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.
"We don't want this thing to turn into a commercial band venture," says Ely. "This is something that's really sacred to us. We want it to be just out of friendship. We aren't getting together to attract attention or record labels or anything like that. We really want to keep it about this friendship we've had for all these years."
Gilmore agrees that The Flatlanders are more about a bond then about a band. "It's the newest oldest band I know of," he notes on the eve of the Texas warm-up dates that will be followed in February by a short tour that will eventually take the group to some 15 cities. "In one sense, The Flatlanders never went away, in the most important sense, because it's just me and Butch and Joe having this weird thing. We like to hang out with each other, and we do these weird things that none of us would ever do alone."
Weird indeed, when you consider the fact that until just recently, these three songwriters who have swapped and shared material for years had never written a song together. "After all this time, it never even really occurred to us to sit down and write together," notes Ely. When asked why, he chuckles. "I have no idea. Usually it's just because somebody will tell a joke, and we have too much fun holding our sides laughing and rolling on the floor rather than getting any work done."
They had also confined their songwriting to being pretty much something they did solo by sheer force of habit, suspects Hancock. "I hardly ever write songs with anybody," he says. "My songwriting magnet has never drawn me in that direction. But with Joe and Jimmie, I feel comfortable hanging out with them and writing together. It was really fun.
"It goes back to the whole thing about being good friends over the years," Hancock adds. "That's kinda like how the band was to start with. We were actually friends at first, and then finally figured out we might be a band if we worked at it a little bit. So the songwriting is kinda going that way too. We all write songs, so, by God, we oughta be able to write together too."
And with new songs written for The Flatlanders by The Flatlanders, an album will inevitably follow. But first, there are other albums to promote. Gilmore's latest, One Endless Night, comes out at the end of February. It was co-produced by the multitalented Buddy Miller, a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and solo artist in his own right with three superb albums on HighTone Records, and a producer and engineer who is also the current creative foil for Emmylou Harris.
"I feel that the collaboration with Buddy is as important a thing that's happened to me as what happened back then with Butch and Joe, except that it just happened 30 years later," says Gilmore, who recorded the album with Miller on a Macintosh computer at Miller's home studio in Nashville and is releasing it on Windcharger Records, the Rounder-distributed label he and his manager Mike Crowley have started. "One day while I was sitting there listening to him put some overdubs on, it suddenly dawned on me that Buddy, maybe more than anyone I know, genuinely loves the same stuff that I genuinely love. He actually has that country music in his blood, the real country music, you know. He also genuinely loves rock and roll. He also genuinely loves the sweet folkie melodic ballad stuff, and the blues..." Gilmore's voice trails off, but the list could go on. "He didn't have to put up with my little weird quirks, because they were his."
The record reflects Gilmore's love of great songs, though it only contains only a couple of his own compositions. "I just was choosing songs, and it ended up being a whole slew of people whose work I loved," he explains. "If I'd had the motif -- pick out people who influenced me strongly and who I think are unsung -- Jesse Winchester, Willis Alan Ramsey and Townes Van Zandt [would have all been on the list].
"There's the question I've gotten already: Why didn't you write everything? But that's not a question to me," Gilmore continues. "I've never particularly thought of myself as a songwriter. I've written some songs, and I've written some good songs. But I really think of myself as a song lover and an interpreter."
Meanwhile, Ely also has a new record in the chute -- his third live recording, scheduled for a late spring release -- which, like Gilmore's new disc and the Flatlanders CD, is coming out on Rounder. He likens it to his first concert recording, Live Shots, which was tracked in 1980 while Ely was touring England opening for The Clash, since guitarist Jesse Taylor and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, both veterans of the first two versions of The Joe Ely Band, appear on both sets. "And they're really wailing," raves Ely of their work on the new disc.
Titled Live at Antone's, it was intended to be culled from four nights at the legendary Austin nightclub. "But just about everything comes from one night," Ely says. "There was one night that everything clicked. There's not a single overdub, and everything is completely live. It was one of those nights when you're really glad that the tape recorder was running. Because the first night was just terrible. Everything fed back, and we couldn't hear. We were playing frantically, and nobody relaxed. And then the second night it just all came together."
For Hancock, The Flatlanders draw him back into music at a time when he's been involved in some of his many other interests. Now living in Terlingua, he's become a family man since the birth of his son Rory, now two years old. He's also been working as a whitewater river-rafting guide for the Terlingua-based Far Flung Adventures, which sponsors trips on the Rio Grande and other rivers that feature nightly campfire entertainment by musicians like Hancock. He's indulging his training and offbeat inclinations as an architect by building his own home as well.
"If you think my songs are in any bit askew, you ought to see my buildings," Hancock says. "It'll be rock and mud and adobe, and everything else too. The whole thing's gonna be an experiment."
But experiments seem to be what all three Flatlanders tend to favor. Even though the band is a 30-year-old proposition, "We're kinda looking at it as a work in progress," says Ely. For the tour, they'll be backed by guitarist Rob Gjersoe (who has worked with Gilmore in recent years) and the current Ely Band rhythm section of Gary Herman on bass and Rafael O'Malley Gayol on percussion. It will allow the threesome to test the waters for their renewed collaboration and to try out the songs they've written together onstage.
"All the songs that we've written together are just totally different," notes Hancock. "None of us would ever write one of those songs. And yet it makes sense. It's not like you can guess who wrote what line, but you can totally understand that the three of us were the agents of the song coming about."
In the end, Ely insists the tour is "just an excuse to make music together. We could have done this at several different times in our lives. But I guess there's a reason we're doing it now," he concludes. "For one thing, we're able to write together as kind of a discovery process. We're not writing for anything. We're writing to see what we come up with. And to take everything that we've all learned from working with music for years, and applying it and seeing what happens. Then take it on the road, and if it feels good..." He trails off. "And if it doesn't, we'll drop it and just go out to dinner together."
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