When, 18 years after the fact, Rounder Records reissued recordings made by the Flatlanders in 1972, whoever came up with the title of the reissue hit the nail on the head: “More a Legend Than a Band.” The left-field, before-its-time precursor of what came to be known years later as alternative country had come together in Lubbock, Texas, and lasted about as long as a cup of coffee before its principals — Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock — went their separate ways and on to bigger things as solo artists.
Before disbanding, however, they did manage to find their way to a recording studio — not in Texas, but Nashville. “We were brought up to Nashville with a guy who was a radio disc jockey in Lubbock,” recounts Ely, in a phone conversation ahead of a sold-out Flatlanders show at City Winery Friday. The band had been playing bars in Lubbock, and the DJ had caught one of their shows. “He actually brought Willie Nelson to one of our gigs. So we thought, well, this guy, he knows some people, and so we kind of jumped on the wagon with him and went to Nashville to make a record.”
They finished the sessions, headed back to Lubbock, and waited for the record to come out. “We got an eight-track tape [issued as ‘Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders’] that you couldn’t play on anything,” Ely says. “We talked to the DJ and he said ‘yeah, they’ll be releasing this record.’ ” It never happened, and Ely and company always figured that the record just did not fit with what was coming out of Nashville at the time — which, when you consider that a prominent feature of the Flatlanders’ sound was the musical saw, was not exactly a surprise.
“Our attention span was not that long,” continues Ely with a laugh, so the three just drifted in different directions. “We didn’t even think about it, really, because it was no different from the way we had been before, just playing weddings and funerals and things like that. It was kind of a natural set of circumstances that we had no control over.” Gilmore went to Denver and spent time in an ashram before eventually returning to Austin to record country records marked by his high lonesome tenor; Hancock settled in and began to make a name as a folk-leaning Texas singer-songwriter; and Ely headed north to New York City before he, too, returned and started forging a more rock ‘n’ roll version of honky-tonk.
So that was it for the Flatlanders, although periodic collaborations among the three continued. But as their individual careers progressed and brought them wider attention, there were rumblings about what had briefly been and maybe could be again, rumblings that were only abetted when Rounder issued its version of the record that the Flatlanders had made in Nashville. What finally brought them back to the recording studio was a soundtrack.
Ely was recording for MCA Records during the 1990s, and label head Tony Brown called him up one day and asked him if he wanted to contribute a song to the soundtrack for the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Horse Whisperer.” “When I read the book, I immediately thought of the Flatlanders,” recalls Ely. He pitched the idea of reforming the band to do the song, and Brown thought that it would be a wonderful way for them to get back together.
“I remember we went back and the first writing session — we’d never even thought about writing a song together, because we just thought, in Lubbock it’s just not done like that. You write your own song and play it. But we started writing songs, and I think the first day we wrote three songs together and then got back together for a few times, and then we started recording. Things kept working, and pretty soon we had six or seven songs."
From those sessions came “South Wind of Texas,” the song that was included on the 1998 soundtrack, as well as the first songs for what would be the second Flatlanders album, the aptly named “Now Again,” which came out 30 years after their star-crossed debut. With that, the legend had become a band again. But it has continued to be anything but conventional, living an on-again, off-again sort of existence that matches its strange beginnings. After “Now Again,” the trio came together for “Wheels of Fortune” two years later, and then waited five more before making “Hills and Valleys.” They tour sporadically, when the spirit moves them, and Ely says there has been talk about returning to the studio (“but no concrete plans yet, just ideas”). And, after making three new records, in 2012 the band went back to the beginning (“or before the beginning,” Ely notes), by releasing “The Odessa Tapes,” demo recordings made a couple of months prior to their Nashville foray that they all had completely forgotten about.
“Isn’t that weird?” says Ely, laughing. “That was another, oh, year before the Nashville tape came out. So, yeah, it’s been a real funny period of my life and all of our lives. When we get together, we look at things completely differently.”