THE FLATLANDERS: Treasure Of Love
Norman Warwick learns, belatedly, of pure gold
The trouble was that there were incredible vinyl albums and cds all around the room: on shelves, in piles on the floor, and scores more seemingly discarded or abandoned. Ryan´s Record Shop in Pen Y Cae, near Wrexham wasn´t really a shop at all but simply a lounge in a private house converted into a storage room that contained only music that could justifiably be called, collectively and individually, the best, as in the most sacred, the most difficult to attain and often the least heard of. The house / shop was owned by Pete Ryan who actually repaired lawn-mowers for a living, and who in fact only sold any of his stock if his customer couldn´t provide him with a decent swap item. I had already spent way more cash than I ever wanted my wife to know about on a secret stash of albums and had even swapped back some albums my wife never knew I had bought and was carrying my bags full out to my car when I remarked to Pete, following up the drive behind me with a box full of what hadn´t fitted into my bags, that the scenery in this area of North Wales is so lovely, with its green fields and rolling hills.
´Speaking of rolling hills,´ he replied, ´have you heard this new album yet, from The Flatlanders?´
All the above was long before anyone in the UK, except Mr. Ryan, knew of the group and I took it as a great compliment because I knew that Pete only shared his musical secrets with those of us he felt sure would enjoy them.
Of course, he was also a salesman who knew his customers and as he fully expected his question ensured a return to the house, where he rummaged beneath random mountains of albums to put into my hand the debut recording from a band that, collectively and individually, became the very cornerstone of my own music collection.
As a band, The Flatlanders have sadly added only a few more albums to that collection but as individuals they have their names on countless records, cds and tapesfor performing as individuals or in other bands or in duos.
Although there were five Flatlanders creating the sounds on that debut, that somehow seemed both futuristic and older than Time itself, there were three wonderful singer-writers each with their own unique style. From Jimmie Dale Gilmore (left) I would subsequently name songs for my creative students, like Dallas From A DC9 At Night, as perfect examples of metaphor and personification.
Butch Hancock (right) offered glimpses of the Texas borders and life on a dry land farm. He recorded a handful of solo and duo albums that were full of puns and put-downs, riddle and rhymes and tales of Eric And Erica.
I would be fortunate enough over the coming years to conduct interviews with each of this triumvirate of extraordinary writers, including Joe Ely (left) . In an interview in a motor home many years later Joe, whilst telling me stories of cowboys and Indians, explained why he never got along with Billy The Kid and introduced me to the Tex Mex food I have loved ever since.
Rolling Stone has reported how the original Flatlanders (right) first came together way back in the early 70s but didn’t last long as they failed to make much impact with their first recordings – Gilmore’s Dallas was their first single and intended to promote their first album, laid down in 1972, All American Music. In fact, the original album release only came out locally and on 8 track tape as a means of fulfilling contractual requirements. The band broke up in 1973. The three founder members all went on to have successful solo careers over the next few years and, slowly, the story of their earlier collaboration started to circulate and become the stuff of legend.
When, in 1990, Rounder Records got hold of the original 1972 album they re-released it under the precise title of More A Legend Than A Band. Modern Songs such as Bhagavan Decreed and that incredible view of Dallas From A DC9 At Night sat perfectly alongside the old timey sound of Tonight I Think I´m Gonna Go Downtown.
However, these musicians didn´t like to be hurried and so it would be 2002 before they released their second official band album.
Now Its Now Again was highlighted, for me, by a Butch Hancock song, Julia, but was actually another album of gorgeous songs beautifully played and playfully sing.
There was then Wheels Of Fortune in 2004 (left) which included Deep Eddy Blues in Gilmore´s high-lonesome voice and a signature track by Joe that was Indian Cowboy.
Hills And Valleys (right) was only five years away and on its release, in 2009, it was a celebrated event. And worthy on its own of such celebration was Borderless Love, a glorious co-write between Jimmie, Joe and Butch.
They’ve continued to play together over the years and there have been occasional live recordings pushed out to keep the fans happy but Treasure Of Love is the band’s first new album in 12 years and it’s all down to the restrictions brought about by Covid.
Apparently, this album (left) was started several years ago but was constantly being moved to the back burner because of the claims on the three artists as solo performers. The pandemic brought their solo touring careers to an abrupt halt and the three decided that, rather than sit around waiting for restrictions to be lifted, they’d concentrate their energies on finishing their new, collaborative album. And what an excellent album it is! Right from the opening staccato twang of Butch Hancock’s Moanin’ Of The Midnight Train there’s the feeling that the band is back with a real sense of intent. The fifteen tracks are a mix of new songs and material they’ve been playing for years but never recorded in the studio, and the album has a real joie de vivre about it; you can almost see the smiles on their faces when they were recording, such is the positivity that comes out of this album. As well as songs from Hancock and Ely there are songs from some of the best-known names in Americana music – Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, George Jones – there’s even a Dylan song and it’s one of the highlights of the album. There are not many bands that can do a relatively straight-ahead cover of ‘She Belongs to Me’ and still make it sound different, with some fine pedal-steel work that, one presumes, comes from co-producer and long-time collaborator with all three musicians, Lloyd Maines.
Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock are all in fine voice, swapping lead vocals around and all contributing great harmony vocals, and the production work from Ely and Maines is crisp and clean throughout but still comes across as down and dirty when it needs to be. The band has great musical range that allows a muscular rocker like Mickey Newbury’s Mobile Blues. Newbury (right) was often prominently featured in the classic Omaha Rainbow magazine series published by Peter O´Brien and here at Sidetracks & Detours we have referenced the late collator of An American Trilogy in several articles.
This is followed by a Hancock ballad, Ramblin’ Man, without losing any of the pace of the album and the track order has been really cleverly designed to keep your interest right through the record. Even the album closer, the old Vinson and Chatmon standard Sittin’ on Top of the World takes on a new lease of life as The Flatlanders drive it along, changing lead vocals on the verses and all contributing some stinging guitar licks and including some fine harmonica playing from Hancock.
Are there any downsides? Well, it will all come down to individual tastes, as these things so often do. On a personal level I could’ve done without the title track, a George Jones/J.P. Richardson song, which just seems a bit too old school mainstream country and, similarly, Tex Ritter and Frank Harford’s Long Time Gone and Paul Siebel’s Ballad of Honest Sam – these seem a little out of step with a band as willing to push the boundaries as The Flatlanders but there will be others that find the inclusion of these songs an indication of the broad range of the band’s personal tastes and you certainly can’t fault any of the performances, even if individual songs don’t always float your boat.
This is a terrific record and a testament to why so many look forward to new recordings by these musicians. Individually, they’re all outstanding performers but, put them together, and real magic happens. Let’s hope it’s not another twelve years before we hear from The Flatlanders again.
Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore — together known as the Flatlanders — are not only band-mates, but friends, who have known each other for more than five decades. They share various common interests; they trade book recommendations.
“It’s more than just the music, but the love of the music is the real core,” says Gilmore. “And it’s still there as much now as it was when we first started.”
Hancock and Gilmore have known each other since the seventh grade. They were good friends at school, but didn’t really hang out after the bell rang, Hancock explains, because he was playing sports and they lived in different parts of town.
Gilmore met Ely first, through friends in the Lubbock, Texas, creative scene. Hancock, meanwhile, remembers seeing him play “a little folk joint” in an old grain elevator.
“I don’t know if we got introduced that night or not, but it was an amazing experience hearing Joe pick and sing like he owned the place — which he did,” Hancock remembers. “I mean, he walked into it and he owned it from that moment.”
When Gilmore did finally introduce his two friends, they, too, found common ground. All three of them would spend get-togethers talking music, and playing it, for as long as they could.
“We had all journeyed out of Lubbock on different road trips and this and that, and we wandered back in just about the same time,” Hancock tells The Boot, tracing the trio’s origin story. “And that’s when we found ourselves kind of sitting around the same, as we put it, goat roasts and hippie banquets and back porch guitar pulls.”
Hancock recalls one night in particular — “one of those impetus moments,” as he calls it.
“Joe walked through the door — and Jimmie had already said, ‘Hey, Joe’s back in town’ — and the next thing you knew, we were back on the kitchen floor, sitting down, trading songs, and we went on for hours doing that,” Hancock says. “And we just found ourselves doing that more often and enjoying it more often.”
And so, they became the Flatlanders …
Well, actually, Gilmore shares, they became the Super Natural Playboys — a joke between friends. It wasn’t until some people in Nashville told them they couldn’t possibly use that band name that they became the Flatlanders.
´Essential workers? Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock toiled through the pandemic, 15-hour days on a chain gang run by Lubbock warden Lloyd Maines, to bring Austin and the world these 15 songs in 51 minutes – their first in a dozen years. Fourth full-length since the trio reconvened at the start of this millennium after famously alchemizing in 1972 to produce sessions later titled More a Legend Than a Band, this Treasure of Love more than lives up to said COVID designation: essential. If forced to listen to one sole Flatlanders disc on your ventilator – take only one album to the leper colony of quarantine – this contemporary compendium reaped from across five decades of the Lubbock diaspora constitutes THE ultimate desert isle disc by triumvirate Ely/Gilmore/Hancock. Better still, Treasure of Love rolls out like a live performance, both in set list and sound. Covers traverse Flatlanders history, while Maines’ studio detailing – buzzing solos, sanguine steel (his), glistening acoustics, dobro broad strokes – animate every note. Gilmore caresses Everly Brothers break-in “Long Time Gone,” Hancock crystallizes his go-to Townes Van Zandt element “Snowin’ on Raton,” and Ely copyrights Hancock’s “Ramblin’ Man” for all time. Dylan from Gilmore (“She Belongs to Me”), an aching Ernest Tubb cheater’s lament by Ely (“I Don’t Blame You”), and Johnny Cash intoned by Hancock (“Give My Love to Rose”) all land as real and true as UFOs (now UAPs) in the Panhandle. Three originals spine Treasure of Love: Hancock’s pairing of “Moanin’ of the Midnight Train” and bouncing LP sleeper “Mama Does the Kangaroo,” and Ely’s journeyman “Satin Shoes.” The timeless former opens the proceedings alongside a searing six-string end solo by longtime Flatlanders shredder Robbie Gjersoe, while closer “Sittin’ on Top of the World” reanimates country blues from the 1920s rollicked by the likes of Bill Monroe and Bob Wills, and rumbled famously by Howlin’ Wolf. And let’s not overlook a title gemstone penned by a pair of all-time Texans: George Jones and Jiles Perry Richardson Jr., aka the Big Bopper, who went down with Buddy Holly, Lubbock’s original flatlander. Perfect in vision, voice, harmony – not to mention timing – Treasure of Love delivers quintessential Flatlanders.
The Flatlanders undertook the usual media presentations that accompany their occasional album releases but Butch Hancock was running a few minutes late for an interview on Zoom for The Austin Chronicle. Nevertheless Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore caught up up on-screen, running through the speculative current whereabouts of various folks as lifelong friends do.
Wrangling the three songwriters together remains one of the Flatlanders’ biggest challenges, even in a virtual setting. Yet the natural camaraderie and jokes flow easily when Hancock appears from his home in Terlingua. The Flatlanders remain a celestial event, three stars moving in their own orbits that happen to align at rare but spectacular intervals.
“We all stay in touch and are all always connected, but because of our schedules – we just have such different everything – getting together is a rare luxury,” admits Gilmore. “It just so happens we had gotten together, even though it’s been a year and a half ago now, because the three of us decided it was time to make a concerted effort to get together again for a couple of weeks and do a new project. Then the pandemic happened.
“So we were ripe for doing something, but then we couldn’t.”
Locked down alongside the rest of the world last summer, Ely began digging through the old Flatlanders files at his home studio in Dripping Springs. Among their recordings from the past decades, both in the studio and informal, Ely found cuts of familiar favourites the three had played together throughout their careers.
“During the pandemic, I had been looking through things from different eras,” affirms Ely. “I didn’t think about where it would go, but I thought it would be a good project while on shutdown. We didn’t really know where it was going. Mainly it was just to keep our sanity.
“In that sense, it was a good time, because we had the time.”
“We accidentally happened on this little treasure trove of stuff we had recorded,” adds Gilmore. “They weren’t for a specific project, but because we liked the songs back when we had some time in the studio and some really good musicians with us, Joe had the studio set up. So the fact that they were sitting there ready was just good luck, and Joe jumped on it.”
The recordings struck a chord among the group for the joy and energy they capture in loose performances cut for fun. As Ely continued to excavate songs, what emerged was a history of the Flatlanders, the earliest influences that united the three Lubbock singer-songwriters since the early Seventies.
Ever on point, Townes Van Zandt (left) and Bob Dylan make the cull, but so do Leon Russell and Mickey Newbury, George Jones and Ernest Tubb, and several bluegrass standards.
The resulting Treasure of Love, the band’s first LP for powerhouse indie imprint Thirty Tigers, slings a versatile yet impressively cohesive collection. The trio credits Lloyd Maines with taking rough recordings and adding needed over-dubs and production polish.
“These songs are actually, some of ’em, what we would play just sitting around on the porch or the living room floor, because we didn’t have any furniture particularly, and we’d just swap songs,” offers Hancock.
“Each of us brought something to it,” acknowledges Gilmore. “All three of us had a lot in common from our childhood in West Texas, but we all had different tastes in music from when we were learning how to play. We brought that to each other when we got together. The songs were already selected just because they were there, and they were already there just because they were all songs that we like.”
Doesn’t take much to appreciate the Flatlanders. Start with seminal 1990 reissue, More a Legend Than a Band, of the threesome’s 1972 debut, or their last batch of new material, 2009’s exceptional Hills and Valleys. Yet to understand the Flatlanders and the unique alchemy that melds the diverse range of Hancock’s mystical panhandle poetry, Ely’s roots-rock drive, and Gilmore’s emotional hillbilly twang, there’s no better document than Treasure of Love.
“Something happens when a song comes around that feels like the Flatlanders and that place we grew up in in West Texas around Lubbock,” ponders Ely. “It just has this mysterious energy where you can tell a song belongs in your repertoire as your car blows off the road.”
“All of these songs dig something out of our gut,” concludes Hancock. “It’s kind of what we’re made out of. They all represent something to us that we’ve been carrying all through the years.”
The Flatlanders represent the very best of my kind of Americana and if you would also like to hear what represents the very best of my kind of jazz, then be aware that this week´s broadcast of the Hot Biscuits jazz show features an insight into Jay Riley Music with his light from dawn CD. Jay is joined by Jason Page, Tom Haines and Matt Ball. If this sounds interesting share the word that listeners can now tune in 24/7 for Steve Bewick´s new weekly shows starting Mondays at www.mixcloud.com/stevebewick/
The primary sources for this article were first published in Rolling Stone, The Boot; American UK and The Austin Chronicle..
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This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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