Friday, March 05, 2004

Terrell's Tuneup: Lubbock On Just About Everything

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, March 5, 2004

Two years ago Texas singers Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock reunited and produced the first album in 30 years by their more-a-legend-than-a-band, The Flatlanders. Now Again was the first official Flatlanders album since 1972's much revered debut (originally released on 8-track tape only), but it wasn't really a reunion. All three of these Lubbock guys had been hanging out with each other and singing each other's songs all those years in between. Still, Now Again was a sweet triumph, a testament to friendship and musical camaraderie -- not to mention a great sounding record full of finely crafted songs by three pros.

I said at the time I hoped the trio wouldn't wait another 30 years for a new Flatlanders record. Now, lo and behold, comes Wheels of Fortune, which is another good album, even though, as a sequel to a "reunion," it hasn't been greeted with the same enthusiasm as Now Again.

Although there are obvious similarities between the new album and its predecessor, there also are important differences. For one thing, on Now Again it seemed that there was more verse-swapping and sharing of vocal duties within the individual songs. But on Wheels, most the songs are solo efforts by the individual singers -- except on the last number, the gorgeous "See the Way." I'd like to have more of this on the new album.

On Now Again all but a couple of the songs were three-way collaborations between Hancock, Gilmore and Ely. On Wheels, however, except for one Hancock and Gilmore collaboration (that lovely creature, See the Way), the songwriting was done by the individual members, (and one, a rocker called "Whistle Blues," by longtime Flatlander crony Al Stehli.)

Good news for Hancock partisans -- and I know you're out there: Butch wrote five of the 14 songs on his own. These include two of the best ones, the wistful "Baby Do You Love Me Still," (which asks that age-old musical question, "Is it androids or elephants that never forget?") and "Eggs of Your Chickens," an upbeat, catchy, if slightly goofy tune with the magic dobro of Lloyd Maines, an appearance of original Flatlanders musical-saw player Steve Wesson and classic Hancock agri-imagery: "I've stayed on your farm as long as I'm going to stay/I've seen the eggs of your chickens roll away."

Although Gilmore's solo career has been built around a sweet, ethereal country style, on this record his most striking moments are on tough rockers, "Whistle Blues," and the Ely-penned "Back to My Old Molehole."

Meanwhile, Ely's best tunes here are story songs. There's an original Nashville Babylon song called "Neon of Nashville." And then there's the more humorous "I'm Gonna Strangle You, Shorty," a song that Ely first sang on All the Kings Men, an obscure 1997 album by Elvis' sidemen Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana.

While Wheels of Fortune doesn't quite measure up to Now Again, if you like the music of Ely, Gilmore and/or Hancock, or if you just like good old Texas-fried country-rock in general, you'll like this one too.

Also Recommended:
*Juarez by Terry Allen.
This is a reissue of Terry's first album, originally released back in 1975. Juarez was never as acclaimed as his second album, the lighter-hearted Lubbock on Everything (which was his first team-up with Lloyd Maines and The Panhandle Mystery Band). But Allen, a Lubbock native though a Santa Fe resident for 15 years or so, is fond of these Juarez songs. Some of them -- "There Ought to Be A Law Against Sunny California," "Cortez Sail," "What of Alicia" -- have been re-recorded for subsequent albums.

Recorded with sparse accompaniment -- Terry's piano, sometimes backed with a mandolin or guitar -- Juarez tells a wild, violent, desperate, tragic story. It's a breathtaking tour of the underbelly of the Southwest, the barrooms, the whore houses, the trailer parks lovablehighways by hard-bitten and not entirely loveable characters.

The term "outlaw country: was bandied about a lot during the '70s. But with all due respect to Waylon and Willie and the boys, no country music was as "outlaw" as Juarez.
"Sunny California" may be the best example of Juarez's manic spirit: "Then I stopped off at the liquor store/Made everyone lie down on then floor/Then I took their whiskey and I took their bread/Shot out their lights before I fled/Yeah I leave a few people dead/But I got an open road ahead."

This reissue has a couple of new songs -- an instrumental and one called "El Camino" -- tacked on the end. These don't distract from the original body of songs, but they really weren't necessary. Their main strength is the Mexican-style accordion by Allen's son Bukka on "El Camino."

We should all thank Sugar Hill Records for reissuing Terry's old albums like this one and the obscure masterpiece Amerasia last year. That being said, I hope Terry's working on an album of new songs.

*The Day the World Stopped and Spun the Other Way by Colin Gilmore. This album could almost be subtitled "The Lubbock Mafia: The Next Generation." Colin is Jimmie Dale Gilmore's boy and his band includes Bukka Allen on accordion and organ. And one of the two cover songs here is Terry Allen's "The Beautiful Waitress." (The other being "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" by The Clash.)

You can hear Jimmie Dale's distinctive nasal vocal style in Colin's voice. But the son's music is punchier and less spacey, and less country, though you can still hear the Texas plains in the music.

Those who love Jimmie Dale's music consider it a revelation, and that's not the case with Colin's tunes. But it's a good listen and promising start for the young singer.

Hey Santa Fe listeners: You didn't think I'd NOT play a decent, long Flatlanders/Lubbock Mafia set on The Santa Fe Opry tonight did you? The show starts at 10 p.m. MST on KSFR, 90.7 FM and I'll probably start the Lubbock set right after 11.

And this is as good an opportunity as ever to repost my favorite Butch Hancock rafting photo. This is from my 1995 trip down the Rio Grande with Butch and some other cool folks. I'm the one that looks like a walrus.

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