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?
The Flatlanders.

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

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