Americana's first supergroup, The Flatlanders started as a band in 1972, combining the talents of three then-unknown songwriters from the Texas Panhandle, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock They struggled to make the band work for over a year, playing regionally and traveling to Nashville to record an album, but finally at the end of '73 they called it quits and each pursued successful solo careers. Of the three, Ely had the greatest commercial success, though all three are considered pioneers of the alt-country/Americana/indie-folk scenes and have worked together on various projects over the years. They reassembled their old band after Rounder Records reissued their fabled "lost album" in 1990, rekindling interest in their new work as well as the old, and bringing about a greater appreciation for the band's role in fostering the explosive creativity of the Texas indie scene. Here's a quick look at their work...
The Flatlanders "More A Legend Than A Band" (Rounder, 1990)
To tell you the honest truth, I have never really cared all that much for this album, though there are those who praise it to the stars. Joe Ely was a stellar talent, and I have a soft spot for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, too, and here they all are way back in their youth, as a pioneering Texas alt-country ensemble whose early-1970s recordings were at the vanguard of the Austin-outlaw scene that coalesced throughout the decade. Some of the songs on here turned up later in different versions on various solo albums. This album ain't bad, but it never quite floated my boat or made my toes curl. But maybe I'm just a mean old coot... That's a possibility as well.
The Flatlanders "Now Again" (New West, 2002)
(Produced by Joe Ely)
This is much better than their old stuff. I'm a big fan of the old Joe Ely albums, but the original Flatlanders album has always struck me as a bit dull. Sure, it's legendary and all that, but the songs that Gilmore wrote really came to life later... when Ely recorded them on his classic MCA albums. As for this new record, it's much more playful and melodically rich, and is packed with plenty of catchy songs, with memorable choruses and well-crafted melodic hooks. Even I -- someone who has long been singularly unimpressed by this band -- can groove along to it, and be taken in by the relaxed, masterful confidence these guys bring out in each other. Besides, it's better than anything these three have done solo for the last few years. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to find out what the fuss was about this alt.country supergroup.
The Flatlanders "Wheels Of Fortune" (New West, 2004)
(Produced by Joe Ely)
Some songs old, others new... The second album from the revitalized Flatlanders trio has less of a dynamic, organic feel to it, seeming more a series of songs than an exploration of a newly-renewed creative partnership. Ely, Gilmore and Hancock still bring a wealth of roots music road warrior experience to bear, but the songs seem disconnected from each other, and too tightly crafted in parts, more of a carefully crafted studio creation than a joyful old-timer jam. I really liked the last record, and while this one may grow on me, for the moment I'm a little nonplussed.
The Flatlanders "Live At The Knite: June 8th, 1972" (New West, 2004)
(Produced by Gary Oliver)
What an amazing document of this band, live in action during its faint, glimmering, short-lived first incarnation. These recordings were apparently made in front of an audience of less than a dozen people, the sum total of the patrons of a teensy Texas watering hole known as the Knite... You'd never know it was a near-empty room, though, from the intensity with which the threesome tackled each and every song. They were clearly a powerful, powerfully earnest band, covering oldies and adding new tunes to the hard country canon... These soundcheck recordings are remarkable for a variety of reasons... First off, songwriter Butch Hancock doesn't sing at all, while Jimmie Dale Gilmore was the main vocalist, surprising in itself, but made even more remarkable when you hear Joe Ely's vocals cut through on a couple of tunes -- Ely, the growling, grizzled road-warrior-to-be, singing with a high, youthful, almost nervous voice, singing beautifully, with a sincerity that matched the music. Although the studio album that came out of this group's first year was a bit on the reserved side, these live recordings are passionate and compelling: this is what a real 'billy band sounded like, back in the earliest days of the "outlaw" era. And it was mighty fine. Highly recommended!
The Flatlanders "Hills And Valleys" (New West, 2009)
(Produced by Lloyd Maines)
Nice stuff from these three old, grizzled pals. This album begins on a strongly political note, with several tunes designed to shake off the hangover of the George Dubya Bush years, about hard times, economic dislocation, Hurricane Katrina, and the much-reviled billion-dollar "wall" along the US-Mexico border. Of these songs, "Borderless Love" is perhaps the best, revealing an emotional openness that still allows for both sincere shock and gooey, love-your-neighbors altruism. This humanist streak runs throughout the album, which is a sly and strident proclamation in favor of people and emotion over pragmatism and hard-heartedness. The Flatlanders pick up the weatherbeaten, dust-blown flag of the semi-redneck hippie faction of what was once called "the counterculture," and make a pretty strong case for their beliefs. As the house of cards that was our economy falls down around our collective heads, these mellow folkie appeals to common sense and compassion sound a whole helluva lot better than anything you'll hear on the cable news channels. Admittedly, there is an air of forced profundity that has to be dealt with -- towards the end of the album, almost every couplet of the lyrics strains to deftly deliver some poetic insight or wry life lesson -- but even so, I'm a huge Jimmie Dale Gilmore fan and any chance I get to hear him sing, I'm happy. Indeed, this is probably one of the strongest, most cohesive Flatlanders albums, and it's definitely a record that came out at exactly the right time to be heard by exactly the right people. Check it out.
The Flatlanders "The Odessa Tapes: 1972" (CD & DVD) (New West, 2012)
(Produced by Peter Jesperson)
Cosmic country from one of the great legendary bands of the Texas indie/outlaw scene: The Flatlanders was a trio comprised of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore who forged a new mix of Texas country and '70s folk, and in their solo careers went on to help define the "Americana" scene of the '70s and '80s, before that style even had a name... This album is a previously-unreleased set they recorded in 1972 at the studios of Tommy Allsup in Odessa, Texas, with the trio augmented by a small band, but still with a pretty sparse sound. Gilmore is the lead singer, although he and Hancock each wrote about half the songs; Ely is content with a backing role, including some tentative work on the dobro, in a brisk style that's reminiscent of old Bashful Brother Oswald. These tapes, long lost somewhere in the vaults, were recorded several months before the Nashville sessions that became their first album, and have a similar feel, recalling the poetic hippie-folkie explorations of fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt as well as the old-school country of Roy Acuff, with a hint of a more rugged honkytonk sound hovering around the edges. Several songs that would become part of their canon are included in early versions here, such as Gilmore's "Dallas" and "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," which would also be recorded by Gilmore and Ely on their solo albums. Several of Hancock's songs show a strong cosmic/psychedelic influence, such as "Stars In My Life" and "I Think Too Much Of You," which literally ponder the cosmos and the nature of life and the universe -- these charming hippie relics are also intricately intertwined with older country and folk themes and show the depth of their musical roots, as well as their experimental, modern direction. Flatlanders fans will be psyched to have this album see the light of day -- also included is a DVD mini-documentary which features Ely, Gilmore and Hancock interviewed about their early days, as well as archival footage that gives us a whiff of the Texas scene that orbited around them. Cool stuff!
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