Sweet Serendipity

The Flatlanders celebrate their not-so-overnight success with a new album and a tour

For some bands, featuring a musical saw as a primary instrument might be a primary hook for attracting the interest of music critics.

For the legendary Texas honky-tonk band The Flatlanders, it's just another detail eclipsed by the pedigrees of its members and the long, unusual trip that brings them to Tucson for a gig Saturday night, Aug. 7, at City Limits.

More than 30 years ago, The Flatlanders formed when three old friends, each a talented singer-songwriter in his own right, came together in Lubbock, Texas, to play music and enjoy each other's company. They were Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock.

Gilmore said The Flatlanders came together as an act of serendipity.

"We weren't looking to put a band together, technically, but the chemistry was so great that it just took on a life of its own," he told me in 1992. "We all had a common love of folk music, country and country blues--but then we also loved the Beatles."

The aesthete of the group, Gilmore sings in a high-country quaver and writes songs that balance worldly mysticism and keening bittersweet melodies. Ely is a road-weary rebel, with a rock 'n' roll heart--he even toured with The Clash in the late '70s. Hancock is sort of the arty country squire, a cerebral folkie trained as an architect and possessed of a unique, humorous view of the world.

"We never made a penny together, but we had a lot of fun," said Ely, who spoke briefly by cell phone from the road last week. "We played on more porches than stages. But we all lived in the same house together, and every day, we'd get up and play music together. It was about all we did."

Gilmore said The Flatlanders' debut album originally saw a very limited release, maybe 100 copies--about half of them vinyl LPs and half eight-track tapes.

Following a disappointing reception in Nashville--Gilmore remembers hearing the sound of their demo tape clanging in the wastebasket of one music executive as the group left his office--they relocated to the then-burgeoning music hotbed of Austin. There they played together for maybe a year before following their separate muses.

Meanwhile, their recording took on a life of its own. "Somehow, some copies got out in a bootleg fashion to European music people, and through that process, some DJs in Europe got it," Gilmore said.

A version of the recording, titled One Road More after one of Hancock's tunes, eventually was released on England's Charly Records in 1980, becoming a cult favorite and something of an underground legend.

Finally, that first Flatlanders album--by then titled More a Legend Than a Band--got an official American release in 1990 on Rounder Records. It was a phenomenon filled with amazing tunes: Gilmore's "Dallas," "Down in My Hometown" and "Tonight I'm Gonna Go Downtown"; Hancock's "You've Never Seen Me Cry" and "She Had Everything"; covers of tunes by Willie Nelson and Angela Strehli; and the old-timey Cajun standard "Jole Blon."

The Flatlanders reunited a few times over the years--performances at the Kerrville Folk Festival, a tune for the soundtrack of the movie The Horse Whisperer--but they finally decided to make it official with the 2002 album, Now Again.

Anticipation of the new release probably fueled the critical accolades, of which there were many. The album also sold decently, spending 17 weeks in the No. 1 position of the Billboard Americana chart.

That category--a rootsy meld of rock, folk, country and blues--didn't even exist when The Flatlanders made their first record, and it could be argued successfully that the work and careers of Hancock, Ely and Gilmore were responsible for helping to establish it.

A requisite concert tour followed--some 80 dates in all--and they had so much fun together again, they started on a third Flatlanders album once they got off the road in March 2003.

"We didn't want to go another 30 years before we made another record," Ely explained.

With the touring band still assembled, they recorded the masterly Wheels of Fortune, which was released earlier this year on New West Records.

Of the 14 songs on Wheels of Fortune, some are spankin' new, while longtime fans will recognize others--Gilmore's existential "Go to Sleep Alone," Ely's heroic circus tale "Indian Cowboy," Hancock's playful "Baby Do You Love Me Still?"--from the trio's respective repertoires.

The group that played on the new CD is pretty much the one that will arrive on the City Limits stage this Saturday: Robbie Gjersoe on guitar and banjo, Gary Herman on bass, Chris Searles on drums and Steve Wesson on that haunting musical saw.

Also on the shelves is a new album titled Live at the Knite June 8th 1972, recorded at the One Knite bar in Austin, during the band's first incarnation. Apparently the group's members didn't even know the tape of the gig existed until last year.

Although Hancock, Ely and Gilmore have experienced individual success, the gratification of playing in the Flatlanders is, as Ely puts it, "a precious thing."

And not one that's gone unnoticed by others.

"I've gone all over the world, and in every single place I've been there are Flatlanders fans. It's very amazing," Gilmore said 12 years ago. Surely there are many more now.

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