South Plains College in Levelland, Texas is the home of a perennial National Championship Track program, the reigning NJCAA Men’s Basketball Champions and the currently No. 1 ranked Women’s Basketball team. However, its Commercial Music Program may actually be the thing its most known for. South Plains College was the first institution in the world to give serious academic attention to Country, Bluegrass, and Western Swing Music. SPC’s Pickin’ On the Plains is the nation’s oldest collegiate Bluegrass ensemble. The list of famous alumni includes
This year’s ensemble is led by Professor Edwin Marsh in his 41st year of teaching in the Commercial Music Department. Ed’s list of former pupils include several of the best fiddlers working today, and he is noted for being one of the first collegiate Music Theory teachers to teach theory for popular music. Ed’s original compositions have been recorded by notable bluegrass artists, such as Country Gazette, and he has produced records for artists that went on to become big stars, such as Lee Ann Wommack. In true renaissance man fashion, the poet, philosopher, and brick mason plans to someday retire to the cabin he built for his wife Martha in Taos, NM.
Returning for his third year in Pickin’ On the Plains is guitarist Jason Sain. Jason grew up in Wellington, TX, but moved to Branson, MO shortly after high school. After 19 years as a professional musician, Jason returned to Texas to study bluegrass. In his three years at SPC, Jason has completed the degree requirements for Advanced Associate of Applied Arts in Commercial Music Guitar, Commercial Music Voice, and Songwriting. Additionally, Jason has completed the requirements for the Commercial Music Enhanced Skills Certificate and will graduate in May ’19. Jason has been the recipient of the Alan Munde and Joe Carr Memorial Scholarship for Bluegrass, the Panhandle Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Association Scholarship, the Tiny Moore Memorial Scholarship for Western Swing, and the Bob Wills Scholarship for Commercial Music. The Commercial Music Faculty at SPC named Jason the program’s Outstanding Male in Bluegrass for 2016-17, Outstanding Male Vocalist in Country/Western Swing for 2017-18, and Outstanding Male Songwriter in 2016-17 and 2017-18. This fall Jason plans to study Music Composition at Texas Tech School of Music and eventually pursue a Masters of Music in Musicology. Upon graduating, Jason hopes to teach Bluegrass and Songwriting in a college level Commercial Music Program.
Returning for his second year in Pickin’ On the Plains is mandolinist Levi Humphreys. Levi was born in South Africa, but comes to Levelland by way of South Carolina so he could, “study both Ag and Bluegrass.” Levi plans to return to SPC next year to finish his Commercial Music Certificate before transferring to finish his Agricultural degree.
In their first year in Pickin’ On the Plains are twin sisters Leah and Megan Bynum. Before the age of three years old, Leah and Megan started their music education at the Lubbock Suzuki Strings program at Texas Tech as classical violinists and branched off into fiddling in middle school. Raised in Plano, TX, the girls moved back to West Texas in June. Leah and Megan have both previously earned Bachelor’s degrees in both Piano Performance and Music Business, as well as both having received Masters of Business Administration in Finance from Dallas Baptist University. They have enjoyed lending their many talents to several SPC ensembles, and are in the process of opening a coffee shop/live music venue on the square in Levelland, TX.
The Flatlanders, the storied folk trio he’d formed with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, had tried and failed in their quest become Nashville recording artists. In the aftermath, Joe high-tailed it to New York to work on songs and play folk clubs before deciding to join the circus. He hired on with Ringing Brothers and Barnum & Bailey as caretaker for llamas, the World’s Smallest Horse, and two white stallions, Omar and King. When a horse kicked him during a performance and broke three ribs, he came back home to Lubbock.
What was he going to do?
He thought about it awhile and decided he’d be Buddy Holly.
Not literally, although it should be noted that no significant rock and roll performer had emerged from Lubbock since the chart-topping Holly died in a plane crash in 1959. You could say there was a vacuum waiting to be filled.
Joe Ely proceeded to write some new songs, polish some old ones, and cop a few from Butch and Jimmie, put a band together, sell his life insurance policy to buy a PA sound system, strap on a guitar, step out front, and roar.
“I’d sit at the Broadway Drug Store by the campus of Texas Tech, go in there every day, drink a pot of coffee, and sketch out set lists of a future band,” Joe says. He had enough of solo gigs at coffeehouses. He wanted to play to crowds, and the only way to do that around Lubbock was to have a band.
“And the only places in Lubbock that you could play as a band were the big honky-tonks,” Joe says. “I used to go hear Tommy Hancock and his family band play at the Cotton Club and everybody would get up and dance. So the songs I was writing were put in the light of a West Texas dancehall band. “
At first, Rick Hulett accompanied Joe on acoustic and electric guitar and fiddle. Then Lloyd Maines volunteered his services. Maines had been playing steel guitar with his family’s Maines Brothers Band, the biggest country dance band in the region, and was the go-to guy for country music sessions at Caldwell Studios, the one respectable recording facility in Lubbock. Don Caldwell, owner of Caldwell Studios, sat in on saxophone. Greg Wright joined as bassist. After a string of drummers including TJ (Tiny) McFarland, Steve Keeton settled onto the drummer’s chair.
“We went out and started getting a crowd,” Joe says. “We plastered telephone poles down in the Tech ghetto, played a place called Main Street Saloon and a place called Fat Dawg’s. We played all the time and when we weren’t playing, we were rehearsing. Pretty soon, we had a good set put together.”
Within a year, the Joe Ely Band was packing the Cotton Club.
The Lubbock Tapes cover two critical periods. The first batch of sessions are from 1974 and set the table for the Joe Ely Band’s debut on MCA Records, three later.
They weren’t yet the fully formed unit who could go toe to toe with The Clash on the intensity scale. But the group immediately liberated Maines and his instrument from the limited range and weeping stereotype traditional country demanded. “Lloyd stepped out front,” Joe says. “He was usually the bandleader in back with a baton [with the Maines Brothers], but with us, he was a caged animal with the steel. When there was a solo, he’d make it sound like part of the band. He turned the melody into the solo. This was not a jam band. We’d worked out the intros, middle parts, lead breaks, everything.”
Curley Lawler from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys joined the ensemble on fiddle on “Windmills and Water Tanks.” To satisfy the dance crowd for whom the Texas Two-step and waltz were not enough, Joe recorded “Joe’s Schottische.” “Everybody played a schottische; that was in your dancehall requirements, so I just wrote my own,” he says. “It’s totally meaningless but has the right beat.
The Butch Hancock composition “Standin’ at the Big Hotel” caught the ear of Bob Livingston of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band. “Bob had me make him a copy and he took it to Jerry Jeff, who recorded it,” Joe says. “MCA signed me because of that song.”
The second batch of The Lubbock Tapes are demos recorded at Caldwell Studios sessions in 1978 in preparation for the third Joe Ely Band album, Down on the Drag. The band is complete now. Guitarist Jesse Taylor and accordionist Ponty Bone, who both joined the band in time for the first album, are front and center. “You can hear where Jesse came in,” Joe says. “The guitar sounds a little bit raunchier.”
They were the hottest live band in Texas, only if you didn’t hang in the right clubs and dancehalls in Lubbock or Austin, you never heard of them.
[I happened to witness some of the 1978 MCA recording sessions for Down on the Drag produced by Bob Johnston. Maybe Johnston was trying to psych out the band, but making a record in foggy Seattle in the middle of winter did not bring out the best in this particular group of young men accustomed to sunshine and wind on the South Plains.
[“It was 43 and rain every day,” Joe says. “I really needed some feedback and he [Johnston] basically cut everybody loose and said, ‘When the record’s done, gimme a call.’ That was the stylish thing back then, because nobody wanted to be produced. Everybody wanted to be a free-born man. But I really needed some feedback at that time because the music was changing.”]
The two recording sessions, four years apart, make that vividly clear. “You can hear it going from a real honky-tonk sound to a harder edge,” Joe says. “The song was still telling a story but Jesse was cutting loose, and he and Lloyd were playing these screaming solos together. I don’t think that was captured on the studio version of Down on the Drag. You can hear it on The Lubbock Tapes.”
Between Maines and Taylor in particular, a distinct sound emerged that mixed high-energy blues-inflected rock-and-roll with varying degrees of twanged-up country, fitting in perfectly with the progressive country sound emerging out of Austin, only a little bit farther out on both the country and rock extremes.
That’s the origin myth, at least. Only this isn’t any myth. Lloyd Maines unearthed the hard evidence
“I was surprised the tapes existed,” Joe says. “Lloyd had a box in his barn that he had moved about five times. Lloyd’s always calling me about tapes that he’s found. One day he called and said he’d found these.”
Some 26 albums down the line, bringing all back home to the start feels like the natural thing to do for Joe Ely.
“When you first get together that’s a real special time,” he says with the wisdom of one who has lived the life. “It’s all fresh, you’re not played out.”
And you’re so spot on, so on the money, hittin’ the note every which way, it’s easy for me to say that it’s been well-worth the forty year wait to hear these tracks, even though hardly anyone realized that until right about now.
by Joe Nick Patowski