Even if you put names like Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen in the hat, it'd be hard to pull out an act that has made more fruitful use of the road than the Flatlanders, the three country-plus song-poet troubadours from Lubbock, Texas, whose intertwined careers led them to the Sellersville Theater in Bucks County on Thursday night.
The trio of roadhouse rocker Joe Ely, Zen country mystic Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and philosophical tale-teller Butch Hancock started off their nearly sold-out show in the former livery stable off Route 309 by taking turns at the microphone on Ely's "I Had My Hopes Up High."
"I left my home on the great High Plains / Headed for some new terrain," Ely sang in that song's opening line, setting the tone for an evening about the itch to roam and the fleeting wisdom acquired along the way.
Nearly two hours later, the band, which included three backup musicians, most prominently lead guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, bookended the evening with another song about a hitchhiker, penned by Lubbock compadre Terry Allen, whom Ely referred to as "the fourth Flatlander." That lost soul looking to hitch a ride in "Gimme a Ride to Heaven" turned out to be a pistol-packing Jesus looking for transportation home to "talk to my Dad." The tune delivers a kicker worth waiting for: "The Lord works in mysterious ways, and tonight he's gonna use your car."
In between, the trio celebrated the 40th anniversary of their first recordings, made in 1972. Typically for a band whose members have rarely followed predictable career paths, those recordings, The Odessa Tapes, are just coming out for the first time this summer, on the New West label.
The opportunity to look back while moving forward invigorated the trio. In a six-song interlude alone on stage, the three-man guitar pull delivered Hancock's gem "Danglin' Diamond." from his forthcoming album, Seven Cities of Gold, and Ely sang "Homeland Refuge," a Woody Guthrie-esque tale about a contemporary migrant whose California dreams dry up and land him back in the Dust Bowl.
There were also plenty of deep thought-ruminations from Gilmore, still blessed with a sui generis voice located somewhere near the intersection of Hank Williams and Rudy Vallee. "Was evolution created, or did creationism evolve?" he winningly wondered, before leading his buddies in a version of his masterpiece, "Dallas."
The oft-recorded song, first cut for The Odessa Tapes, started off acoustic before shifting into hard-driving honky-tonk gear. The idea, Gilmore said, was to show how it had evolved over the years. But what it really underscored is that he and his buddies have built up a seemingly endless supply of songs that remain as rewarding as when originally written and as band members continue along, as another Odessa Tapes song puts it, "One Road More."