So Happy Together

Getting back together was a snap for the Flatlanders -- because they've seldom been apart.

Hancock, for his part, delivered a steady stream of discs on his own imprint, Rainlight, and contributed songs to Chippy, a 1994 play about a Texas prostitute by Jo Harvey Allen and Terry Allen. On top of that, he gained notoriety as a photographer, often using antique cameras he collects, and even served as a singing river guide in West Texas.

Equally unexpected was Gilmore's journey, which demonstrates the substance behind his Zen-cowboy image. He left the music business behind in 1974, spending the remainder of the decade in a Denver ashram as a follower of Maharaj Ji, a teenage guru who led an organization known as the Divine Light Mission. (Among the quotes attributed to Maharaj Ji is, "You say I'm God...I don't say I'm God...But there again, I don't say I'm not God....")

During this period, Gilmore says, "I played a lot of music, but I wasn't involved in the music business. But in the meantime, Joe and Butch were; they were still down in Texas. And they kept my career going just as much as if I had been active the whole time."

Reunited, and it feels so good (from left): Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely regroup as the Flatlanders.
Reunited, and it feels so good (from left): Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely regroup as the Flatlanders.

More helping hands were extended after Maharaj Ji left Denver for Florida, prompting Gilmore's return to the music business. On his first proper solo outing, 1988's Fair & Square, he rendered a pair of Hancock ditties, "Just a Wave, Not the Water" and "99 Holes," under the supervision of producer Ely, whose "Honky Tonk Masquerade" was also covered. Three years later, Hancock played guitar on After Awhile, an Elektra/Nonesuch project that's widely regarded to be Gilmore's masterpiece; it's among the most affecting country-flavored albums ever created.

The response to After Awhile earned Gilmore the opportunity to craft two more CDs for Elektra, 1993's Spinning Around the Sun and 1996's Braver Newer World -- but they failed to expand his cult-sized fan base. Ely faced much the same situation. MCA Records, another major label, kept him on the payroll through most of the '90s but found it difficult to sell the fine, pure music on 1992's Love & Danger, 1995's Letter to Laredo or 1998's Twistin' in the Wind in a country-radio environment increasingly dominated by crossover shlock. Clearly, Ely has never molded his music to fit current fashions.

"I really don't know what the definition of country music is anymore," he admits. "I don't know if I ever did."

"And whatever that definition is," Hancock interjects, "I think it's an absolutely essential consideration to ignore it."

Performing as the Flatlanders provided the perfect excuse to do just that. The Horse Whisperer track, "South Wind of Summer," which concludes Now Again, led to a 1998 showcase on The Late Show With David Letterman, a 1999 concert in New York City's Central Park and the contribution of "Blue Wind Blew" to 2001's Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt. All three are longtime admirers of Van Zandt, who died in 1997; the tunesmith's "White Freight Liner Blues" kicks off Gilmore's Fair & Square.

Even so, coming up with an album's worth of songs was a more complex proposition than these scattershot ventures. And because the once and future Flatlanders had been writing independently for ages, they were unsure whether collaborating would come naturally after so lengthy a layoff. But they needn't have worried.

"There are a million things that are part of a song," Ely maintains. "The rhythm, the beat, the lyrics, the melody, the way that the verses are hooked together by bridges and stuff. And what was amazing to me was how, because of our diverse lives and backgrounds, each part would take this giant leap. Like when a chorus came along, it wouldn't be like a normal chorus; it would have a little twist to it. And that kept us in this constant state of wondering what would happen next."

"That's kind of been a characteristic of ours throughout our lives," Hancock feels. "We've always anticipated every moment, because every moment could be a surprise. That's fed our music separately, and so when we got together, it was part of our common language and our common humor and our ability to communicate -- because we recognized those surprises."

"Sometimes we'd disagree," Gilmore concedes. "Somebody would come up with an idea that'd strike that person as 'That's great!' But the other person would go, 'I don't know...'"

"Or," says Hancock, laughing, "somebody would have a great finalizing idea, and the other two would be like, 'Yup, that's one possibility.'"

"Butch nailed it right there," Ely declares. "It wasn't so much that we would be in agreement all the time, but that there's something between all three of us where we would absolutely and totally know when it was right."

This process wasn't always speedy. As Ely puts it, "We didn't just sit down and write these songs in a flash of light. We sometimes struggled with them for hours and days." An odd example was "Pay the Alligator," an outright lark with whimsically surreal lyrics that certainly come across as spur-of-the-moment: "Go blindfolded backwards through the discombobulator/If you don't do it right, you gotta pay the alligator." But Gilmore says, "That was one we really painstakingly worked on. We ended up writing new verses even after we'd been on the road singing it."

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