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On a Steel Horse I Ride: The Flatlanders make Lubbock, Texas, the center of this big, round earth.

Cosmic Cowboys

The Flatlanders are on the road again

By Greg Cahill

If we'd grown up near an ocean," Texas singer-songwriter Butch Hancock recently told the Dallas Star Telegram, "we might have written sea chanteys." Fortunately for fans, Hancock and his compadres Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore instead grew up on the sprawling plains of Lubbock, Texas, which gave the world Buddy Holly, the spooky phenomenon known as the Lubbock Lights, and the posse known as the Flatlanders, the kings of Zen-tinted country rock.

Nearly 35 years ago, the legendary Flatlanders helped pave the way for today's trendy retro- and alt-country sound with an innovative blend of old-timey country, Tex-Mex, folk, blues, and rock. Shunned by the Nashville establishment, this talented trio of Texas troubadours has long enjoyed the dubious status of critics' darlings. Unlike many of today's cafe cowboys, however, these hombres have credentials: Gilmore, born and raised in Lubbock, had his first demos in 1965 financed by Buddy Holly's father; Ely, a high school dropout, rambled around the globe as a rock minstrel and eventually settled back in Lubbock, where he worked as a fruit picker, circus hand, dishwasher, and itinerant musician; and Hancock, also a Lubbock native, spent hours listening to music on border radio stations when he wasn't driving the tractor on his father's farm.

In 1971, the Flatlanders--a band that combined modern lyrics and traditional instrumentation, including a musical saw--were, well, big in Lubbock. Their 1972 eponymous debut recording (released only on eight-track tape at the time) quickly vanished but became an instant cult classic.

And that was that. Or so it seemed. The three amigos went their own ways but never fell out of friendship. Then in 1990, Rounder Records reissued the Flatlanders' album as More a Legend Than a Band. Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock quickly became cult heroes, getting the spotlight on Austin City Limits, sometimes making guest appearances on each other's albums, and, to the delight of Americana fans, occasionally getting back together for a Flatlanders reunion.

Two years ago, fate gave the Flatlanders a second chance. Film director Robert Redford enlisted the band to contribute the track "South Wind of Summer" to the Horse Whisperer soundtrack, the first time the trio had collaborated on songwriting. A series of reunion gigs followed, and this spring the Flatlanders did something fans had dreamed about for years: they released their sophomore effort, Now Again (New West). A thousand honky-tonks later, the Flatlanders reunite for a pair of shows that bring them to Rancho Nicasio on July 4 and the Marin County Fair on July 7.

Of the three, Gilmore probably has enjoyed the widest critical success. He resurfaced in the mid '80s on the Oakland-based Hightone label. In 1991, Rolling Stone selected Gilmore as country artist of the year in its prestigious annual rock critics' poll. And USA Today (along with another hundred or so newspapers) named Gilmore's 1991 major-label debut, After Awhile (Elektra), country album of the year.

Ely--who bolstered his career after opening a 1981 British tour for the Clash--found himself locked out of the Nashville mainstream long before alt-country became a commercial option. Yet he's consistently recorded albums spiced with tastefully dueling guitar and pedal steel leads, as well as images of dusty drifters and sweaty roadhouses.

Meanwhile, Hancock has languished on the pages of obscure Americana music magazines such as No Depression and Dirty Linen. He has released a string of notable small-label CDs (including The Wind's Dominion and Eats Away the Night) and such hard-to-find self-produced cassettes as No Two Alike, a 14-tape series recorded during one glorious week at the Cactus Cafe in Austin. He also has penned hit songs for Emmylou Harris and the Texas Tornadoes, but his solo albums--including acoustic-based material that would do Bob Dylan proud, like 1991's Own & Own--are well worth searching out.

In a recent interview, Hancock told the Star Telegram that the new Flatlanders album was "inevitable" because the trio had worked with singer-songwriter, playwright, and artist (and fellow Lubbockite) Terry Allen on music for a play called Chippy. "It was like destiny or something," Hancock says.

"We just didn't know when," Ely added in true cosmic cowboy fashion. "It's amazing, but we always thought the [second] record was there all along. It was like a painting in the sand--all we had to do was dust off parts of it and watch it appear."


The Flatlanders perform July 4, at 3pm, at Rancho Nicasio, Town Square, Nicasio. Tickets are $20 advance; $25 door. 415.662.2219. They perform again July 7, at 6:30pm, as part of the Blues and Roots Festival at the Marin County Fair, Marin Center, Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. Tickets are $11 adults; $9 kids and seniors; free for ages under four. 415.499.6400.

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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