When I recently learned that The Flatlanders were coming to play a show here in Tulsa, I was more than thrilled. You see, I had missed a chance to see Flatlander Joe Ely perform a solo show this past June at the All Soul Acoustic Coffeehouse series when it conflicted with a visit from my old friend from California, Dennis Cook, who was making his first visit to Tulsa on a writing assignment for Jambase.com. Dennis invited me to join him as he covered the premiere of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s Ludwig – a funky re-arrangement of two Beethoven symphonies for jazz quartet and orchestra – that they performed with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra to critical acclaim. It was a concert I could not miss, and it worked out all right. Having the chance to catch Ely this week as he hits Tulsa with The Flatlanders will be even more fun than seeing him alone – and from what I heard, that was pretty dang fun!
Who the heck are The Flatlanders, you ask? Well, you’re not alone. The core of the group is Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, who formed The Flatlanders in 1971 when they all found themselves back in their sometime home of Lubbock, Texas (best known as the home of the great Buddy Holly.) The serendipitous confluence of Gilmore’s old-time country musings, Hancock’s folk leanings and Ely’s rebel rock made for a musical concoction that we might now call progressive or alt-country but, as the story of their first recording back in 1972 reveals, it was ill-fated for its time. I’m just glad that it has now been beautifully realized over the past decade.
As told in the excellent liner notes by music writer Colin Escott for the Rounder Records 1990 release of that first album entitled More a Legend Than a Band, the story of The Flatlanders is one of those really fascinating tributaries that feeds into the wide river that is the history of popular music. To sum up, the guys had almost organically formed the band and were playing small-time gigs around Texas when they happened to come to the attention of a Nashville-based producer working for Shelby Singleton, who had taken over the legendary Sun Studios just a few years earlier. They went to Nashville and recorded an album’s worth of songs in March of 1972. When the first single off the album, Gilmore’s wonderful tune “Dallas,” did not fare well commercially, the LP release was shelved and Plantation Records only released it on 8-track tape! In other words, it was doomed, and the band members just sort of drifted off on their own paths.
Hancock and Gilmore both took a hiatus from the music scene for several years while Joe Ely plugged away and began a successful solo career with his late 70s band that included the fantastic Lubbock-bred musician and producer Lloyd Maines. Ely also became an unlikely ally of the punk-rock band The Clash, whom he met in London in 1979. Ely even recorded some back up vocals on the smash hit “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” from their album, Combat Rock; Ely shared duty on the refrains sung in Spanish with Joe Strummer. Jimmie Dale Gilmore moved to Austin in 1980 after being in Colorado for many years and reinvigorated his musical career; his first solo record came out on Hightone in 1988 and he’s released 8 albums since then. Butch Hancock came back to music in the late 70s when he released a couple of albums on his own Rainlight Records, and he’s continued making records ever since. As these guys’ careers started taking off again, word of that legendary original album spread and, lucky for music lovers, Rounder was able to release it in on CD in the U.S. 1990 after it had enjoyed a limited release on LP in the U.K. for the re-issue label Charly Records in 1980.
When I listened to that first Flatlanders recording, I was immediately struck by its great songwriting. It’s a mix of tunes penned by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, along with some other choice cuts: Willie Nelson’s “One Day at a Time,” the beloved Cajun tune “Jole Blon,” and tunes from Gilmore’s Lubbock neighbor, Texas blues great Angela Strehli and her brother Al. The record kicks off with the truly wonderful song “Dallas” by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and continues with strong tunes all the way through to the end. It’s a really great listen. Gilmore’s twangy tenor harkens back to a bygone era. The musicianship and harmonies provided by the rest of the band are somewhat akin to the sound The Byrds achieved on Sweethearts of the Rodeo, but with some genuine honky-tonk flavor. An unmistakable twist on this record is the musical saw playing of Steve Wesson, their friend who apparently learned the instrument specifically so he could play in the band! Listening to this record now, one can hear how it fits, perhaps not perfectly squarely, in the realm of Americana, alt-country and roots music that thrives today.
As a music lover, I’m glad the story does not end there. In 1998, The Flatlanders played together for the first time in 26 years to cut a track for the Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer. The soundtrack also includes tunes from the likes of Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and Iris Dement. Ely, Gilmore and Hancock enjoyed playing together so much that they started touring as The Flatlanders once again, and in 2002, 30 years after the first one was made, they released their second album, Now Again, on New West Records. They’ve continued touring, playing about 40-60 dates a year, and making records as The Flatlanders while also doing solo work. In 2004 they released Wheels of Fortune and Live ’72, one of the only known live recordings of the band from its early days. Recorded on amateur equipment by the owner of the One Knite Club in Austin, the CD sounds surprisingly good under the circumstances and gives a great taste of the band in its element as they play a bunch of great songs, from Hank Williams and Tex Ritter to Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. Only three songs on this live CD are ones they recorded on that original record. Now it seems The Flatlanders are on a roll. Last year, they released Hills and Valleys, which was produced by their old Lubbock pal Lloyd Maines, who also contributes his amazing dobro, banjo, mandolin, lap steel and pedal steel guitar playing to the proceedings. Since Ely, Gilmore and Hancock all handle acoustic guitar, they need a really solid electric player to bring some fire to their songs. They have the right man for the job in Robbie Gjersoe, who has played lead on their recent releases and also plays on tour. Gjersoe is a highly sought after session and live player who is well-known as the accompanist to Robbie Fulks. Hearing Gjersoe play with these guys live is just one more reason this should prove to be a fantastic show. Colin Gilmore, Jimmie Dale’s son, will open the show for the band. Touring in support of his brand new album, Good Night Lane, Colin is a fine Americana talent in his own right.
Having made only four albums in their 40 year history, with the last three made in the past eight years alone, The Flatlanders have proven that they really are more than just a legend; they are, indeed, a band – a band that is now more real than ever.
The Flatlanders website
Check out their home page to hear songs and for a link to their appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman on July 21, 2009 when they performed a smokin’ version of the song “Midnight Train” from the Wheels of Fortune CD; listen to Robbie Gjersoe’s sweet guitar solo and the strong vocals from Ely, Gilmore and Hancock…and some hot organ playing by Paul Shaffer!