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Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock were once known as the Flatlanders. But truth be told, they've hardly used the name since 1973, when their debut, Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders, was released -- exclusively on eight-track, believe it or not -- to little acclaim and fewer sales. Aside from an Ely-Gilmore-Hancock appearance in the late '80s at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, a 1990 reissue of the first recording under the appropriate title More a Legend Than a Band, and a jointly crooned song called "South Wind of Summer" that found its way onto the soundtrack for the 1998 Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer, the handle mainly turned up in references to their thoroughly admirable solo careers. So none of the three are startled to learn that several Denver musicians, led by longtime local scenester Rex Moser, headlined area clubs as the Flatlanders for several years in the early '90s.
"There's a current rock band in New York City called the Flatlanders," Ely reports. "There's a Jeep club called the Flatlanders, too."
"And there's a restaurant up in, I think, Wisconsin called the Flatlanders," Hancock chimes in. "There are lots of Flatlanders out there."
Maybe so -- but it's doubtful that any of the other individuals who've borrowed the moniker have had the staying power of this particular Texas threesome. Nor could any other Flatlanders have made Now Again, the act's enjoyable sophomore album on New West Records, completed after an interval of just thirty years or so.
The long-player, which the trio wisely put out on CD rather than on another format ready for extinction, is a modest yet consistently winning package that succeeds in large part because it takes the path less traveled. Consider that twelve of the disc's fourteen songs are credited to the Flatlanders, including the swinging "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye," the campfire air "Down in the Light of the Melon Moon" and "My Wildest Dreams Grow Wilder Every Day," a guaranteed grin-inducer. But the two that aren't -- "Going Away," a Utah Phillips chestnut, and "Julia," a lovely effort Hancock wrote on his own -- have been placed at the beginning, as if to make fans who've been waiting to hear what they came up with collectively wait a little longer. Moreover, "Going Away" ends with several lines -- "It won't be long/'Til I make up my mind/And go away" -- that seem like inside jokes intended to puncture expectations stirred by the reunion.
The musicians swear they didn't intend to send these wry messages: Ely simply thought "Going Away" served as an ideal transition from the '70s-era Flatlanders to the new millennium version, and "Julia" followed it beautifully. But when Hancock says, "Now that I think of it, that was a good idea," his cohorts roar with laughter. It's a reaction that testifies to their camaraderie, musical and otherwise.
"We've remained as close of friends all through the years as we were when we were playing little gigs together as the Flatlanders," Gilmore confirms.
"That's why this was the most likely thing to happen and, at the same time, the most unlikely," Ely says. "It wasn't strange that we actually got together and wrote songs, because I think we all knew we'd probably do that sometime. But I don't know if we'd have guessed it would actually turn into a record."
Then again, Ely, Gilmore and Hancock have always been unpredictable -- even to one another. When the men began playing in Lubbock, Texas, during the early '70s, "we were all coming from completely different directions," Gilmore notes. "I was into the honky-tonk country stuff that my dad loved; my dad had played guitar. And I was totally steeped in Hank Williams and Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell. But Butch had this backlog of folk kind of songs that he already knew how to play, and Joe came from the rock-and-roll world.
"It's funny, though," he continues. "All of us somehow had the same kind of taste even though we had a different batch of education."
This unique confluence of influences is only one reason that More a Legend Than a Band, on Rounder Records, sounds as good today as it ever did. Just as important is the distinctive character of the assorted voices -- Gilmore's keening tenor, Hancock's untutored baritone, Ely's twangy mid-range -- and quirky instrumentation exemplified by the contributions of the three additional Flatlanders: string bassist Sylvester Rice, mandolinist Tony Pearson and Steve Wesson, who played the musical saw. (Pearson and Wesson also contribute to Now Again.) But perhaps the key ingredients are songs like "Dallas" and "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," arguably Gilmore's finest-ever compositions, and a series of marvels penned by Hancock, topped by "You've Never Seen Me Cry" and "She Had Everything."
Of course, quality and popularity don't always go hand in hand, and when their tape went nowhere, the assorted Flatlanders wandered off on their own. But they never lost contact with their former bandmates.
Ely found the most success, recording a series of excellent solo albums that often contained links to his Flatlanders past. Joe Ely, from 1977, sports four Hancock numbers and Gilmore's terrific "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night," and subsequent offerings, such as 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1979's Down on the Drag and 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, made room for tunes by Hancock, Gilmore or both. The intensity of Ely on stage energized the material and established a kinship with the punk-rockers in the Clash, who invited him to open shows for them when they were at the height of their powers.