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 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

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