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The Flatlanders' Legendary Careers Keep Growing

These guys have seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night. That we know for sure.
Steve Gullick

Even over the phone, it's hard to mistake the voice of Jimmie Dale Gilmore. A high, dusty warble perfectly suited to the Panhandle plains from which it came, it's instantly, unmistakably recognizable, worthy of inclusion in the choir of uniquely American voices like Bob Dylan, Otis Redding and George Jones.

But when it was first committed to tape in the early '70s, it went largely unheard for years, left to rot on an eight-track release of the sole album by The Flatlanders, the now legendary band made up of Gilmore, fellow singer-songwriters Joe Ely and Butch Hancock and anyone else who happened to be in the room at the time (the number of honorary Flatlanders past and present must be at least 30 by now).

Luckily, those who caught the original band's few gigs around Texas never forgot them, and as the solo careers of Ely, Gilmore and Hancock took flight in the late '70s and '80s—with Ely even opening an entire tour for The Clash at one point—so did the mythic status of The Flatlanders, a rise that culminated in the release of the highly influential 1990 reissue More a Legend Than a Band and an eventual reunion that spawned 2002's Now Again, 2004's Wheels of Fortune and the recently released Hills and Valleys.

Considering the effect their collective efforts have had on Texas music (and music at large, with notable fans including acclaimed artists like Jay Farrar and M. Ward), it's not surprising that encounters with Ely, Hancock and Gilmore are often cherished moments for Texas music fans. (For instance, this writer will never forget the time he walked into Terlingua's Starlight Theatre and saw Butch Hancock sitting at the bar, or the time Gilmore walked into the Austin Tex-Mex restaurant he was eating at.) For some of us, brushing shoulders with a Flatlander is a little like being a young folkie in 1950s New York and running into Woody Guthrie—not surprisingly one of The Flatlanders' biggest influences.

In fact, it could be said that Guthrie's ghost looms larger than any other on the group's new record, a comfortable, folksy set that veers into far more topical territory than The Flatlanders of old.

"It's really true that all three of us had a love of Woody Guthrie when we were exposed to him," Gilmore says. "I came up in this context of really being steeped in honky-tonk music, that old '50s commercial country stuff. And some of Woody Guthrie's songs were actual hit country songs in those days, oddly enough. The Maddox Brothers and Rose did some Woody Guthrie stuff. And 'Oklahoma Hills,' I think Hank Thompson did that... That was my first exposure to him, and then, later on, when I started learning to play the guitar, I was really more steeped in the folk.

"You just started slowly learning that Woody Guthrie was part of all of it. You know, being a friend of Pete Seeger and then also of Leadbelly, and obviously his influence on Bob Dylan...he affected the whole music world indirectly by having such an influence on so many musicians."

Gilmore honors this influence with his arrangement of Guthrie's "Sowing on the Mountain," a song which perfectly complements the socially conscious character studies that make up the backbone of Hills and Valleys—from "Borderless Love," an upbeat Tex-Mex romp inspired by the construction of a border fence as the band held writing sessions at Hancock's home in Terlingua ("Borderless love, there's no border at all/In a borderless love there's no need for a wall") to "After the Storm," a melancholy account of love lost inspired by Hurricane Katrina.

"It so happened that one of the times we had been able to get all the ducks in a row to spend a few days together writing was the day after Katrina happened," Gilmore says. "And so we were just inundated. We were overwhelmed by all those images that were coming out of New Orleans. We've played there a whole lot and just love it and had a lot of musician friends there. We didn't really get much writing done that day, but we realized right away that we wanted to put some of those feelings into a song if we could..."

"I never had any leaning toward topical songs," he quickly adds. "But textbooks and newspapers sort of don't have it within their purview to put as much of the emotional stuff in that songs and poetry can. We never had any intention of doing any kind of overtly political thing, but there's just so much going on these days that it's part of everybody's environment now, you know?"

It's almost a disservice to call Hills and Valleys a political record, as it really only continues the tradition of colorful characters that The Flatlanders have always cultivated in their songs, from the wide-eyed-country-boy-in-the-city of Gilmore's classic "Dallas" to the desert-dwelling outlaws and highway drifters that populate the songs of Hancock and Ely. It just so happens that the struggles of The Flatlanders' romantic outcasts have become even more universal now, thanks to the events of recent years.

Take a listen to Hills and Valleys' "Homeland Refugee," and it's hard to believe that the song was written before last year's financial collapse, with lyrics like "I lost my home when the deal went bust/To the so-called security and trust." Turns out the tune's actually inspired by Californians forced to move to Texas to escape earlier economic woes.

"Joe came up with the idea because he saw a newspaper article that actually used the image of people abandoning their houses and leaving the porch light on ['I left our yellow porch light on/No one will notice no one's home/And no one else will notice what was lost.']," Gilmore says. "And we got to thinking about all that and the stories down through the years about the Dust Bowl and everything; and of course being Woody Guthrie fans, it's almost like some of it suggested itself because it's history repeating itself. A 'reverse migration' is what Joe called it."

Viewed through the lens of the past year, however, the song's not only a winking tribute to Guthrie but the type of universal American folk song Woody himself might have written, a pastiche of social commentary and colorful imagery both borrowed and new ("I'm leaving California for the dust bowl/They took it all, there's nowhere else to go/The pastures of plenty are burning by the sea/And I'm just a homeland refugee"). It's the kind of song that might echo in the hearts of every Dust Bowler had it been written 80 years ago, and it stands as a testament that the formidable songwriters of The Flatlanders, nearly 40 years on, are just as sharp as ever. 


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