Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock were once known as the Flatlanders. But truth be told, they've hardly used the name since 1973, when their debut, Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders, was released -- exclusively on eight-track -- to little acclaim and fewer sales. Aside from an Ely-Gilmore-Hancock appearance in the late '80s at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, a 1990 reissue of the first recording under the appropriate title More a Legend Than a Band, and a jointly crooned song called "South Wind of Summer," which found its way onto the soundtrack for the 1998 Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer, the handle mainly turned up in references to their admirable solo careers. So none of the three are startled to learn that several Denver musicians headlined clubs as the Flatlanders for several years in the early '90s.
"There's a current rock band in New York City called the Flatlanders," Ely reports. "There's a Jeep club called the Flatlanders, too."
"And there's a restaurant up in, I think, Wisconsin called the Flatlanders," Hancock chimes in. "There are lots of Flatlanders out there."
Maybe so -- but it's doubtful that anyone who's borrowed the moniker has had the staying power of this Texas threesome. Nor could any other Flatlanders have made Now Again, the act's enjoyable sophomore album on New West Records, completed after an interval of just 30 years or so.
The long-player is a modest yet consistently winning package that succeeds in large part because it takes the path less traveled. Consider that 12 of the disc's 14 songs are credited to the Flatlanders. But the two that aren't -- "Going Away," a Utah Phillips chestnut, and "Julia," a lovely effort Hancock wrote on his own -- have been placed at the beginning, as if to make fans who've been waiting to hear what the trio came up with collectively wait a little longer.
The musicians swear they didn't intend to send such a wry message: Ely simply thought "Going Away" served as an ideal transition from the '70s-era Flatlanders to the new-millennium version, and "Julia" followed it beautifully. But when Hancock says, "Now that I think of it, that was a good idea," his cohorts roar with laughter. It's a reaction that testifies to their camaraderie, musical and otherwise.
"That's why this was the most likely thing to happen and, at the same time, the most unlikely," Ely says. "It wasn't strange that we actually got together and wrote songs, because I think we all knew we'd probably do that sometime. But I don't know if we'd have guessed it would actually turn into a record."
Then again, Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock have always been unpredictable -- even to one another. When the men began playing in Lubbock, Texas, during the early '70s, "We were all coming from completely different directions," Gilmore notes. "I was totally steeped in Hank Williams and Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell. But Butch had this backlog of folk kind of songs that he already knew how to play, and Joe came from the rock and roll world."
This unique confluence of influences is only one reason that More a Legend Than a Band, on Rounder Records, sounds as good today as it ever did. Just as important is the distinctive character of the assorted voices -- Gilmore's keening tenor, Hancock's untutored baritone, Ely's twangy midrange. But perhaps the key ingredients are songs like "Dallas" and "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," arguably Gilmore's finest-ever compositions; and a series of marvels penned by Hancock, topped by "You've Never Seen Me Cry" and "She Had Everything."
Of course, quality and popularity don't always go hand in hand, and when their tape went nowhere, the assorted Flatlanders wandered off on their own.
Ely found the most success, recording a series of excellent solo albums that often contained links to his Flatlanders past. Joe Ely, from 1977, sports four Hancock numbers and Gilmore's terrific "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night," and subsequent offerings, such as 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1979's Down on the Drag, and 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, made room for tunes by Hancock, Gilmore, or both.
Hancock, for his part, delivered a steady stream of discs on his own imprint, Rainlight, and gained notoriety as a photographer, often using antique cameras he collects. He even served as a singing river guide in West Texas.
Equally unexpected was Gilmore's journey. He left the music business behind in 1974, spending the remainder of the decade in a Denver ashram as a follower of Maharaj Ji, a teenage guru who led an organization known as the Divine Light Mission. After Maharaj Ji left Denver for Florida, Gilmore returned to the music business, dropping his first proper solo outing in 1988 with Fair & Square. Three years later, Hancock played guitar on After Awhile, an Elektra/Nonesuch project that's widely regarded as Gilmore's masterpiece; it's among the most affecting country-flavored albums ever created.
Still, in a country-radio environment increasingly dominated by crossover schlock, neither Gilmore, Ely, nor Hancock had much mainstream success, as they have never molded their music to fit current fashions.
"I really don't know what the definition of country music is anymore," Ely admits. "I don't know if I ever did."
"And whatever that definition is," Hancock interjects, "I think it's an absolutely essential consideration to ignore it."
Performing as the Flatlanders provided the perfect excuse to do just that. Even so, coming up with an album's worth of songs was a more complex proposition than these scattershot ventures.
"There are a million things that are part of a song," Ely maintains. "The rhythm, the beat, the lyrics, the melody, the way that the verses are hooked together by bridges and stuff. And what was amazing to me was how, because of our diverse lives and backgrounds, each part would take this giant leap. Like when a chorus came along, it wouldn't be like a normal chorus; it would have a little twist to it. And that kept us in this constant state of wondering what would happen next."
The Flatlanders recorded 25 tunes for Now Again and can access a vast library of favorites they've learned over the years: Ely estimates that they knew "300 to 500 songs between us" before they went their separate ways, and that total has only grown.
As such, the reunion doesn't look to be a one-shot deal -- so if opportunists think they can use the Flatlanders name, they've got another thing coming.
"We'll fight 'em tooth and nail," Ely says, amid chuckles from his cohorts, "because we made a record before any of those other bands did. We can take them to the Eight-Track Hall of Fame and prove it."
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