Texas Three-Step

Decades after their only recording, the Flatlanders ride their legend from the strange plains of Lubbock to a surprising reunion

Singleton released "Dallas" as a promotional single and, just to accentuate the weirdness, a few copies of the album in the eight-track format. But the seemingly overwhelming lack of listener interest persuaded him to abandon the project. Back in Lubbock the Flatlanders quickly fell apart, but the band's legend grew as Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock went on to establish highly respected, equally idiosyncratic solo careers. The lost Flatlanders album eventually was unearthed in Nashville by some British journalists, issued in the U.K. in 1980 and then in the U.S. ten years ago by Rounder under the apropos title More a Legend Than a Band.

That, it seemed, was that, until someone in Robert Redford's camp suggested the band reunite to contribute a song to his 1998 film The Horse Whisperer. It sounded like fun, a key component of the three amigos' credo, so they tried writing together for the first time ever, and came up with a charmer called "South Wind of Summer."

"We really just never thought about writing together," Ely insists. "It never crossed our minds."

Against the wind: Lubbock heroes Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock
Against the wind: Lubbock heroes Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock

"It was kind of astounding to us that it was so easy," says Gilmore. "I think we were afraid that it'd be a battle. Joe said he wonders if maybe we were just intimidated by the prospect of trying to write together because there were too-high expectations." Now, after several sessions, the Flatlanders have about a dozen or so new songs in the can, and a new album is on the way whenever the three can coordinate their hectic schedules long enough to finish it.

Although the friends never expressly wrote together in the old days, they did write for each other, bouncing new songs off each other while sharing an old house in what passed for downtown Lubbock. And their creative and personal lives have remained intertwined even as they pursued solo careers. Since 1977, Ely has had the highest profile, releasing more than a dozen solo records of energetic honky-tonk rock. While putting out a slew of solo material, he has also been busy with myriad side projects, like a second album of traditional Mexican music with the Grammy-winning Los Super Seven (featuring members of Los Lobos and the Texas Tornadoes). A collaboration with members of the Buena Vista Social Club, Tejanos such as Flaco Jimenez, and members of the Counting Crows is also in the works.

After years of living in a communal ashram devoted to the teachings of Indian guru Maharaj Ji, Gilmore suddenly emerged with his first solo album in 1988, Fair and Square, then four more superb efforts that earned him a strong cult following. His newly released One Endless Night mostly features covers that he nonetheless brands with his unique, country-and-Eastern sensibility.

Now Hancock, Ely, and Gilmore find themselves living out a version of the old joke about being together again for the first time. "Well, we've always been together," Ely drawls, chuckling. "I see Jimmie and Butch all the time. We go out to eat and go to movies, hang out, and every once in a while we sit in for a song on each other's sets. But we just have never gotten together and done an entire show as the Flatlanders since about 1972." (Actually, they've played a few scattered gigs in recent years, including an impromptu three-hour set in a Lubbock bar during Buddy Holly Week.)

"It's funny," Ely reflects. "The whole Flatlanders only existed for maybe a year and even while we were together we played just a handful [of gigs] and most of those were porches and weddings and funerals and dog bites."

Now it's sort of band bites dog, as if the original Flatlanders lassoed a cyclone that took them beyond the edge of the vast West Texas horizon and finally brought them back, full circle.

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