Over the years, the Flatlanders—Lubbock’s Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock—have earned a reputation as Americana music’s first supergroup, leading the way with a rootsy mix of country and bluegrass, along with a dash of rock and roll. Now they’re back with a new album, Treasure of Love, marking their fifth studio outing and the first since Hills and Valleys in 2009. Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of their eight-track-tape debut, All-American Music.
The fifteen songs on Treasure of Love (Rack ’em Records/Thirty Tigers) were initially laid down as rough tracks on various occasions with no particular plan in mind, but the COVID-19 lockdown provided an opportunity for the musicians to turn their attention to completing an album. Fellow Lubbockite Lloyd Maines, who has collaborated with Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock over the years, came on board to coproduce and, just as important, to work his instrumental magic, especially on Dobro and steel guitar.
“I did all the overdubs at my house by myself,” says Maines. “We were not in the studio together. When I got the rough files and listened, their vocals were stellar. They didn’t have to re-sing anything, which made the logistics much easier.” Indeed, the singing resonates throughout with the usual divvying up of assignments: Jimmie and Joe take the lead on five tracks each, Butch takes four, and they all exchange verses on the finale, “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”
Four of the songs are self-penned (three by Butch and one by Joe), but the eleven others are covers. These are of particular interest because they tell us about the Flatlanders’ musical roots. The eclectic mix ranges from the Mississippi Sheiks (“Sittin’ on Top of the World”) to Bob Dylan (“She Belongs to Me”), along with the likes of Leon Russell (“She Smiles Like a River”), Johnny Cash (“Give My Love to Rose”), Mickey Newbury (“Mobile Blue”), and the now nearly forgotten Greenwich Village folkie Paul Siebel (“The Ballad of Honest Sam”).
If the new interpretations stick pretty much to the original versions, the spirited performances, matched by Maines’s energized instrumental fills, make for satisfying listening throughout. On “She Belongs to Me,” Jimmie’s assertive warble meets the Bobster’s rendering head-on, and Butch soars on Newbury’s “I got the Mobile blues today!”
There are also two selections associated with Texans and Country Music Hall of Famers George Jones and Ernest Tubb. These are further proof that the Flatlanders are more than cognizant of the Lone Star State’s musical legacy. The title track, “Treasure of Love,” cowritten by Jones and J. P. Richardson when the Possum and the Big Bopper were both living in Beaumont, was a Top 10 hit for Jones in 1958. And “I Don’t Blame You,” which Tubb cowrote with Jim Scott (a.k.a. Alton Delmore of the Delmore Brothers), is the flip side of the Texas Troubadour’s 1946 best-seller “Rainbow at Midnight.” Gilmore sings Jones and Ely sings Tubb, and, if both are perhaps a bit too reverential, their hearts are definitely in the right place.
A couple of other choices hark back to tunes that have been with the Flatlanders since the early days. “Love Please Come Home” is a bluegrass standard recorded by Reno & Smiley and Bill Monroe (surprisingly taken here at a dirgelike pace), and the Everly Brothers waxed “Long Time Gone” for their 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. “Long Time Gone” is one of the highlights of the album, with Maines double-tracking Dobro and steel in harmony with the trio.
Both songs were also on the set list at a 1972 Flatlanders gig in Austin, preserved on an amateur recording and released in 2004 as The Flatlanders Live at the One Knite: June 8th 1972. It should be noted that a mistaken composer credit on the Everlys’ album for “Long Time Gone” (Frank Hartford and Tex Ritter are listed as the writers instead of Leslie York of the York Brothers) is repeated again here, yet another example of the vagaries of the music publishing business.
Live at the One Knite included two Townes Van Zandt compositions, “Waitin’ Around to Die” and “Tecumseh Valley,” while Treasure of Love features “Snowin’ on Raton,” another Van Zandt original. Hancock’s intuitive vocal captures the essence of the introspective classic (“You cannot count the miles until you feel them/You cannot hold a lover that is gone”). It’s all a reminder and continuing tip of the hat to the legendary poet-musician, who had such a profound impact on their songwriting when Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock were starting out.
A quotation on the front cover of Treasure of Love right above three silhouetted horsemen (our boys?) serves as an epigraph and a subtle reminder that the Flatlanders are not simply living in the past. The quote—“It’s the fearless who love and the loveless who fear”—is a line from “Borderless Love,” cowritten by the trio in 2009 for Hills and Valleys. And the message in the song is clear and up-to-date: “There’s no need for a wall.”
In the album’s press release, Gilmore provides a succinct explanation for the Flatlanders’ longevity (from the days of eight-track cartridges to a world of downloads and streaming). “A lot of groups our age are either dead or not speaking to each other anymore … but every time we come back to it, we feel that same magic we felt when we first started playing together.” And, as the songs on Treasure of Love readily affirm, the magic—now going on nearly fifty years strong—continues.