The Flatlanders are not a band, or so says Joe Ely, who is a Flatlander along with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
“We’re friends. We’ve liked each other for 40 years. I know a lot of bands who can’t get along after being together for two years,” Ely cracks.
The Flatlanders existed briefly in the early 1970s, long enough to watch their debut album flop — coming out only as an 8-track tape — before establishing solo careers and waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with what they started out doing.
That ’72 debut, “All American Music,” was made for the Sun Records-related Plantation label in Nashville, but finally reached more receptive audiences when Charly Records in England released songs from the sessions as “One Road More” in 1981 and then when Rounder Records put out an edited version of the material in 1990 as “More a Legend Than a Band.”
After contributing a song to the “Horse Whisperer” soundtrack in 1998, the Flatlanders began periodically touring again, which thus far led to the trio writing and recording three albums of new material.
But once again, the past is figuring prominently in the Flatlanders’ present. Demo recordings the group also cut in 1972 and later thought to be lost recently resurfaced and will be coming out in August as “The Odessa Tapes” — so named because Hancock, Ely, and Gilmore traveled the two hours from their house in Lubbock to a recording studio in Odessa. A friend bankrolled the all-night recording session of songs that would eventually be recorded again for the ill-fated Plantation release, plus a few more that popped up elsewhere in the Flatlanders’ repertoire.
“Four or five months before that, we all lived in the same house together, and we played all day,” Ely says. “Listening to these tapes is like sitting in that living room with us.”
“The Odessa Tapes” is actually far better than rough sketches. Many of the tunes, such as Gilmore’s “Dallas,” which has been a Flatlanders standard from the beginning, prove to be nuanced and insightful from inception. “The Odessa Tapes” sessions include four songs that have never been released in any form.
The arrival of “The Odessa Tapes” and the 40th anniversary of their first shot at the big time are good reasons to have the Flatlanders on the road for the summer, including a concert Friday at the Bull Run in Shirley. Guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, drummer Pat Manske, and bassist Jimmy Pettit join the core trio in a sprawling survey of Americana crafted by the Flatlanders as a unit and as individuals. This tour also includes a mid-show acoustic set that emulates those long-ago Lubbock living-room sessions. So far Gilmore has uncorked Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” and Ely and Hancock have swapped takes on “Indian Cowboy,” a song Ely wrote during the “Odessa” days but left off of the early recordings because it wasn’t “country” enough.
Gilmore says the Flatlanders were an oddity not properly marketed when the band first ended up in Nashville from its Texas base.
“We were pitched to a hardcore country crowd, and we didn’t appeal to the hardcore country crowd,” Gilmore says. “We were country fans, but we were also fans of a lot of other kinds of music. A lot of country back then didn’t have broad range. These guys didn’t understand that our audience was out in San Francisco and what was happening there or with the folk boom going on in New York City and Boston. Nashville had no idea what to do with us.”
Gilmore says the same thing that made the Flatlanders difficult to peg also made the group special.
“There was music everybody was familiar with and then each of us had his own repertoire of songs. Together, we learned each other’s repertoires. If Butch liked something, I was sure I would like it. If Joe went to the trouble to learn a song, it was probably going to be a song I’d like too. It ensured some quality control for what we were doing,” Gilmore says.
The Flatlanders drew on diverse styles and other writers to craft a sound that was both tumbleweed and rock ’n’ roll, earthy and spiritual. Hancock’s writing and Gilmore’s singing with “Stars in My Life,” for instance, weaves “kinder consciousness and holy vision” into a sweet love song.
From “The Odessa Tapes” forward, the Flatlanders conjured songs that spoke sincerely, looked at the world with a balanced honesty, and managed to stay hopeful even when facing darkness. As much as they were swapping Roy Orbison and Hank Williams tunes, Hancock says the Flatlanders early on were reading religious texts and studying physics and philosophy, balling all of that into music aimed at unraveling a few universal truths.
“You hear a lot of our best points in the very first songs we did together,” Hancock says. “Those ‘Odessa Tapes’ are rough around the edges, but we were clearly tapping into something. It’s like that first time you play a guitar. You can’t play any hot licks, but suddenly you feel the whole world of music.”