With only a cursory glance at our economy, it's safe to say America is down in an emotional valley, rather than riding high upon a hill. Unemployment is on the rise, the housing market has tanked, and the stock market is seemingly in a schizophrenic state of confusion. America's history is comprised of both "Hills and Valleys."
"I think the hard times...I won't say it makes people more honest, but it makes ‘em search a little bit deeper about some things, and then maybe honesty comes into play on some levels," says Butch Hancock, who is one-third of Texas' fabled The Flatlanders, releasing a new disc, "Hills and Valleys" in late March.
I think it's an age old malady of the human species that we lie to ourselves. We lie to each other a lot. But we lie to ourselves more than anything else. Hard times or good times, it doesn't matter which. The hard times…it gives a little bit of shock, and we stop and take a step back and maybe have a chance to reassess. And that's where some honesty might come into play. There's still a huge tendency to keep lying to ourselves. Look at Wall Street. They're still just lying through their teeth."
At the same time, Hancock finds the act of generalizing about the nation collectively, quite a daunting task. "We try to look at this, ‘Oh how is America doing?'" he says. "That's an impossible thing to measure. Every person, every individual has to measure their own self. They have to look deep in their heart and measure up against everything they can come up with as a standard or as a high benchmark. Ain't nobody else can do it for you."
The Flatlanders - Hancock's on-again, off-again partnership - have always explored both the ups and downs of life. And they've always looked at life with humor and heart. Between their first release - way back in 1972 - and their follow-up (30 years later, no less) with Now Again, Gilmore, Ely and Hancock have also individually carved out exemplary careers as individualistic, solo Texas singer/songwriters.
Although they mesh together surprisingly well as a trio, each has a style that is distinctively different from the others. Gilmore is deeply philosophical, sometimes comes off more like an Eastern guru than a cowboy poet; Hancock shares some of Gilmore's philosophical leanings, but spices up these musings with sharp political barbs; Lastly, Ely is an equally skilled songwriter, but he is additionally this act's most passionate singer and performer and sometimes comes off like Austin's answer to Bruce Springsteen.
Since all these men are successful, established solo artists, it's sometimes amazing to witness how well they work together as a unit. Perhaps it's all that accumulated wisdom that keeps them so united. "There's no such thing as unprofessional teamwork, I don't think," says Hancock. "It's either teamwork, or it's not. I think we all just have a great love for each other, and there are friendships that have just lasted for so long. I think that's the first order of the day when we're together: we're friends. And it's icing on the cake that we all play music and enjoy working together. It's blessings beyond our imaginations, almost."
This unique group traces its beginnings back to meeting up in Lubbock, Texas in 1970. The act's initial '70s recordings were re-released as "More a Legend than a Band" in 1990. The CD was originally titled "Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders," and that album's covers (Hello Stranger and Waiting for a Train were replaced by four previously unreleased tracks that were recorded during the same sessions. It took the movie business, not the record business to get these three back together semi-permanently, however. The 1998 soundtrack to "The Horse Whisperer" included South Wind of Summer by The Flatlanders, sparking newfound interest in making music together after all those years.
"I think I can safely speak for Joe and Jimmie too when I say that we have no clue," says Hancock, when asked to predict this act's future. "We never know if we're gonna ever write another song together or do another Flatlander gig. It's always great fun when the energy kind of swirls around. We sit down and focus on writing some songs, or something like that and work out another album. It's really been such great fun working both with Jimmie and Joe. And of course, all the (other) guys that took part in that ("Hills and Valleys") album. We've all been friends for years. You know, Lloyd Maines has worked with all of us, kind of from the get-go."
With all this combined talent, it's still a wonder these men don't pool their resources more often. The act's catalogue is surprisingly sparse. The group also released "Live '72," a rare concert recording, which means there are only 3 legitimate studio releases since the group's 1998 reunion.
"Hills and Valleys" is on New West Records, their first studio release since 2004's "Wheel's of Fortune. " And while it may have been a long time coming, so to speak, it's still extremely timely and relevant. The opening track, Homeland Refugee, includes lyrics that could have been ripped right out of this morning's newspaper: "I lost my home when the deal went bust/To the so-called security trust."
Not to paint The Flatlanders as prophets of doom or anything, but you might say they saw some of these negative changes coming. Naturally, Hancock – the most outspokenly political member of the trio – links the last presidential administration to this recent national decline.
"This time last year, we sat down and wrote Homeland Refugee," Hancock explains. "And things were already looking a little strange; they had looked a little strange for the last eight years anyway. I think just about everybody saw this coming, except those who claim not to."
Many believe one of President George W. Bush's biggest mistakes was how he mishandled the Katrina storm disaster. Not coincidently, another new song, "After the Storm," appears to address that event specifically - even though commentary-in-song on New Orleans' hard times may not have been the song's original intention. "Katrina crossed our minds somewhere in the middle of writing that song," Hancock recalls. "It actually kind of started out just as some lonesome character trying to figure out what's going on."
Hancock finds Bush's inadequacies to be far more widespread than his Katrina bumbling, however. "I think stealing the first election (was his first mistake), and everything after that was down hill," Hancock comments. "Maybe the biggest mistake for him was to show up at work every day for the last eight years, which of course he didn't; he didn't show up at work, near as I can tell, about half the time."
With a new president in the office, Barack Obama, has brought new optimism to man. Hancock waxes philosophical, as always, about Obama. "There's a thing called a pendulum," he begins, "and I think part when we (The Flatlanders) started writing some of these songs, even then the pendulum was still headed in a horrible direction, (but) it was slowing down. It was either going to break, or it was going to stop and turn around. That happens. Buckminster Fuller always said that all systems have built-in governing systems, a built-in correction system. I don't find any exceptions to that. I've certainly been optimistic through all kinds of times, so I don't see any reason to stop."
The biography that accompanies "Hills and Valleys" CD quotes Hancock as saying the album's general theme is, "the ups and downs, emotionally, of peoples' lives these days." Yet Hancock is none too willing to reveal any of the personal emotional ups and downs in his own life. He'd much rather be philosophically vague, instead.
"There might be another song here, but one man's peek is another man's valley and vice versa," he begins, drifting into philosophical mode. "It's a simple principle that pervades the whole universe - and that's polarity. Every aspect and every subject you can come up with has certainly got polarity involved. We have this tendency to say it's either got to be one way or another. It's got to be that side or this side; left or right; up or down, instead of just living with the idea that, whatever that subject is, it encompasses both ends of the spectrum. Both poles. And we don't have to decide, ‘Hooray for our side!' It doesn't have to be one way or the other. As a matter of fact, it may not be that one way or the other way. What is it? Just learn to live with things as they are."
The Flatlanders' one cover song on the new CD gives insight into their aim with the music. They re-do Woody Guthrie's Sowing on the Mountain, which says, in part: "Sowing on the mountain, reaping in the valley/You gotta reap just what you sow." Don't forget that Guthrie was the same man that wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which – it's been said – Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent. Guthrie also recorded whole albums dedicated to trials and tribulations associated with America's Dust Bowl, such as "Dust Bowl Ballads." And you can hear the Guthrie influence once again in the lyric of Homeland Refugee when they get to its chorus. "Now I'm leaving California for the dust bowl/They took it all, there's nowhere else to go/The pastures of plenty are burning by the sea/And I'm just a homeland refugee."
Similarly, when asked to name a few of his recent mountaintop experiences, Hancock – in his own riddling way – takes the fifth once again. "I don't think I can name an experience that isn't (a mountaintop) or a valley as well. You can measure it either way. That's the whole point of the "Hills and Valleys" thing; it's a, ‘Hey, let's think about this thing a minute. What is a hill? What is a valley? When is it a truth?'"
Obviously, Hancock is a deep thinker. But it's nearly impossible to pin his perspective to any single philosophical or religious point of view. "I described it to somebody months ago as I was raised a Baptist, a Buddhist and beyond," he explains. "That's just labels again. Everything I've studied all my life certainly affects it all. Whether it's all kinds of religions or various philosophies and logic and reason and the emotions that we find in songs and in friends and the things we love and the things we pursue. Everything becomes a teacher."
But when asked, after all these years of studying the human condition, if he's now a happy and content human, Hancock turns to a much more concrete reality to express his current emotional state. "I'm sitting here in a parking lot waiting for somebody to come out of a store," he explains. "I'm not getting nervous about it, so I guess I'm okay."