Troy Campbell reflects on the enduring impact of Joe Ely

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) –  Rock ‘n’ roll has always been about absorbing music grown from vastly different facets of the human experience and mixing them together until they don’t seem so dissimilar anymore.

Texas-based musician Joe Ely is one of the most powerful examples of this. Throughout his career Ely crossbred honky-tonk, Texas country, and rock ‘n’ roll into a particularly potent blend that plays out over his 15 plus critically acclaimed albums. His distinct style has attracted all kinds of collaborators: everyone from seminal punk rock band The Clash to traditional Irish music outfit The Chieftains.

Last year Ely’s wide-ranging impact on American popular music was honored with his induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. That celebration, which included guests Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Rodney Crowell, Marcia Ball and Lloyd Maines broadcasts on WOUB-TV Saturday at 11 p.m. ET.

Troy Campbell is one of the very many touched by Ely’s influence.

Troy is an accomplished musician, an entrepreneur, and a cultural ambassador for the city of Austin, TX. He’s a founding member of Loose Diamonds, one of the bands who defined alternative country in the ‘90s. He’s released several critically acclaimed solo records. He helped the late Roky Erickson make a joyful comeback in the years preceding his death. Most recently he founded the House of Songs, an organization dedicated to connecting musical talent in the U.S. to musicians from around the world.

His impressive trajectory began when he was a music obsessed kid living outside of Dayton in rural Ohio. Once, while paging through a copy of Creem magazine the young Troy came upon a photo of The Clash with none other than Joe Ely. Campbell was immediately curious.

“I wanted to know: ‘who is this guy [The Clash] are dressing to look like?’’” he said.

As one did in the pre-Internet age, Troy promptly went not to his computer to Google Ely, but to his local record store to see if he could pick up any of this mystery man’s records. He went home with Down on the Drag, an Ely album from 1979.

Down on the Drag sounded nothing like he had anticipated.

“I was expecting to hear like, music that was faster or meaner – instead it was like revved up country,” he said.

It sounded akin to the music Troy had grown up with in Appalachia. Yet, Ely’s music resonated with the young music obsessive in a way he could only compare to Bruce Springsteen – except Ely was “… making the music I’d been running from seem cool.”

Sometime later an early incarnation of the True Believers traveled from the Lone Star State to Dayton. Troy made sure to attend. Both Troy and his brother, Mike, were dazzled by the band, made up of brothers Alejandro and Javier Escovedo.

At the show’s after party Troy was given a golden opportunity: a chance to ask this Texas-based group about Joe Ely. As it turns out, not only did Alejandro Escovedo know about Joe Ely, he knew him personally!

This comment piqued Troy’s interest in Austin, but perhaps more importantly, the conversation seemed to pique Alejandro’s interest in Troy.

Alejandro suggested Troy and his brother start a band. If they did, he said they could open for the True Believers the next time they played in the area.

“I didn’t play music,” Troy said. “I secretly wrote lyrics, but more than anything, I was the biggest music fan in the world. But I looked at Alejandro, and, without consulting my little brother, I said ‘Yes. We will start a band!”

Although initially Mike was not too happy with the promise his brother had made, they did start a band: the Highwaymen. Alejandro kept good on his promise and the group opened for the True Believers at their next Dayton show.

After that show Alejandro encouraged the Campbell brothers to get out of small town Ohio and try to make it as a band in Austin. He said the budding musicians could stay on his couch.

Alejandro helped the Highwaymen land a first gig in Austin shortly after. This gave the Ohio natives a chance to check out the well from which both the True Believers and the legendary Joe Ely sprang before deciding if they should make a cross country move.

On their way back to Ohio, the Highwaymen stopped at a barbecue place in Lubbock, called Stubb’s. The band only had enough money between them to split a single meal, so they were surprised (and grateful) when they were promptly served four bowls of soup by a gentleman who, unbeknownst to them, happened to be the restaurant’s owner – C.B. Stubblefield.

“[Stubblefield] said ‘you’re in a band, I’m gonna feed you,'” Troy recalls. “‘You don’t have to pay. All you have to do is say ‘thank you.’”

After they ate, the grateful band noticed someone sitting with Stubblefield.

“We look over, and the guy was Joe Ely!” Troy said. “We were so freaked out we jumped in the van and drove straight back to Ohio talking about ‘we didn’t say hi to him, but look how close we got!’”

An image of Loose Diamonds from 1990. The picture is black and white and the group is standing against the Texas desert.
An image of Loose Diamonds from 1990. []
Soon after, Troy moved to Austin and dedicated himself to making music. The Highwaymen became the Loose Diamonds, a major group in the context of the alternative country music scene that brought together elements from punk and alternative rock and mixed them with country music.

Fast forward some 30-or-so years, and Troy has toured multiple times with Ely, both in the U.S. and Europe.

An image of a poster for a festival featuring both Joe Ely and Loose Diamonds.
[image courtesy of Troy Campbell]
Even all these years later, Ely still has a profound effect on Troy.

“Anytime I got to play a show with Joe Ely, or tour with him, I’ve still been in awe of him.”