Texan Joe Ely has lived by his wits enough to learn a few things.
“I realized it was virtually impossible to starve to death in America if you knew how to ask properly for some crackers and a glass of water,” he said.
And, the Lubbock-born country-folk singer realized that the only way he was going to see a hill, much less all the world had to offer, was to get out of town. So in his late teens and early 20s, he freed himself up to do it.
“Growing up in the ’60s learning Woody Guthrie songs and reading Jack Kerouac books, there was a certain kind of adventure to plug into,” Ely said. “And you kind of had to be homeless in order to be able to pick up and go in any direction at any time. You hear about things and pack up and go to them without a second thought.”
Ely will play Chickie Wah Wah on Saturday, and that traveling spirit led to the title of his most recent album, “Panhandle Rambler.”
Its cover features an Airstream trailer set against a long, dusty Texas Panhandle horizon, and it sets the tone for songs whose stories could have taken place 40 minutes or 40 years ago. It’s the sort of story Ely is drawn to these days.
“I always had a fascination with hobos and midnight travelers,” he said, partly because of his own lifestyle and partly because those people had always been in his life.
His father ran a used clothing store in Lubbock, so those people were his customers, and their lives then and now aren’t overly determined by the details that date-stamp a story.
Musically, Ely shares a sensibility with Texas songwriting peers Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.
All drew as much from Guthrie as any country singer, and all had rock ’n’ roll in their blood — Ely more obviously than most. Buddy Holly’s influence is strong in him, as is the Mexican spirit.
As a child, the influx of migrant workers from Mexico who came to work the cotton fields made an impact. On the weekends, they went downtown in numbers large enough to change the character of Lubbock, and it was there he heard Mexican field hands playing music in the streets.
“There would be bajo sextos and accordions and twin trumpets playing out in the street, and there was real magic in that and the people who came with them,” Ely remembered. “All of that fascinated me and probably triggered my love of the accordion.”
When Ely was 16 or 17, he grabbed his guitar and hit the road for the first time. “I went to Dallas and Fort Worth and played there a little bit,” he said. “Actually made it down to New Orleans and played somewhere down there.”
Ely played the House of Blues in 2007 when The Flatlanders — Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock — reunited to record a new album.
The three played together from 1972 to 1973, and their subsequent careers have caused that short-lived band to loom larger in the minds of their fans than the members themselves. Ely thinks of The Flatlanders more as an extension of their friendship than a group, so they only play together when it makes sense for personal, not professional, reasons.
“Every few years, we say, ‘Let’s get together and write a few songs,’ ” Ely said. “If that happens and the songs actually start coming, we’ll go out and tour with them. When the three of us write a song, it’s a song none of us would have written individually. Sometimes, you’ve got to get together to see what comes out, and that makes it a special time.”
As a teenager, Ely traveled from Lubbock to New York City with his guitar and a backpack. He slept at night on the Staten Island Ferry, paying the nickel fare each way “because it was nice and warm in there.”
He played on the streets of Wall Street until someone tipped him that there wasn’t enough foot traffic to make any money there. The person gave Ely an intersection that turned out to be the location of Carnegie Hall.
“I had pretty good luck there,” he said. “Made enough to get a pretty good meal and a cup of coffee.”
When he played Carnegie Hall with The Flatlanders decades later, he told the audience, “This isn’t the first that I’ve played here. The last time I played a few feet from here on the other side of that wall.”