By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
More a Legend Than a Band. That was the fitting title bestowed on the one album made by The Flatlanders when it was finally released in 1990, nearly 20 years after the group formed by Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock actually recorded it. Now, a decade later, the three have reunited to embark on the first-ever Flatlanders tour. At the pace they've been going, this trio of Lubbock-bred singer-songwriters has been in no danger of The Flatlanders becoming a band more than anything else. At least, perhaps, until now.
"It's funny when people think of The Flatlanders as a band, because we weren't," says Ely. "The Flatlanders was mainly a band that hung around our living room all day, and people would come in and out, and sit in, and bring songs to the table. We were a group of friends, and that's what we did. I think we played a couple of paying things, just enough to make $80 for our rent."
It was 1970. Gilmore had introduced Ely to Hancock when all three had landed back in Lubbock after escaping their hometown during the '60s. They ended up sharing a house and becoming "one of a billion garage bands happening across America at that time," notes Hancock. However, The Flatlanders did manage to land a deal with Nashville record producer-cum-hustler Shelby Singleton, and they headed to Nashville to cut an album in 1971.
Hancock recalls their thinking, "This was our big break. We were gonna make a million dollars and tour the world." He lets out a sharp laugh at the memory. "We kept waiting and waiting [for the record to come out]. And spring went by and summer went by. We finally confronted our 'manager' at the time. And he just -- to coin a great West Texas phrase -- likened to shit his britches trying to talk his way out of it."
But aside from a double-sided promo single of Gilmore's song "Dallas" and some copies manufactured on eight-track tape cartridges (the first practical recorded-audio format for vehicles, it was then a popular country-music configuration), the Flatlanders album never came out. "We had just had the first of various raw deals from the music industry," Hancock explains, "so we all kinda pulled back to our own individual things, but we kept up the friendship over the years."
By 1977, Ely was fronting the hottest honky-tonk band in West Texas and had released his self-titled solo debut on MCA Records, featuring songs written by all three Flatlanders. In due time, Gilmore and Hancock also put out records and gained international attention outside the Texas singer-songwriter scene. As they all grew in stature, the legend of The Flatlanders sprouted, nourished by the curiosity about what the sum of these three considerable parts might have been, and those few rare bootleg copies of the group's album that existed.
Rounder Records eventually licensed the Flatlanders material and put it out in 1990. The most apt description may still be from the liner notes by Colin Escott, who put together the release. "The Flatlanders' sound was akin to a pre-War 78 rpm without the crackle and hiss -- except that the lyrics were stunningly contemporary." At once archaic and progressive, it was modern rural music made with a traditionally urbane approach, a disc as rich with charming riddles as a book of Zen koans.
By the time the Flatlanders album finally hit the record racks, Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock were all living in Austin. On rare occasions, they would do brief appearances as The Flatlanders: at the Kerrville Folk Festival, as part of Hancock's marathon No Two Alike live recording stand at Austin's Cactus Cafe, and at one of Gilmore's annual star-studded shows during the South by Southwest Music Festival, as well as "parties, weddings, and funerals," adds Hancock.
Then, in the last year or so, things slowly heated up. The Flatlanders recorded a song for the soundtrack album to The Horse Whisperer, a film that didn't really deserve their contribution. Last summer, the three played a show as The Flatlanders as part of New York City's Summerstage program in Central Park, doing solo sets and then a short closer together. They also appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, and The New York Times gave The Flatlanders a substantial spread. And suddenly, finally, The Flatlanders became a somewhat hot commodity.
"Theaters all over the country started calling, thinking that we were back together and going on tour," explains Ely. "So we thought, 'Well, wait a minute, why don't we just use that as an excuse to get together and be with each other for a few weeks?'"
What Ely makes sound almost blasé does have its business elements. The offers to play were good ones, financially. And according to Ely, "There have been a lot of offers for us to do a record." But if you expect The Flatlanders to see this as a chance to cash in, guess again.
"Everything is always on thin ice as far as The Flatlanders are concerned," insists Hancock, "which is I guess kind of a funny image, since we come from Lubbock. But I guess thin ice is the only kinda ice you get out there." But it's not because, like so many bands that once were, its members no longer care for one another. Rather, it's exactly the reverse.