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[whitespace] The Flatlanders On the Level: Gilmore, Ely and Hancock bring the Flatlanders tour to Santa Cruz Saturday.

Loving the Aliens

As the Flatlanders regroup for a new album and tour, the truth is out there

By Steve Palopoli

YOU CAN'T POSSIBLY imagine what it's been like. You see, for a long time now, I've known the secret of the Flatlanders' legendary first album. I kept my mouth shut about it because--well, let's just say I also knew the consequences of blabbing something like this to the wrong person, especially in the music industry.

And I wasn't the only one keeping quiet. Even as a huge cult following grew around the band members and the Flatlanders became, as the saying goes, "more a legend than a band," I never saw the truth printed in one single article, profile or music guide.

But now it's 2002, a full three decades after that first record was recorded. Now the Flatlanders, after years of playing together unofficially in various combinations, are back together again, with a new album and a tour that stops at the Rio in Santa Cruz on Saturday.

Now it can be told.

The truth about their first album is:

"It was channelled from UFOs," admits Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the famed Texas singer/songwriter who sang lead vocals and co-wrote much of that record. "A lot of people have gotten the secret, but a lot of people still don't know."

What, you think he's kidding? Have you heard that album? A ghostly, swirling mix of Hank Williams' lonesome, twangy longing with the sincerity of '60s folk and the Zen madness of psychedelic rock, there has been nothing like it before or since. It's clear after just the first couple of songs that Gilmore's vocals are being beamed in from outer space, and the band seems to be fading in and out of our time-space continuum as the music gets spookier even as it gets prettier.

By the time you've gotten through lines like "Something I couldn't see when this world was more real to me" and "She had everything in this world that was mine," you're starting to wonder, "Wait a second--which world?" Did you really think it was a coincidence that the album's most famous tunes like "Dallas," "Tonight I'm Gonna Go Downtown" and "She Had Everything" are often described as "otherworldly?"

If you still don't believe me, check out the explanation Flatlander Joe Ely gave me for the timing of their new album and tour.

"We've threatened to do this the whole time, but the time just wasn't right," says Ely. "We had to wait until the planets lined up."

Yeah, I think you heard him right. Let's see, what other phenomenon is often linked to planet alignment? That's right--UFOs a.k.a. the Greys a.k.a. neighbor-stealing, crop-circle-leaving, cavity-invading, possibly Reese's Pieces-eating alien astronauts. This could be bigger than Roswell, people.

Flat Earth Theory

Granted, there are alternative theories about the band's sound. One is that the aptly named Flatlanders' music is soaked in the Lubbock, Texas, landscape, where the band was born when Gilmore, Ely and Butch Hancock roomed together there in the early '70s.

"Townes Van Zandt told us one time, he said, 'All you guys from around Lubbock have this strange sound about you,'" says Hancock. "He described it as like the wind that blows through Lubbock, kind of an air sound that's in all our voices."

The first album was only available on eight-track in the U.S. for almost two decades, with its legend, and that of the band itself, really only starting to grow after it was released in Europe in 1980. But by the time the core trio of the band had developed their own solo careers in the late '80s and early '90s, the Flatlanders legacy had branched off in several directions. Americana-style roots and folk artists were referring it to it as a landmark album, while The Spin Alternative Record Guide was calling it a perfect record and naming it as an influence on indie rock.

"We just did music we liked," says Gilmore, "and we all had different backgrounds. Joe had a rock and roll background, I had more of a country background and Butch had a real strong folk background. And we all liked each other's music, we all liked what we taught each other. We just didn't think in terms of that whole deal of categorizing yourself as a type of band--we still don't."

That much is obvious from their new record, Now Again, on which the band sounds as defiantly eclectic as ever. It sounds a lot different from the first one, of course--no surprise, since Gilmore, Hancock and Ely have all evolved quite a bit in the last 30 years.

"That's just the way we always were," says Gilmore. "If we had made a second album a month after that first one, it would have been different."

Now Again features some classically trippy Flatlanders concepts, like "Now It's Now Again," "Yesterday Was Judgment Day" and "Pay the Alligator." Still, you could certainly argue that it sounds more "down to Earth"--terrestrial, even. But I don't know. I still think there's only one way to understand the Flatlanders, and Hancock, at least, seems to back me on this one.

"All you've gotta do," he says, "is look up."

The Flatlanders play Saturday, July 6, at 7:30pm at the Rio Theatre 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. (479.9421)

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From the July 3-10, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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