So Happy Together
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."
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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.
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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.
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."
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."
"It's the most self-referential song," Hancock points out. "We actually had to pay the alligator to get that song written."
In contrast, "Now It's Now Again," the de facto title song, seems too multifaceted to have had an easy birth: It's got a gorgeous melody, a structure that allows for Band-like vocal-swapping and words that qualify as prairie poetry: "The wind knows how we used to be here now/It circles to remind us all." But paradoxically, it assumed its final shape more quickly than anything else on the platter.
"We'd given up for the night, and we were just sitting around in the kitchen over at Joe's house -- because after we get done writing songs, we just go get Mexican food or something and hang out together," Gilmore recalls. "Well, I had this old idea for one line of a song -- a real peculiar melody that didn't even end up being done the way I sang it. But I played it for them, and then Butch remembered that he had this bridge -- and basically we wrote the song then and there."
The Flatlanders have more where that came from. They recorded 25 tunes for Now Again and can access a vast library of favorites they've learned over the years: Ely estimates that they knew "300 to 500 songs between us" before they went their separate ways, and that total has only grown.
As such, the reunion doesn't look to be a one-shot deal -- so if opportunists think they can use the Flatlanders name, they've got another thing coming.
"We'll fight 'em tooth and nail," Ely says, amid chuckles from his cohorts, "because we made a record before any of those of other bands did. We can take them to the Eight-Track Hall of Fame and prove it."
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