by John T. Davis
The windy, expansive universe of West Texas around the town of Lubbock is distilled from just two elements: the land and the sky. They keep one another balanced in symmetrical counterpoint, with the horizon as a distant point of reference. In this most unadorned of landscapes, sunlight and shadow charge the Plains and the overarching sky with improbably transcendental power. This is the panorama that gave rise to the music of The Flatlanders.
Today, the three prime component members of The Flatlanders-Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock--are better known as individual singer-songwriters. But The Flatlanders was the breeding ground for three extraordinary bodies of work, and the pull, which the band continues to exert on both its alumni and its fans, remains strong today.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore formed his first group in the late 1960s in Lubbock, Texas, followed in short order by the Hub City Movers. But creative lightning didn't strike until 1971, when he united with Hancock and Ely in The Flatlanders (the original group also included musical saw player Steve Wesson, string bassist Sylvester Rice and mandolinist Tony Pearson.)
"Joe had been traveling in Europe and Butch had been in San Francisco," Gilmore told writer Colin Escott. "We just coincidentally moved back to Lubbock at the same time and started playing together. There was no design to put a band together as such, but the chemistry was so great that it just took on a life of its own. We all had a common love of folk music, country and country blues--but then we also loved The Beatles. We listened to it all."
There was something about The Flatlanders, the band that boasted not only the combined songwriting wattage of the three principals, but influences ranging from Jimmie Rodgers to The Beatles to Mexican border radio. Where else were you going to find a cover of the old Harry Choates Cajun standard "Jolie Blon" alongside an original song called "Bhagavan Decreed"?, or songs as striking, powerful, humorous and sad as Hancock's "One Road More" ("Well I never could move my feet too fast in a pair of rich man's shoes/And there ain't a shoe alive that'll last as long as a poor man's blues..."), or Gilmore's "Tonight I'm Gonna Go Downtown" ("My love would just not see/That this world's just not real to me/Tonight I think I'm gonna go downtown...")?
The stark landscape of West Texas and the ceaseless keening of the restless wind lent an almost mystical resonance to the band's music.
Unfortunately, that magic did not immediately translate to record, or to the listening public at large.
The Flatlanders--highly untutored in the ways of the music business-- were all but laughed out of Nashville on the one trip they made to Music City in 1971. The fledgling group traveled to Nashville with a demo tape that had been ineptly dubbed "upside down and backwards," according to Gilmore. He recalls hearing the tape hitting the sides of wastebaskets--clang!--as the group were ushered out of one Music Row office after another. Eventually, the band recorded for Shelby Singleton's Plantation Records, which released a few copies of a Flatlanders album on eight-track tape in 1972.
In 1980, the tracks re-surfaced on England's Charly label as One Road More. Since 1990, the album has been available on Rounder Records as More A Legend Than A Band. The first sound that listeners heard of The Flatlanders on their one and only recorded effort was the mournful, high-lonesome voice of Jimmie Dale singing one of his own songs called "Dallas." The opening lines of that tune harbor what is still, perhaps, his most potent and poignant image: "Have you ever seen Dallas/From a DC-9 at night?" Another vocalist might use the line to convey anticipation, but Gilmore sings it with the melancholy echo of unredeemed dreams--the lights are only beautiful from a distance. In that song--and in many more in the years to come-Gilmore and his pals demonstrated their enviable ability to conjure up a world of emotion in a few simple words.
After their disappointing Nashville sojourn, the band moved down to the Texas capital of Austin, which in 1973 was enjoying a musical renaissance fueled by an ornery combustion of country, rock and blues, and an explosion of original songwriting talent. The Flatlanders settled in at the Armadillo World Headquarters beer garden and played the Kerrville Folk Festival. But gradually, the tidal forces of the Austin scene and their own personal musical tastes pulled them apart and launched them on their respective solo careers.
"We never made a penny but we had a lot of fun," said Ely. "We played more porches than stages. But we all lived in the same house together, and every day we'd get up and play music together. It was about all we did."
Gilmore went on a series of musical and spiritual quests, which culminated in a trio of highly regarded albums, After Awhile, Spinning Around the Sun, and Braver, Newer World. Country-and-Eastern music, some folks dubbed his songs.
Butch Hancock pursued his own idiosyncratic path, churning out albums on his own independent label (Emmylou Harris covered his lovely "If You Were A Bluebird"), and winding up as a river-guide/balladeer down in the Big Bend desert country of far West Texas.
Ely has performed with everyone from The Clash to Bruce Springsteen to The Rolling Stones. His ferocious energy, reminiscent of one of his West Texas cyclones, and his dusty, borderland romanticism mark him as the natural heir to Panhandle rockers such as Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Buddy Knox.
Still, the Flatlanders' legacy remains a proud part of their common history.
"There's some strange mystique about that band," Ely reiterates today.
The news that the core trio of Ely, Gilmore and Hancock were officially collaborating on a new song for the soundtrack of Robert Redford's 1997 movie, The Horse Whisperer, sent a shiver of excitement among fans of the three musicians. The song, "South Wind of Summer," marked the Flatlanders' first official collaboration in nearly a quarter-century. In May of 1998, they surfaced on David Letterman's television show.
In 1999, the trio appeared before a huge audience on the popular New York Summer Stage series in Central Park. The New York Times wound up writing half a page on a group hardly anyone had ever heard of. The buzz was, as they say, formidable.
In 2001, they performed "Blue Wind Blew," a track on Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt, the Grammy-nominated album dedicated to their fellow Texan, further fueling excitement about more things to come.
More important, from Ely's perspective, is that the three veteran songwriters re-discovered how much they enjoyed working together. "We'd played at each others' shows, but it was the first time in many years we'd actually sat down together and written. We came in and spent three days in the studio and put three really good songs together. And it was like, let's do this more often."
So they did. And so they have. Their New West Records debut, Now Again, with its dualistic title that looks both forward and back, is not a definitive summation of the life's work of Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. It is, however, a new turn of the wheel for three of Texas' most inspirational singer/songwriters, and a welcome treat for all of their fans.
--John T. Davis
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