The Flatlanders can't wait another 30 years – January 2004
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The Flatlanders can't wait another 30 years  Print

By Brian Baker, January 2004

No one knew at the time, but when The Flatlanders formed more than 30 years ago, they became the world's first supergroup in reverse. Oh sure, plenty of artists rise up from the obscure bands that spawned them and any success they have along the way naturally forces a spotlight on those early efforts.

And while those early efforts are often unfairly lionized because of the artist's current success, that assessment most certainly does not apply to The Flatlanders. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock were great musicians and songwriters when they teamed up together as The Flatlanders in 1971, and that seminal greatness translated easily to each of their solo careers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to now for The Flatlanders. As more and more time wedged itself between The Flatlanders' dusty past and the present accolades for Ely, Gilmore and Hancock individually, the more mythological The Flatlanders became. The handful of Texas gigs the band played took on legendary status and their almost immediately out of print debut album became prized by collectors as a grail-like object of pursuit.

When the album was re-released in the early '90s, it merely reinforced the impossibly high opinion that had grown up around the album in the previous two decades. It also generated a huge enough response that Ely, Gilmore and Hancock saw the wisdom in resurrecting The Flatlanders in a time that was more sympathetic to their country/rock/Tex-Mex/honky tonk hybrid.

The trio contributed "South Wind of Summer" to "The Horse Whisperer" soundtrack in 1997, played David Letterman's show the following year and appeared in New York's Central Park in 1999, inspiring the New York Times to devote a half page to rave about their show. Two years later, they offered their cover of "Blue Wind Blew" to "Poet," the Townes Van Zandt tribute. It was inevitable that they would eventually move beyond one-off projects and performances.

Although Ely, Gilmore and Hancock had released dozens of albums individually over the course of their 3-decade friendship, 2002's "Now Again" marked the trio's first collaboration in 30 years as The Flatlanders.

Not surprisingly, the chemistry that inspired three decades of Texas legend had not diminished with the passage of time. "Now Again" was widely hailed as one of the best albums of the year in any genre, a huge accomplishment in an age of disposable, blow-dried and manufactured music.

With "Now Again's" phenomenal acceptance came the need to take The Flatlanders out to the people who had been waiting 30 years to see them in person, namely most everyone in the world outside of Texas. The Flatlanders toured the United States and the rest of the world for a grueling 18 months before finally winding down their relentless road activities early in 2003.

But just as unintentionally as the 30-year gap in their history, The Flatlanders regrouped immediately after the "Now Again" jaunt after having decided to take a deserved rest.

"It was one of those things," says guitarist/vocalist Joe Ely from his Texas home. "We never even planned on making another record after the 'Now Again' tour. But we'd gotten this thing that had happened on the road where we were working really good as a band, and I suggested to Butch and Jimmie, 'Let's keep this energy going and just jump right into the studio.' Pretty much the second we got off the road, we went into the studio and stayed in there for five days from morning to night, just sitting there thinking of songs we would love to do."

The Flatlanders and their talented touring band (bassist/vocalist Gary Herman, guitarist/vocalist Robbie Gjersoe and drummer Rafael Gayol) decamped to Ely's Texas studio and brainstormed over existing song selections to record rather than expending any time or energy on the pursuit of newly written songs. As Ely notes, the three of them had already been down that road, and none of them felt the need to repeat it and lose the immediacy of the jolt they had experienced on their recent road circuit.

"It took us about two years to write the other one because we live in different places and our schedules are so haywire because we're all doing separate things," explains Ely. "In the old Flatlanders days, when we were together, between the three of us, there were probably 500 to 600 songs that we could do because each of us had a huge repertoire of songs. So I said, 'Let's just think about songs we already know or that we haven't recorded as The Flatlanders,' which isn't hard to do - 2 albums in 30 years and there's a lot of songs we haven't recorded."

As Ely, Gilmore and Hancock began dredging up the songs of their individual and collective pasts and the band set to work learning them at a furious pace to record, The Flatlanders' new album, "Wheels of Fortune," began to take shape. As the songwriting brain trust went back over their voluminous catalogs, certain choices came easily to each of the participants.

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