By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
By Aimee Murillo
By Nick Schou
By Nate Jackson
By Nate Jackson
By Dave Lieberman
By Daniel Kohn
Photo by Johnny Buzzerio/New West RecordsCHAPTER ONE: IN WHICH JOE ELY GETS HIS FIRST SET OF STRINGS
As kids, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore were like brothers, singing the cowboy songs that had been passed down since the old cattle-driving days, busy living out little stories in Lubbock, Texas, that they'd one day turn into songs. "I started playing when I was seven years old," says Ely, his breezy West Texas drawl fluttering down the phone line. "I had a little violin, and I always just thought that I'd like to just spend my whole life just playing music."
CHAPTER TWO: IN WHICH THE FLATLANDERS EAT BEANS, PLAY ON THE ROOF AND DREAM COUNTRY TUNES
When it came time for Ely and Gilmore to move out of their parents' houses, they found a place together and picked up singer/songwriter Butch Hancock as a roommate. It was cheap living back then—their rent was $80 per month—and they lived on beans and cornbread to minimize overhead. "People from all over the neighborhood would come over all the time because we'd always be playing in the living room. We'd get up on the roof of the house and just play until the sun came up. We just played music all the time, day and night," Ely says. "Every morning, Butch would come down and play his song that he wrote the night before, and then someone else would dream a song, and something new was always happening."
CHAPTER THREE: IN WHICH THE SOUNDS OF THE FLATLANDERS ARE CAPTURED IN SECRET
Legend has it that a river ran beneath their beloved bar, the One Knite in Austin, Texas, and if you didn't believe it, you could go ahead and see it through a hole in the ladies'-room floor. In early June of 1972, with long hair curling out from sun-bleached cowboy hats and snap-front shirts tucked into tight jeans, the fellas played there as the Flatlanders. Gilmore's rangy warble and Steve Wesson's singing saw felt like the lazy Texas summer night outside, settling gently over your shoulders, if you were there. The band didn't know, but the bar owner was recording their performance. And it was a hell of a show. But it would be 30 years before they'd hear it again.
CHAPTER FOUR: IN WHICH THE
FLATLANDERS MAKE AN UNHEARD RECORD
The Flatlanders did record some songs on their own, but their record deal with a label called Share, whose distribution was pretty much limited to truck stops down South, went sour quick, and the album Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders never really came out. A few copies were released on eight-track only, and their single, "Dallas," flopped at country radio stations. "I actually believe that if that old record had come out in San Francisco in the Haight-Ashbury days, I think it would have been a psychedelic record," Ely says. "The whole record had this weird, strange vibe to it, but it certainly didn't fit into what was being played in the country-music world in 1972, so it really just kinda vanished."
CHAPTER FIVE: IN WHICH THE BOYS
When the record dissolved, so did the Flatlanders: Gilmore went to Denver, Hancock went to San Francisco, and Ely took a freight train to New York City. Solo, Ely had the opportunity to play with all the artists he'd grown up admiring—Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. "I guess it's like a baseball player getting to play with the guys that he grew up watching," he says. "The only guy that I wish that I could have met was Buddy Holly, but he died before I was even aware of where he came from."
CHAPTER SIX: IN WHICH THE FLATLANDERS DISCOVER THEIR FANS
Meanwhile (or mean-hwhile, as Ely would say, adding that breathy extra "h"), despite the fact that Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders never attracted much attention, the group managed to sprout a cult following. They still played together now and then, still considering themselves just friends, not a band. And when they did a show in Central Park in 1999, The New York Times ran a half-page story on them. They'd each been doing their own thing since the early '70s—playing shows and, in Gilmore's case, taking some time off to study with the guru Maharaji—but suddenly, promoters from around the country were asking them to hit the road together. As the Flatlanders.
CHAPTER SEVEN: IN WHICH THE BAND THAT WAS NEVER A BAND REUNITES
"We did everything backward. We made the record before we got the record company, and we toured before the album came out," Ely says and laughs. "We'd go out on the road, and these radio guys would always come out and say, 'Why are you guys touring? You don't have a record.' We said, 'Do you have to have a reason to go out and play music?' You know, everybody thinks of things in terms of music business, which is a bunch of bull. We were just going out and playing because we enjoyed playing. We didn't have a reason. I don't think we've ever had a reason to do anything—other than just for the pure joy of it."
CHAPTER EIGHT: IN WHICH THE FLATLANDERS GO BACK TO THE STUDIO FOR THE FIRST TIME
"The music would fill the room up. You'd watch something come from thin air, and all of a sudden, it became a song," Ely says. "And good songs give you a new hope for this crazy old world. It's just a weird, magical thing. It keeps me going—I know that. So many dreadful, dreary things happen in people's lives, but making music is a thing that has always given me inspiration."
In 2002, New West put out the record that came from those sessions, Now Again, and when they discovered a dusty old tape of the 1972 show at the One Knite, they put that out, too.
CHAPTER NINE: IN WHICH THE
FLATLANDERS TEACH YOU TO SING
By March 2004, the One Knite is long gone, but the Flatlanders are still playing in Austin. New West's SXSW party falls on a balmy afternoon, and the thirsty fans packed into the Club DeVille parking lot are glad the beer is flowing for free. When Hancock launches into his catchy and Dylan-esque "Baby, Do You Love Me Still?" off their latest record, Wheels of Fortune, he makes it hard not to sing along. Ely gets a lot of smiles as a jilted lover wielding a lethal frying pan in "I'm Gonna Strangle You Shorty." And on the sweet and simple "Back to My Old Molehill," he sings, "I headed out across the flatland in a rooster tail of dust/Lookin' to find some peace of mind from someone I could trust."
CHAPTER 10: IN WHICH JOE ELY REFLECTS ON A LIFE LIVED TO THE FULLEST, AND JIMMIE DALE COMES A-CALLIN'
"I've always thought of living as being totally aware of everywhere that you are," Ely says. "And so, over the years, I've kept a running journal and a sketchbook in my guitar case, and I draw pictures and carry a camera. I've always kept this log of writings and pictures and songs."
He pauses before he adds, "I've never really thought of myself as really being in any business. I feel really lucky to have been able, my entire life, to go out and just enjoy living."
And with that plain and simple philosophy of life, delivered in the same sing-song voice as all his lyrics, Ely shouts a hello to his friend, who has let himself in. It's another hot one, and Gilmore has come over to play. The screen door slams as he hangs up the phone.The Flatlanders Perform with The Kelly Bowlin Band and Kevin Banford & The Bakersfield Boys at The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Thurs., Aug. 5, 8 p.m. $29.50. All ages.