Friday, July 23, 2004

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: WATERGATE-ERA FLATLANDERS

A version of this was s published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 23, 2004


To play on an old Flatlanders album title, back in 1972 Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock were more a band than a legend.

On June 8 of that year -- that’s nine days before the Watergate break-in for you history buffs -- the boys from Lubbock performed an acoustic set before a small crowd at an Austin bar called The One Knite. There were 15-20 people there to hear the music, which was considered a pretty good crowd for The Flatlanders back then.

(Historical irony: More than 20 years later, the building at 801 Red River St. that housed the One Knite would be reborn as Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, named for the rib joint operated by the late C.B. Stubblefield that for years was the spiritual center of the Lubbock music scene that spawned The Flatlanders.)

Little did the band know that the owner of the joint was recording them. In fact, according to the liner notes of the CD Live ‘72, the guys in the band didn’t realize such a tape existed until last year.

So now Santa Feans can hear the Nixon-era Flatlanders and see the Bush-era Flatlanders live when they play The Lensic Tuesday night.

Live ‘72 is a sweet joy for longtime fans of Gilmore, Ely and Hancock. Newcomers, however should start off with More a Legend Than a Band -- their early ‘70s album originally released only as an 8-track tape, or their recent CDs, Now Again and Wheels of Fortune (not to mention the plethora of Gilmore, Ely and Hancock solo from the late ‘70s on).

What we hear on Live ‘72 is a band that didn’t realize its members would mature into some of the finest singer-songwriters and roots-music performers of their generation.

They were already unique in one respect. The Flatlanders were one of the only bands of the day to include a musical saw, which, as one friend of mine has observed, gave a Plan 9 From Outer Space tinge to their West Texas sound. (Though Flatlanders sawyer Steve Wesson has made cameos on the band’s recent recordings, he hasn’t played with them the last couple of times I’ve seen them.)

But at that point The Flatlanders was a band not quite sure of itself, not quite ready to enter the same stratosphere as Willie and Waylon and the boys from Austin who were about to rearrange the atomic structure of country music.

Gilmore, who back then handled most of the vocals, was only starting to show hints that he indeed is a strange deity from the deep cosmos. Ely, who sang a few of the songs that night, showed little indication of the dynamic and charismatic performer he was destined to become.

By 1972 Hancock, the best songwriter of the bunch, probably was the most advanced in his craft. But only a couple of tunes of his -- “You‘ve Never Seen Me Cry,” and “The Stars in My Life” -- are on this album. And Hancock didn’t sing any leads that night.

Only three songs from the group’s 8-track appear on this CD -- Hancock’s numbers and “Jole Blonde,(aka “ the “Cajun national anthem.”) The rest are traditional folk and blues tunes (including Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues,” which was practically mandatory for folkies of that era) plus songs by Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, their longtime pal Al Strehli and even Sam Cooke.

While that might seem amazing, you have to remember that The Flatlanders’ album -- now considered a classic in alternative country, Texas music or whatever -- received little notice or distribution. (8-track tapes were well on their way out by 1972.)

What you hear on this recording is a bunch of guys clearly in love with the timeless music they play. You hear it in the Everly-like harmonies on the old country song “Long Time Gone.” You hear it in Gilmore’s loving delivery of “Bring It On Home to Me,” which makes you realize that Sam Cooke and Hank Williams are probably pals in Heaven.

I bet this CD sounds a lot like Gilmore, Ely and Hancock did picking and jamming and singing around Lubbock living rooms. They’re more professional now, a little more polished, but that same free spirit marks their music still.

The Flatlanders will play at the Lensic Theater, 211 West San Francisco St., 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jul 27 2004. Ticket prices range from $24 to $34. For more information call 988-1234 or check the Fan Man Productions website.

My review of The Flatlanders' Wheels of Fortune can be found HERE

And what the heck, I haven't run my Butch Hancock rafting photo in four months or so.


Also Recommended:

Live in Aught-Three by James McMurty & The Heartless Bastards.
My favorite moment on this album is the spoken introduction of “Out Here in the Middle,” where McMurtry, in his laconic, deadpan drawl says, “Here’s another song off the last album which we have for sale up by the door for $15. I forgot to mention that last night and nobody bought a damn one of ‘em. I guess they already had ‘em, huh?” If that doesn’t sum up the struggles of a traveling recording artist who doesn’t sell zillions of CDs at the malls, I don’t know what does.

Live in Aught-Three is great for old McMurtry fans as well as newcomers to the cult. It’s got crisp, power-packed versions of my favorite McMurtry songs, “Too Long in the Wasteland,” “60 Acres,” and “Choctaw Bingo,“ McMurtry’s 8-minute-plus ode to the “north Texas/southern Oklahoma crystal methamphetamine industry.”

McMurtry and his Bastards are a rootsy power trio, sounding often like a less glitzy and more literate Z.Z. Top though there are some slow pretty tunes like “Out Here in the Middle” and McMurtry’s solo acoustic “Lights of Cheyenne.”

It’s definitely worth the $15 by the door.

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