by Robert A. Waters
He’s been called a “Texas country rocker,” and maybe that fits. But for me, Joe Ely’s best songs describe real-life stories with a touch of gritty macabre. “Me and Billy the Kid” twists the legendary outlaw’s tale like a Texas windstorm, and who couldn’t love “The Road Goes on Forever?”
In 1986, Ely played a gig at Slim’s, a club in San Francisco. According to the Los Angeles Times, one of the guitars he used that night was a custom-built “solid-body electric made for him by Austin, Texas, guitar maker Ted Newman-Jones, who, at Ely’s request, created an instrument with a billiards theme that was painted pool table felt blue and with pool ball-shaped inlays on the neck.” Newman-Jones had built several one-of-a-kind instruments for Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard.
After the gig, an unknown crack-head (okay, I don’t know the thief was a crack-head, but I’d bet on it) stole two guitars from the singer. In addition to the custom Newman-Jones, a valuable 1957 Fender Stratocaster also disappeared.
Fast-forward to 2013, and a Californian named Matt Wright. Twenty-seven years earlier, Wright had bought the guitar from a pawnshop in Merced. For decades, he wondered about the unusual instrument he’d purchased. Who did it belong to? Where did it come from?
One night, as he watched the replay of an old Austin City Limits show, he saw Ely playing the unique instrument. Suddenly, he knew. He’d likely purchased the Texas legend’s favorite guitar. A few strokes of an Internet keyboard revealed the story: Wright owned a stolen guitar.
Ely later recounted what happened next. “It was amazing,” he said. “The guy came and brought the guitar yesterday, and presented it to me onstage last night. After he told the whole story onstage, we figured out where the guitar had been stolen, and it was only about three blocks from Slim’s. We were all exhilarated. We were dancing around and passing the guitar back and forth.”
Wright refused to accept payment, and everyone left happy.
Now, all that’s left is to listen to my favorite Joe Ely song, “The Road Goes on Forever.”