The Thirty-Year Itch
A generation after the Flatlanders called it quits, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock are back together. Is that a good thing?
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I’VE NEVER MUCH LIKED REUNIONS. Sure, it’s fun bumping into an old friend, yet at best an arranged rendezvous is branded with artifice. At worst, it’s stilted and sad. This is particularly true for musicians. Someone is always giving in to nostalgia’s illusions, trying to recapture a lost time. The clamor for a Beatles reunion was maddening. How could any band have gone out on a better note? Still, there are those who are convinced that if only a particular group would get back together, it would be even better than before. In case you’re wondering, this has never been true. Not once.
The Flatlanders, like all who have gone before them, would like to think they are the exception to this rule. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock are among the state’s most treasured musicians. They’re also friends. They once shared the same Lubbock house, read the same books, laughed at the same jokes, reached for the same prize. They’ve roamed, found success, and staged impromptu joint appearances throughout the years. Regrouped with a new CD, Now Again, they’ve forged a real commitment under a moniker they shared only briefly more than three decades earlier.
Ely scoffs at complaints that the new album doesn’t sound like the old one, a set of smart songs dressed in rootsy neo-hillbilly clothing they recorded 30 years ago. It was never the band’s intention. Gilmore was the group’s de facto leader back then. Hancock and Ely were backup singers, and Ely had yet to find his voice as a songwriter. Things have changed.
Playing it smart, the three took their time making Now Again, co-writing for the first time, assembling a full band, road-testing songs, and recording more than thirty tracks before paring them down to the fourteen on the album. Ely produced the effort at his studio near Oak Hill, and the group didn’t shop the record to a label until it was almost done. But better, or even as good? That’s a tall order. The Flatlanders are competing with their own ephemeral past: an unnoticed band with an unreleased album that, in the light of their subsequent successes, has taken on a near-mythical status.
The three were unknowns when they first assembled in Lubbock. Now in their fifties, they’ve each carved distinctive careers. So why be a band again? When I caught up with them this spring at a lively show at a radio station in Louisville, Kentucky, they were surprising even themselves with how much fun they could conjure up at the noon hour. We squeezed into a small room to talk, and they brought their exuberance along with them. Easy to laugh, quick to finish each other’s sentences, they seemed completely at home together. Yet the first question I had to ask was, Why?
Bands are naive one-for-all democratic pursuits; artists who stand out quickly move to fronting thinly veiled dictatorships to maintain control of their vision. In that sense, this reunion seems like a giant artistic step backward. “We never have had good sense,” joked Ely, shaking his head. If, as they claim, the desire has always been there, it’s hard to understand why it took so long. You could point to the fact that both Ely and Gilmore lost major-label deals in the past few years, and Hancock left the independent Sugar Hill Records. Such single-minded career pursuits leave little time for revisiting your past. Big budgets create big obligations and have a way of clearing out calendars, just as the financial offer from MCA to reunite the Flatlanders for the soundtrack of Robert Redford’s 1998 film The Horse Whisperer provided the impetus to gather these old friends together.
They could have knocked out one of their songs and been done with it. Instead, they took their first real shot at collaboration and wrote three songs in two days—surprising productivity from admitted underachievers with a long list of good intentions. “In the past we’d wind up laughing till our stomachs hurt,” said Hancock about the many aborted attempts at co-writing. Yet this time it worked. “We don’t vote on anything,” said Gilmore. “It comes to a certain point where we know. We can see it in each other’s eyes.” There has always been an element of telepathy between the three. The story of their first bonding moment is telling. Upon hearing the fifteen-second Ray Price novelty tune, “The Shortest Song in the World,” they launched into the inverse, spending many hours belaboring a joke that quickly bored all their friends. “And we weren’t in junior high,” said Hancock.
In fact, it was 1971, and they were in their twenties. Lubbock, which Ely describes as a “windy old dusty town out in the middle of nowhere,” may not have been the right place, but with Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Gram Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers making the rounds, it was the right time for three hip, literate guys with an appreciation of country music. In the Hub City, they were too cool for country, too hick for rock and roll. They made no money and had to drive to Austin to find an audience. A local producer, Royce Clark, hauled them to Nashville to make a record on a bargain-bin label. Those sessions produced the first recordings of Gilmore’s urban-rural, love-hate classic, “Dallas,” and Hancock’s signature “One Road More.” With starry eyes, they headed home to wait for the rest of their story. The thing is, there wasn’t one.
“Dallas” died on the radio, and with the exception of a handful of eight-tracks at truck stops, the label opted not to release the album. All soon went their separate ways. They had been a band for just two years. It would take until 1980 before the album was released in the U.K. (as One Road More) and another decade before it found a U.S. home (as More a Legend Than a Band).
Gilmore stepped away from music for more than a decade after the split, and for years his plaintive voice remained unheard. He now sports a blustery eagerness that makes it clear he is thrilled to be a Flatlander once again. Yet his motives are difficult to read. He’s taken to recording things like “Mack the Knife” on his solo records and seems a bit lost musically. The passion is there, but it appears almost exclusively devoted to having a good time. About the third time he rambled on about some insignificant humorous tale, you could feel the air getting sucked out of the room.
Hancock, whose iconoclastic approach seems least likely to suit a band, has led a serpentine path between music and his many other creative pursuits. He has a dry wit and a gift for lyricism, yet for every “If You Were a Bluebird” and “West Texas Waltz,” there’s a clunker like “Julia” (on the new album), where a strained melody loses the battle to prize couplets like “The more you fear the kiss of death / The more she licks her lips.” Something about his gaze suggests a terse determination. Hancock said the potential for compromise had scared him off co-writing in the past. “It’s one of the things that has kept me from doing it,” he said. “But here I didn’t feel there was any compromise. The three of us actually stayed out of the songwriting.” Yet he still doesn’t seem convinced. He has the only sole song-writing credit of the three on Now Again and admits, “there are songs we’d want to keep under our own wraps.” Uh-huh.
Of course, after the Flatlanders broke up, Ely became the real surprise. He was soon single-handedly changing the face of Texas music with his incendiary rock band featuring Ponty Bone, Lloyd Maines, and Jesse Taylor. He not only took his friends’ songs to new heights but also wrote his own, including the Flatlanders bio “I Had My Hopes Up High,” which now kicks off their sets. And make no mistake, his musical prowess has him firmly in charge. He leads the Flatlanders onstage, counting off songs, giving visual cues. He put in long hours in the studio tweaking the sound. He even deftly guided our conversation back on track when it went astray. His words were well chosen. “There was a picture under the sand,” he said about the writing process, “and we were just brushing it off.” While he’s found his solo career in a rut as of late, he seems positively energized by this experience. “It led to a realization of the different ways that a song can be put together,” he said. “The excitement of it all was that things would happen that didn’t normally happen.”
Does Now Again beat the reunion curse? Nah, but it does have its memorable moments. Though “Julia,” the drippy “All You Are Love,” the slight “Right Where I Belong,” and the goofy “Pay the Alligator” don’t make you long to hear the passed-over songs in the can, the Texas two-steps of “Wavin’ My Heart Goodbye” and “My Wildest Dreams Grow Wilder Every Day” flow with a deceptively effortless grace. The album’s best songs, “Now It’s Now Again” and the evocative “Down in the Light of the Melon Moon,” are concoctions that actually draw upon all their strengths: Ely’s musical moods, Gilmore’s mysticism, Hancock’s wordplay. Yet the Flatlanders are all known commodities these days. Nothing could beat the impact of first hearing them, when imports of their debut finally made their way stateside. Gilmore’s ethereal warble, floating around a like-minded musical saw, sang the part of the emotionally frail narrator of “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown.” It was lonely, spare, desolate, haunting—and oddly beautiful. It spoke of a place in no way I ever imagined music could. Now this, I remember thinking, is Texas music.