As telephone interviews go, this one’s a little more complicated than most. Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are aboard the Flatlanders’ tour bus in a restaurant parking lot, each of them on a cell phone with fading batteries. Butch Hancock, the third Flatlander, is speaking from a pay phone in the restaurant.
The four of us are connected via one of those conference-call lines reserved for cross-country meetings between corporate managers of a behemoth business, usually. Nothing about the Flatlanders, though, is business as usual.
“We didn’t want to do the interviews where one person would speak for all of us,” Ely explains. “We had insisted that all of us do the interviews together.”
Clearly it would’ve been much easier to divvy up these duties between the three of them–particularly in light of increasing demands on their time. Relentless plugs from notorious radio talk-show host Don Imus and an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman have raised the group’s profile considerably since the May release of their album, Now Again, on New West Records.
But their approach to promoting the album reflects precisely the manner in which they created it. Though Ely, Gilmore and Hancock all have made plenty of records on their own and could have brought songs to the project individually, they decided instead to work collectively, co-writing almost all the album’s songs. They collaborated vocally as well, often trading off lead vocals from verse to verse within a song, frequently joining in three-part harmony.
In a way, it’s a surprise Now Again even happened, given that this trio of old friends from Lubbock, Texas, has never really been a “band” in the traditional sense. They made one record together in 1972 that came out only on eight-track; it eventually surfaced on vinyl in 1980, and finally made it to CD 10 years later in the form of a Rounder reissue titled, appropriately, More a Legend than a Band.
In the meantime, each of the three moved to Austin and made a name for himself. Ely has been the most visible, with a string of albums for MCA and HighTone and memorable tours that established him as one of the best live acts in the catch-all chasm between a rock and a country place. Gilmore was a bit of a late bloomer, serving up a series of discs on Elektra in the ’90s that highlighted the heavenly twang of his singing. Hancock has stayed mostly behind the scenes, self-releasing a dozen records that documented his development into one of the most respected songwriters of his day.
And yet the lure of the Flatlanders still lingered within each of them, a sort of unspoken understanding that would eventually draw them toward a common musical pursuit once again.
“I think we’ve always kind of had that sneaking suspicion, in the back of our heads,” Hancock acknowledges. “Every three or four years, it has probably come up in conversation among us–‘Yeah, we’ll do that sometime with the Flatlanders thing.’”
Gilmore suggests that it’s less of a “reunion” than simply a re-convening of longtime friends. “It was only a publicly perceived thing that there was a split-up,” he says. “Because the basis of the Flatlanders to begin with was our friendship. It was not a commercial entity or anything. And that’s still there, just like it was back then.”
Ely was largely responsible for their paths merging again, as it was his record deal with MCA that led to a new Flatlanders song being included in the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer (for which MCA issued the soundtrack). When the three gathered to write “South Wind Of Summer” for the movie, the gears started turning toward other collaborative material as well.
Before long, they were holed up at Ely’s home studio, although they didn’t have any kind of record deal in place. They wrote and recorded at their own pace, dictated primarily by the comings-and-goings of Hancock, who had moved with his family from Austin to the tiny West Texas town of Terlingua in the late ’90s.
It was only after they had a finished record in their hands that they started looking for a label to release it. “It never was a thing of, ‘Let’s make an album’–we just don’t think like that,” Gilmore says. Hancock agrees, calling the process “definitely more song-oriented than ‘gotta-do-an-album’ oriented.”
In fact, if striking while the iron was hot had been the primary concern, this might have happened a few years earlier. “While we were working on that Horse Whisperer song, [MCA exec] Tony Brown offered us a very lucrative deal on MCA, as the Flatlanders,” Ely reveals. But, Gilmore adds, “The timing was just wrong. There were so many other things going on for each of us that it would’ve been too hard to unravel all of our separate projects.”
Almost certainly, the music turned out better as a result, as a major-label deal may not have allowed the unfettered independence with which Now Again was made, under Ely’s guidance as producer. It’s a role for which he was well suited, having spent a good deal of time in recent years learning the technical details of recording.
“Joe is that extremely rare real musician who also has the patience to be an engineer,” Gilmore says. “Most people that are really good musicians just aren’t patient enough to mess with the engineering. And most engineers aren’t really musicians.”
Though they relied on Ely’s experience in the studio, the collaborative approach to songwriting was largely a new adventure for these three. Butch remembers one song called “See The Way” that he and Jimmie had previously written together, but the story behind it perhaps explains why it took so long to reunite the Flatlanders.
“Jimmie had this wonderful verse and a chorus, and he showed it to me one time, and I loved it,” Hancock recalls. “And literally three or four years later, I came up with another verse and a chorus, but it was almost another year until I finally got a chance to show it to him. And then it was another three or four years before we got together one night and said, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can work up another verse to that one,’ and we did. So it took 10 years just to write that one song.”
All three Flatlanders, along with renowned musical and visual artist Terry Allen, another pal from their early days in Lubbock, did engage in an unusual but ill-fated songwriting collaboration around 1989. “It was a project that was sponsored by the Washington, D.C., Project for the Arts, for writing a new national anthem,” Ely says. “I think we wrote 12 of them, and we performed the songs at the Smithsonian. They recorded them, and did a videotape of the night and everything. And about two weeks later, the guy who had recorded it, his house burned down. So all of our national anthems got burned up.”
Not all such Flatlanders artifacts have gone up in smoke, though. In fact, the band recently located an ancient 14-song recording that had served as a demo for their 1972 debut (including five tunes that did not end up on the album). “Only a few months passed between that demo and the time we recorded in Nashville, but there’s a whole different feeling on it,” Ely says. Gilmore adds: “It really paints a more accurate picture of the way the Flatlanders were at that period.”
The way the Flatlanders are now is aptly reflected by the nature of this conference-call chat, as Gilmore observes: “I really think it conveys a more accurate impression of how we are, by having all three of us,” he says, “because … ”
His next few words are unintelligible as all three start to say something at the same time.