Fortunate Sons

When the twisted fighters-not-lovers of Fleetwood Mac reunited last year to yield the modest creative returns of Say You Will, the band's first real studio album since 1987's Tango in the Night, it was easy to imagine the perks of a re-entry into the public eye offsetting the group's storied in-studio animosity. After all, when you've developed a network of addictions (to money, to fame, to whatever) as intricate as the one holding these supergifted brats together, you have to feed the beast something more than dashed-off live albums and cheesy inaugural-ball bootlegs.

When the laid-back cosmic cowpokes of Lubbock's Flatlanders reunited in 1998 to cut "South Wind of Summer" for Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, there weren't any perks to speak of: Beyond a 1973 debut album originally released exclusively on eight-track tape (and reissued on CD by Rounder in 1990 to pre-alt-country collectors), the Flatlanders, in the words of that CD's title, had become More a Legend Than a Band, an early precursor to the cowpunk liberalism that would produce such late-'80s/early-'90s bands-not-legends as Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks. What's more, each of the three Flatlanders--dry Joe Ely, wry Butch Hancock and presumably high Jimmie Dale Gilmore--followed up that '73 debut with a successful solo career of his own. So slotting them alongside successors like Gillian Welch and Steve Earle on Whisperer, Redford wasn't offering the Flatlanders anything more than a historical bump (and perhaps the chance to meet Kristin Scott Thomas in the flesh). When I met up with the guys last month in a New York City hotel suite, it's clear even that's more than they needed.

"A lot of times a band becomes a business or something," Ely says in his hardscrabble music-vet drawl. "We've always tried to keep the music thing not as part of any business, but just as part of the thing that moves us, whatever that thing is that keeps us going physically and spiritually. And that's what we try to keep fresh. We made an agreement: If business or anything like that ever comes in the way of our friendship, then we'll immediately drop that."

Gilmore and Hancock agree: As far as they're concerned, just because the world didn't hear from the Flatlanders for more than a quarter of a century doesn't mean the Flatlanders didn't exist. The opportunity to get together and record a song simply meant a chance to hang out on someone else's dime. "We've been part of each other's lives throughout," Gilmore says. "Sometimes we were overtly working together, but I feel like we've always been collaborators. The whole time we weren't playing music together we still were best friends."

That approach helps explain the easy warmth and effortless charm of Wheels of Fortune, the Flatlanders' new album and the follow-up to 2002's Now Again, which attracted attention precisely because it was the first most of the world had heard from the group for 29 years. Like Again, Wheels is a set of gently off-kilter country-rock songs about old love, new loneliness and beautiful women, though this one also boasts a song about a guy named Shorty, whom lots of women would like to strangle. Hancock's opener, "Baby Do You Love Me Still?," typifies the singular way the trio conflates the personal and the universal, the casually profound with the unabashedly goofy: "Well, the sun don't sink, it don't swim, it don't set," he sings over a delicate twang. "Is it androids or elephants that never forget?/Have the East and the West met yet?/Baby do you love me still?" In Ely's deliberately paced "Neon of Nashville," the singer sketches a portrait of waste that illustrates his experience: "Now someone said they saw her years later at the bottom of Main/Fifth of whiskey in her hand, codeine in her brain." And Gilmore gets emo without getting mushy in his and Hancock's closer, "See the Way": "See the way true love has left you face to face with all mankind/See the way true love has led you from place to place, from time to time."

Wheels differs from Again in one significant respect: Last time, the trio wrote new songs together, whereas this time they chose songs from one another's sizable portfolios. (A plus to this process? Ely's bringing a rockabilly edge to Gilmore's high-plains mystical "Go to Sleep Alone," with its talk of climbing "the golden stairs somewhere past Jacob's Ladder.") Still, Gilmore insists that the method takes a backseat to the group's natural chemistry.

"We never have gone into a project with the idea of, 'This is the demographic we're aiming at,'" he says. "We don't think like that; we never did think like that. It's really just for the love of the music, and the love and respect for a particular song. And I think that you can hear that on this record--the lyrics and the feeling of the song is the paramount thing. All the music that's in it is for the purpose of framing that."

Ely adds that in addition to hanging out together between 1973 and 1998, they've actually worked together, too, so a natural amount of songwriterly influence has been inevitable. He brings up some writing the Flatlanders did with fellow Lubbock-scene denizen Terry Allen in Philadelphia about a "West Texas hooker named Chippy." The three collaborated with Allen again in the late '80s and early '90s on some work sponsored by the Washington Project for the Arts, in which they were commissioned to write a new national anthem. Ely remembers that over the course of about 10 days they wrote 14 national anthems, which they played in a filmed concert at the Smithsonian. "And a month and a half later," he says, "the guy who had the films, his house caught on fire and burned all the tapes up. So we have no record of that."

I tell the three that given their band's ephemeral reputation, that sounds all too appropriate. They know.

"It's kind of funny, because I think this is the first time that people have actually had something to focus on," Hancock says of that legacy and the permanence the last two albums have given it. "All the time before that, it was like, 'Yeah, sure, there were Flatlanders.' There was always this big weird question mark on our history."

"It kind of became real once a record was in the works," Ely continues. "Before it was almost mythical--like the longer you get away from it, the more it's talked about, but it doesn't seem like anything really happened." He laughs. "We're trying to blow that myth completely apart by putting this record out a year and a half after the one before it. You know, instead of 30 years, like it was before."

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Mikael Wood