Texas Three-Step

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

Rhinestone-studded leisure suits, industrial-strength hair spray, and grotesque overproduction were prevailing trends in the country music establishment when the Flatlanders descended on Nashville in 1972 to record their first and only album. But the unique band, with its core trio of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely, didn't remotely fit the mold.

They were rebellious West Texans--childhood buddies half-crazed by peyote visions, UFO sightings, the relentless wind, and the beat rants of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The band's catholic tastes, originally cultivated in their hometown of Lubbock, ranged from Appalachian and Tex-Mex to the Beatles and Jimmie Rodgers. The group hit Nashville with a slew of distinctive originals riddled with arresting lines, like Gilmore's "Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes." Their spare, acoustic sound was equal parts wizened and provocative--even a little eerie, what with a musical saw wheezing and howling through most tunes like an alien spacecraft. Gilmore's quavering lead vocals hovered like a ghost dancer, and there were no drums to pull it all back to Earth.

Some wag later suggested the Flatlanders were 50 years behind the times and 15 years ahead, sort of spiritual fathers of the alt-country movement. "That's probably about right," Joe Ely chortles over the phone, taking a break at his Austin studio. "We were totally far removed from any form of pop music, country music, or anything. But here it is almost 30 years later [and] it's, 'Oh, that was a revolutionary band.' Yeah, sure, now you say that."

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

Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock went on to establish enduring solo careers, but the Flatlanders broke up more than a quarter century ago, only now reuniting for their first tour, which comes to the State Theatre on Friday. The three fiftyish men remain outsiders in many ways, set apart by their distinct personalities and influences. The exuberant and impish Ely grew up on rock 'n' roll and the Tex-Mex he heard played on border radio and by migrant workers on the streets. Gilmore is more reserved, with a sweet sincerity (he actually uses the word golly) tempered by the worldliness of someone who studies Eastern philosophy--though his musical bedrock is country. Hancock is a prolific songwriter and an encyclopedia of Appalachian music, according to Ely. Yet he's something of a recluse, at least as far as the music biz, performing only sporadically and sometimes selling his stuff on tapes he mails out himself. Hancock also dabbles in architecture, painting, and photography, guiding river expeditions and running his Austin gallery, called Lubbock or Leave It. Repeated phone calls to his place in the Big Bend country failed to turn up the songwriter.

There should have been some cosmic benediction hovering over these characters when they recorded their one album, if only because of their charmed musical lineage. The Flatlanders had done a few demos in Lubbock with Buddy Holly's father, who owned a small studio there. The guy running the Nashville sessions was Plantation Records owner Shelby Singleton, who had bought the legendary Sun Studios from Sam Phillips a few years earlier. What's more, the Flatlanders seemed to be tapping the peculiar Lubbock elixir that improbably spawned such musical giants as Holly, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings.

More than anything, Lubbock itself seems to be the X-file in the Flatlanders' case, a bizarre town set squat in the middle of the surrealistically level and empty Texas panhandle. Ely offers the blunt observation that it was like growing up in a concentration camp on the moon, a place where mind-numbing boredom mingled with virulent strains of fundamentalist zeal.

"We always had a love-hate thing with it," sighs Gilmore, on the phone from San Francisco, where he has been busy promoting his new solo album, One Endless Night. "We kind of had an extreme radical reaction to the extreme conservatism of the place."

Spotting UFOs is a popular Lubbock pastime. Gilmore witnessed one such nocturnal phenomenon during his high school years, and he says it profoundly skewed his perspective. Then there's the town's unending wind. For awhile the major landmark was a skyscraper that a tornado had eviscerated and wrenched like a corkscrew, turning it into a 20-story pigeon coop.

"There was static electricity in the air," remembers Ely, "because the wind was always blowing 30 or 40 miles an hour. There was dust in everything. The window screens were always slamming against the house and trees were rubbing up against it. It made the hair actually stick up on your head and on your arms. Everything you'd touch, you'd get shocked. And this was all day long, every day. People growing up in that just got fucking psycho. So it was no damn wonder that some people turned that energy into something other than just becoming a maniac."

 

Hometown electricity coursed through those ill-fated Nashville sessions, giving the band a certain edginess. Besides Gilmore's "Dallas" and another tune that would become one of his standards, "Tonight I'm Gonna Go Downtown," the band rambled through a little mountain music, a cover of the Cajun classic "Jolie Blon," and Willie Nelson's "One Day at a Time." There was also a handful of tunes by Hancock, including "One Road More," which includes the memorable refrain "Lord, I ain't got a lick of sense/I got a crazy mind." Buzzed on their own whimsical mysticism and that idiosyncratic, cosmic-cowboy sound, the boys had their hopes up high (as Ely would later sing) as their consciousness. But Music City conformity would prove too much to overcome.

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."

"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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