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The three troubadours
Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock keep the Flatlanders alive
BY JON GARELICK

Until the 1990s, the Flatlanders — Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock — were little more than a rumor. A short-lived band from Lubbock, Texas, they produced one recording in 1973 that never got beyond a failed radio single and an eight-track cassette. They were the country-music equivalent of punk-rock legends Rocket from the Tombs — more often heard about than heard, their reputation enhanced by their subsequent individual careers. Then in 1990, Rounder released those early recordings as More a Legend Than a Band, and Robert Redford asked the Flatlanders to reconvene to perform a song on the soundtrack to the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer. In 2002 came a new album, Now Again (New West), and extensive touring. And now there’s Wheels of Fortune (also New West).

The original Flatlanders album is treated among fans as a holy relic, and it’s easy to understand why. It was like nothing else in country music at the time — not like the mainstream Music Row big productions of Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and Tammy Wynette, not even like the more rock-and-roll-influenced "outlaw" music of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. "They tried to put that on us," says Joe Ely of the "outlaw" label over the phone from his home in Austin. "We really didn’t fit. That was something that was going on in Austin in the middle ’70s. But up in Lubbock where we were, it was just a whole different kind of a feeling, you know? Even though we too were not accepted by Nashville radio, we did not feel real associated with ‘outlaw’ — we were kind of the in-laws."

Some critics have complained that the reunited Flatlanders have never equaled the sound of those early recordings — but how could they? Released originally as Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders, the songs put that singer’s nasal, Willie Nelson tenor in front of folkish string-band arrangements, with a musical saw providing whinnying accompaniment. Supported by just acoustic guitars and bass, no percussion, and that saw, the songs have a spectral quality, and they’re often as close to pure folk music as to C&W. Born in that flat cotton country of the Texas panhandle, in a town whose biggest claims on the world at large were Texas Tech University and Buddy Holly, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders has a home-grown integrity — whether the band are singing originals or Willie Nelson’s "One Day at a Time," songs by the Lubbock brother/sister songwriters Al and Angela Strehli, or the Louisiana Cajun standard "Jole Blon" (more properly known as "Jolie Blonde"), they sound, as Stewart Mason suggests in his All Music Guide Web article on the band, untouched by outside influences — innocent.

Neither of the subsequent Flatlanders recordings has recaptured that innocence, but other virtues remain intact. Since their inception, the band have blended the rock-and-roll inclinations of Ely, the deep-country schooling of Gilmore, and the Dylanesque folk of Hancock. Like Now Again, the new album mixes and matches singers with songwriters. All three men have a knack for writing the kind of lyrics that are drenched in street ’n’ prairie metaphors, folk wisdom, and backwoods humor. "I’ve made a few mistakes by pitchin’ pennies/I’ve struck some matches down some dirty streets," Gilmore sings on Hancock’s title track for the new album. Ely sings a train song by Gilmore ("Midnight Train") and his own tale of a legendary fallen woman ruined by the big city ("Neon of Nashville"). Gilmore sings Al Strehli’s "Whistle Blues," an up-tempo rocker with an electric-guitar low-string twang. The imagery is often old and familiar but given a new twist, whether it’s the surreal poetry of Hancock’s farm metaphors ("The Eggs of Your Chicken") or Ely’s gritty, humorous specificity in his "Back to My Old Molehill," which is about a love affair gone stratospherically out of control: "I went to see the gypsy but her mobile home was gone/And all that was left of the gypsy/Was the tire tracks across the lawn." There’s also one of the Flatlanders’ dependable shaggy-dog-joke songs, Ely’s "I’m Gonna Strangle You Shorty," in which the title character’s misadventures are just an excuse for the chorus line: "I’m gonna strangle you Shorty — Lordy, Lordy, Lordy."

The latter might recall one of Ely’s most irresistibly catchy, if also one of his silliest, songs from Now Again, the group-written "Pay the Alligator," a nonsense ditty in which the title line becomes an all-purpose catch phrase for bad karma. "Actually," he explains, "the song came about by a misunderstanding of what somebody had said. Jimmie had come into the studio from this little hallway by the bathroom, and there was a radiator by there, and I think he bumped into it and said something about the radiator, and Butch asked, ‘Did you say, "Pay the alligator?" ’ When he said that, we just died laughing, because that phrase sounded like something your grandfather would say: ‘Don’t touch that or you’ll have to pay the alligator.’ It sounds like something that we had heard all of our lives, but we had actually never heard it until that minute. And so we started thinking of things that might happen that would cause you to have to pay the alligator." In the course of the song, the singer faces a sheriff in a speed trap, the IRS, Saint Peter, and the Devil — "we just came up with these totally ridiculous ways of having to pay the alligator."

Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock had been roommates in Lubbock when they wrote the songs that would become that first, fateful album. Ely’s early influences were Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. "Jimmie just knew a million old hillbilly songs — his daddy played in an old honky-tonk band, so Jimmie had just learned a million of these amazing old songs. And of course Butch kind of came from a folk background." Gilmore and Hancock encouraged Ely — a couple of years their junior — to write. "Pretty soon, we’d just wake up in the morning and see what somebody wrote the night before. For I guess about a year there, we lived in the same house, and it was a really great period of time."

Moving to Lubbock from Amarillo as a child, Ely found a city steeped in the rock and roll of Buddy Holly, but he also discovered the border music of migrant Mexican farm workers. His own rock and roll has since been a mix of rockabilly, Cajun, and Tex-Mex accordion-driven conjunto. For a time, he toured with the Clash, and he even showed them the sights in his home town. "When we came to Lubbock, my daddy opened up a used-clothing store downtown. Lubbock is a big cotton town, and during that time, all the people who hoed cotton and picked it and chopped it were all migrant workers up from Mexico, and so in the spring and fall there would be tens of thousands of migrant workers coming in on trucks. And on the weekends, they’d all come into downtown Lubbock and come to my daddy’s store because he had five-cent pairs of shoes and stuff like that, so they’d all come shopping for their work clothes. And when I was about 12, my daddy taught me a little Spanish and put me to work in the store. So there was this wealth of amazing music, and it was like being in Mexico. Downtown Lubbock was exactly like being in Mexico — there was accordion music coming out of the bars and people playing in the streets, and it was just this really colorful time. There’d be tens of thousands of people coming downtown on a Saturday and a Sunday, and come Monday there wouldn’t be a soul downtown. Totally dead."

Ely’s stories of Lubbock recall tales of any white musician who’s ventured to the other side of the tracks — whether it’s in Harlem or Clarksdale or on Central Avenue in Los Angeles — in search of music. "It was definitely segregated. The railroad tracks running down the middle of the town and everything. Exactly what you would think of — a highly segregated town." The store was by the tracks. "There was just really beautiful music, and the smell of frying tortillas and the whole thing was just really great. I just feel real lucky to have gotten to experience that as a kid, because it was kind of stepping out of one culture and seeing another culture first-hand.

"Those memories have always stuck in my head, because my daddy died a couple of years later and we lost the store. Those memories always permeated my music and everything, because it was a really happy time in our family. It was not so happy after that."

Outlaw or in-law, Ely says he feels a compatibility with a growing number of songwriters. There are contemporaries like John Hiatt, Guy Clark, and Lyle Lovett, whom he’s toured with, and younger players like Adam Carroll, Slaid Cleaves, Robert Earl Keen, and Gilmore’s son Colin. "It’s great to find people who come from totally different backgrounds, and when you get on stage and start telling stories, you start finding similarities in what influenced your song and what influenced their song. We’re all from kind of the same tradition of telling the stories of your life on stage." Stories their grandfathers might have told.


Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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