music.  The conclusion is great:

“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?”

Great questions.  It’s definitely an uneasy mix.  For me, SF and country music can work well, but it’s usually best when its not done too literally.  As with rock and roll in general, I’m less interested in someone trying to tell a “sci-fi” narrative, and more interested in someone trying to play with imagery/sounds that evoke a certain feel.  Maybe that’s why surf rock seems more SF to me than Blue Oyster Cult.

Is there sci-fi country music?  Heaton mentions The Highwaymen’s single, which works.  I’d add the Mekons work from the 1980s: “Fear and Whiskey” has that odd blend of compressed drums and guitar distortion with classic country (all sung with a British accent, so much the better).

And SF author Sanford Allen, member of San Antonio band Hogbitch, turned me on to this guy–The Legendary Stardust Cowboy–who (at least in part) inspired rock’s most famous SF persona:

And the totally bizarre story of his influence…

I’ve seen Joe Ely a few times.  The first time was an acoustic tour with John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark.  The last time was in Clear Lake, IA at the Surf Ballroom’s “50 Winters Later” show.

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One Response to Joe Ely and the Question of “Sci-Fi” Country Music

  1. Interesting read. I’d never really thought about the intersection of SF and country music before, so thank you!

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