When Willie Nelson penned the lyrics to “On the Road Again” for Honeysuckle Rose, he created an anthem for musicians around the world who spend their lives trapped in bus-shaped coffins hurtling down the highway.
Then there are the folks, musicians or not, for whom there is no other life, for whom the adventure of a new day and a new city is the only way to calm a restless soul. Jack Kerouac had that problem, and so does Texas-style rock ’n’ roller Joe Ely who, for more than four decades, has lived the itinerant dream Kerouac romanticized.
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Ely busked at One Knight Tavern in Austin with Stevie Ray Vaughan, back before it was Stubbs BBQ; he was a member of the Stomp cast (the original Broadway version, way back when); he toured with Ringling Bros. Circus in charge of llamas and the world’s smallest horse; and he was cast as Buddy Holly in a 1974 film production that fell apart, only to have his co-star (Gary Busey was originally cast as drummer Jerry Allison) take the part from him in the 1978 film. There was even a bizarre exchange program set up with his friends the Clash somewhere along the way, wherein he toured England with them during their London Calling days and they performed across Texas with him; the pairing seemed unlikely, but the Clash’s punk mantra and Ely’s fuck-Nashville attitude (typical amongst many Texas country artists) made them brothers in arms.
Between his solo work and his recordings with the reunited Flatlanders, Ely has released more than a dozen albums of foot-stomping, honky-tonk rockabilly and earned a reputation for being one of America’s greatest musical chroniclers of life on the road. On the real road, that is. •