Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night? Or West Texas from the air-conditioned cushiness of your vehicle as it zips along Interstate 10, the surrounding plains so flat that you can make out the curvature of the earth, the terrain so lonely and desolate that the roadkill outnumbers the populations of several counties?
West Texas birthed the name and the men who make up country-folk icons the Flatlanders, whose three key players—Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock—were just a trio of Lubbock nobodies back in 1972, when they lit out to Nashville and recorded their one and only album, Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders. That the album was only issued as an eight-track pretty much guaranteed the band would stay unknown.
This West Texas version of the Flying Burrito Brothers broke up soon after, disheartened and disillusioned, to scrape out semblances of careers for themselves. Which they did swimmingly. Ely turned to a particularly feisty brand of Southwestern rock & roll and became a hero to—of all people—the Clash; he even toured with the U.K. punksters for a spell. Gilmore—he of the majestically magical warble—spent much of the '70s and '80s traveling the folkie circuit; shuffling between Austin, Lubbock and occasionally Colorado ashrams to learn about Asian religions; and remaining a closely guarded jewel to most Texans until his After Awhile album spilled the secret in 1991. Hancock merely became one of the most respected Texas songwriters ever, matched only by Townes Van Zandt for his effortless story-song wordplays.
But people kept asking about the Flatlanders.
As their individual stars rose, it became increasingly hard to fathom that these three troubadours were actually in a band together. The Flatlanders had become More a Legend Than a Band, really, which was the new title that Rounder gave to that lone album when the label rereleased it properly on CD in 1990.
Hearing More a Legend Than a Band, it's pretty obvious why the Flatlanders never made it the first go-round. The country world of 1972 was mired in Tammy Wynette glitz, and a band that was fiercely loyal to the music's Jimmie Rodgers roots just wasn't purty enough to Nashville's marketers. The album was simply too pure—50 years past its time and 20 years ahead, it's been said.
The songs on More a Legend Than a Band are grand, gorgeous slices of two- and three-minute heaven. Gilmore's quivering, nervous twitter of a voice is instantly familiar to anyone who's heard him, tempered then with a boyish innocence that's reined in by Hancock's and Ely's earthier harmonies. There's the first appearance of Gilmore's gently rollicking "Dallas," which would become his signature number (and which opens with the question at the beginning of this story). There's "Tonight I'm Gonna Go Downtown," Gilmore's blues-tinged tale of romantic rejection that, in a re-recorded form, found its way onto After Awhile. There are bluegrass-filtered-through-Texas-hill-country romps like "Rose From the Mountain," which for all the world sounds like Gilmore, Ely and Hancock hooting it up on a back porch instead of inside a sterile recording studio. There's also Ely's heart-melting Tex-Mex acoustic picking on Willie Nelson's "One Day at a Time." And on several songs, there's this haunting musical saw (played by Steve Wesson) that shivers away eerily in the background, making you feel like what you're hearing isn't even real.
The rerelease of these tracks came at a perfect time, goosing up the then-burgeoning alternative-country movement, whose bands held up the Flatlanders as symbols of DIY country. But the album wasn't enough; people wanted more: a full-on Flatlanders reunion. Gilmore's, Ely's and Hancock's own projects came first, though, and it was always hard to coordinate schedules.
Proper rumblings began three years ago when the trio regrouped under the Flatlanders name to record a song for the soundtrack of the film The Horse Whisperer. To promote it, they even landed a choice slot on The Late Show With David Letterman. Last year, they embarked on a short tour, and their show at the House of Blues on Wednesday comes near the start of a larger, more extensive trek that'll keep them busy through a good hunk of the summer.
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Will there be another Flatlanders album? It seems inevitable. Gilmore has said they've had label offers. They've been writing songs together, some of which we might hear on Wednesday.
"We love playing with one another, and we love hanging out with one another," Gilmore told the Austin Chronicle last year. "We just work together so well. The odd part is that we're more productive as a band now than when we were kids. We've written more songs together in the past six months than we ever have in our separate careers. Together, we are still a creative force. We're applying what we've learned through our careers as solo artists and trying to maintain what was fun for us about the Flatlanders in the first place. . . . Right now, it's fun and exciting."
So maybe the Flatlanders have returned to save the world again from the corporate stench of bad country music, God bless 'em. Better catch them on Wednesday. If not, you might have to wait another 30 years.
The Flatlanders perform with Reckless Kelly at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Wed., 8 p.m. $20. 21+.