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Joe Ely, Stolen Guitar Reunited After 27 Years

Dawn Wright

Joe Ely has no doubt things come full circle, in his case again and again. When the singer-songwriter played in San Francisco on April 25, 1986, the band’s instrument trailer was broken into and all of their equipment was stolen, including a custom-made guitar that belonged to Joe.

Joe had given up on finding his guitar until recently, when a man who bought the instrument in a pawn shop 20 years ago found out the guitar had been stolen. Just this week, Matt Wright, a musician from Merced, Calif., returned the guitar to its rightful owner when Joe played Slim’s in San Francisco, just three blocks from where the instrument was stolen. (See a photo of the two backstage above.) But the story doesn’t end there.

The next morning, while the band was having breakfast in Vallejo, Calif., just across the bay from San Francisco, their van was broken into. This time, the thief got away with computers and briefcases.

“It’s been a real roller-coaster ride,” Joe tells The Boot. “The week started out with our road manager twisting his ankle, but then in San Francisco we were all so happy that this guitar that got stolen 27 years ago came back. It was a great reunion. It looks just like it did when I lost it and it still plays just as good. Then, while we were having breakfast at Denny’s the next morning, someone broke into our van and stole money, computers, iPads and all the kind of stuff that has our day-to-day operation in it. The guy just knocked in a side window in the van, reached in and grabbed what he could get. But the guitar I got back last night was in the seat behind all that stuff, and he left it alone. We’re just glad that nobody got hurt.”

Joe, an Americana artist who has also had success in country music, has a list of hits spanning 40 years, from the 1970s through today, including “Musta Notta Gotta Lotta,” “Dallas,” “The Road Goes on Forever” and “Me and Billy the Kid.” He can sometimes be found with good friends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, performing as the Flatlanders. As a solo artist, Joe has opened for the Rolling Stones, performed with Paul McCartney and played a private party for Julia Roberts with Los Super Seven at the actress’ ranch in Wyoming.

Despite calls from a mystery man that came shortly after the guitar disappeared, purporting to have the guitar and equipment and offering to sell it back to Joe, the guitar never materialized and the singer thought he would never see it again, even though police traced the calls to the San Francisco police department. When Joe first got the call that his instrument had been found, he was, naturally, incredulous. But once he saw a photo, he knew it was the same guitar that had been built for him in 1984.

“The guy found the guitar in a pawn shop in 1990 and just kept it at his house,” Joe explains. “He said to him it was mysterious, well-worn and played a lot, and he often wondered where it came from. Then one night he saw an ‘Austin City Limits’ rerun from 1984-85 and I was playing that guitar. He found out how to contact my manger and told him he had the guitar. [The guitar maker] made about 15 custom five-string guitars for Keith Richards, and I met him in Austin in the late ’70s,” says Joe. “About 1983, I asked him to make me a custom guitar. The overall premise was to have a pool-table motif, so it had a triangle rack shape for the pick guard and pool balls embedded in the neck. It played great and I took it with me all over the place. After it was stolen, we were playing in Berkeley, Calif., the next night and all the San Francisco musicians pitched in and brought us amps and instruments so we could do the show. Local radio stations told their listeners about the theft and newspapers ran stories. After they traced the calls to the police department, I never heard another word about the guitar. I did get a letter from [San Francisco] Mayor Diane Feinstein, apologizing to me about the theft.”

Joe recalls that another instrument stolen at the time, a bass guitar, was discovered during a drug bust a few years later.

“Then this guy who bought the guitar in a pawn shop went to the trouble to find me and bring it to the show last night, and we were really thrilled about that. He was a very sweet guy and I offered to pay him for what he had in it and he wouldn’t take it. That part of the story turned out really great; we’ll get over this other part.”

Joe adds that the restaurant has a security camera and Joe has videotape of a man driving up beside the van in a two-tone black and white car, smashing the window with a tool and taking the band’s belongings out of the van. Although he’s hopeful someone will recognize the description of the car, the Vallejo P.D., underfunded and understaffed due to the city filing for bankruptcy, is unable to investigate the incident. Joe was told that the theft came under the description of vandalism and that he should file a report online.

An interesting side note: a few years ago, while Joe was recording his Satisfied at Last album, the Texas native noticed that some things were starting to come back to him.

“An old violin I played when I was eight years old and sold at 14 to buy a PA system for my band came back to me through the brother of the guy I sold it to,” he notes. “Then I had an old Cadillac that I was having painted while I was out of town. When I came home, the shop was closed down and the car was gone. Some 35 years later I found it in a farmer’s cotton field. He had been using the engine to power his irrigation equipment. And one night in the ’80s, when I was playing Greune Hall south of Austin, some girl stole my jacket. A year ago, she got to feeling guilty about it and she brought it back to me. Then we got the call that this guy had my guitar and wanted to return it. All these things just started happening to me.”

Joe is thrilled to have his guitar back, yet he still wonders who made those calls to him right after the guitar was stolen, and where the instrument was after it was stolen and before Wright purchased it in the pawn shop. Although he doubts he will ever hear that story, Joe might just have to get creative and write “The Ballad of the Turquoise Guitar” for his next album.

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