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Drive Keeps Joe Ely All Over the Map : Pop music: Tough to categorize, the singer-songwriter is always looking for a new road--but not shortcuts.

November 11, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Ely gave the title "Lord of the Highway" to the album he released in 1987, but it's a mantle he might more easily keep for himself. Since leaving his Lubbock, Tex., home in his teens to do the Kerouac bit, the 46-year-old singer-songwriter's odometer has turned over more times than the most road-weary Greyhound bus.

In Ely's world, the highway is as familiar and well-worn as the route to the kitchen. When you read of Lubbock's Buddy Holly having recorded in "nearby Clovis, New Mexico," that "nearby" covers a distance of 104 miles.

The town's other neighbors are equally removed: Amarillo (122 miles); Vernon (181); Odessa (142), and the nearest big city, Dallas (348). These are long, flat, featureless miles, vistas Ely has described as "psychedelic" in their spareness. Contemplating them through a windshield has inspired more than a few of his songs.

His meager level of commercial success has kept him on the road steadily for nearly two decades. Ely's lightning-fired mix of rock and country music just came along too early, some have said. He's too country for rock fans, too rock for country and too damn good anyway to warrant much notice from the slick 'n' light music Establishment.

Some folks have been rightly peeved that Ely never hit the big time while lesser talents are driving their big rigs down the road he blazed. Ely, however, isn't one of them.

"I never considered 'success' as a real gauge of anything. Just last night backstage at this place in Davis, I guess some musician had drawn a picture of this scared musician with great big eyes looking at this signpost between 'fame' and 'obscurity.' And I thought, 'Man, what does that have to do with music ?'

"That's thinking like a businessman or a marketing engineer or something, if he was afraid of some crossroads like that. I love taking different roads. Every time I put a new record together or attempt something, it's a different road," Ely said.

True to form, he was calling from a pay phone.

"Where am I? Hell if I know," he said. "We're on Interstate 5, somewhere between San Francisco and Bakersfield. It's not even a city, just one of those complexes that only has gas stations and fast-food joints. The city of the future! I'm in some Nathan's, I guess descended from the Coney Island place that invented hot dogs. Now they have them looking just like 7-Eleven gas stations and stuff. Boy, this place is too clean and too well lit for me."

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Ely played 180 cities last year, somewhat less this year due to some side projects. The gigs are a varied lot.

"In this last year I've played with Springsteen at Madison Square Garden and then last night in a tiny little room in Davis, Calif.," he said. "That's kind of been my life, jumping between all kinds of places. And the thing that keeps me going is the whole variety of everything, how everything changes, records and songs, people, places and everything else."

Among his changes of late are an all-acoustic album due in the spring and his work on a musical, "Chippy," a recent collaboration with some of his old West Texas friends.

Though Ely is no stranger to playing acoustic at shows--his Coach House performance tonight will be a solo acoustic outing--this will be the first time he's done without the wattage in a studio since his first recording in 1972 with the Flatlanders, which also was the first recording experience for Ely's friends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.

Another friend from that time is visual artist and musician Terry Allen. (His "Youth in Asia" was exhibited at Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1993). Ely, Hancock, Allen and his playwright wife, Jo Harvey Allen, got together to do "Chippy" after Jo Harvey had come across the dust-bowl-era diaries of a West Texas prostitute.

The resulting musical has been staged this year in Philadelphia at the American Music Theater Festival and at New York's Lincoln Center. The music, released on Hollywood Records, has garnered rave reviews, though the production on whole has been less well received. Ely doesn't expect it's headed for Broadway.

"The actual reviews of the play were pretty mixed, you know," Ely said with a chuckle. "It's not a real popular subject, not really Broadway material, not a light little comedy like 'Best Little Whorehouse. . .' was. Although it is a musical, it was a very heavy piece, and made Chippy into a real complex person."

Doing the music was a departure from the way Ely usually approaches a song.

"Usually I don't have subject matter sitting there in front of me and then write a song around it. Instead, I'll start a song because it's something personal, not just some outside subject or person. It's rather something that happens to me or something that comes into my gut and my consciousness, and I'll write a song about it.

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