With "Now Again," are The Flatlanders more legend than band or more band than legend?

Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2002

Some musicians take their time in between albums to tweak the dials or wait for the right moment to hit the marketplace.

But the long awaited sophomore album of The Flatlanders - Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely - probably must set some sort of record since it only took a mere 30 years between the initial disc and "Now Again," released in late May on indie label New West Records.

The Flatlanders' debut was released on 8-track in 1972 and eventually made it to the silver platter via Rounder Records in 1990 as "More a Legend Than a Band" with some different songs.

And The Flatlanders cannot exactly be accused of too much fine tuning or blame the economics of the record industry.

It was really more the case of waiting for the right time between varying interests - some musical, someartistic, some personal.

"Hey, I like the idea that maybe we were really going for the record," says Ely during a conference call interview from Nashville with all three members. "I have never thought of that."

But Ely, the youngster of the group at 55, 2 years younger than his compadres, quickly indicates the record would be short lived because "if Wilis Allan Ramsey ever makes a record, that'll beat us."

The time off between albums seems to concern the trio very little. After all, it's not like they have been inactive or returning to action like the retread hair rock bands of the '80s hitting the outdoor sheds this summer.

"Separately, we've probably made a whole wheelbarrow full of records between then and now," says Ely.

"All of us were out and about the world a bunch, crashing each other's gigs when we're in the same town," says Ely.

Gilmore, who has received the most musical attention of the three in recent years, said "always hoped" another album would materialize. "We all just enjoy each other's company and each other's music."

The friendships go back to their youths. Gilmore and Hancock were friends when they were 12, while Gilmore met Ely during his last year of high school.

The Flatlanders formed in 1970 when Hancock, Ely and Gilmore returned to Lubbock where Gilmore and Hancock grew up.

Gilmore had been in an Austin band, the Hub City Movers, while Hancock hung in San Francisco, and Ely hit the Big Apple playing in subways and later trekked to Europe with a rock and roll theatrical production.

Back in Lubbock, the three roomed together. The band included other members including Steve Wesson and Tony Pearson, who actually participate on the new disc as well.

In 1972, The Flatlanders hit the road for Nasvhille to record with producer Royce Clark for Plantation.

The music in Nashville at the time tended to be overproduced and country pop (sound familiar to today?), music at odds with the laid back spare sounding country The Flatlanders would record.

A single of "Dallas" was released to radio, but met little response.

When the disc finally did come out, it was only available as an eight-track tape.

The band played some gigs together before splitting up. Gilmore went to Colorado where he pursued meditation, Buddhism and Hinduism. He dropped out of the music business. But in 1987, he released the first of two albums for HighTone. His star continued to ascend with some excellent albums in the '90s for Elektra ("After Awhile," "Spinning 'Round the Sun" and "Braver New World") and building a good cult following. He later moved over to Rounder.

After The Flatlanders went their separate ways, Ely later formed a band with Jesse Taylor, who also had been in the Flatlanders, and now ace producer Lloyd Maines, and signed with MCA Nashville, the first of two stints on the label. He opened shows for The Clash in the late '70s. Ely also helped keep Gilmore's name out there by recording some of his songs.

Hancock retreated to southern Texas, recording albums primarily on his own label. He also got involved in river rafting over the years.

Finally, about 14 years ago, the three reunited at the Kerrville Folk Festival for a gig. Nothing was permanent, of course, and the three continued doing their own thing.

In recent years, they undertook a few short jaunts with fans continuing to wonder if and when a new record ever would materialize.

Gilmore, Hancock and Ely got a sense for what it would be like to record together again when they were asked to do songs for "The Horse Whisperer" soundtrack, the 1998 movie starring Robert Redford.

"When we did those first two songs for 'The Horse Whisperer' thing, and it was so much fun working together on those," says Gilmore, "I really began to hope that maybe we could do that enough to have enough songs to be worth putting out."

"I don't think I could say I expected it," he says. "I don't think any of us have ever had to the somewhat normal approach."

"It's been rumored for years," Hanock says."

"We not exactly ambitious in the normal way," says Gilmore.

Part of the reason - although hard to believe it took close to three decades - for the long gap was logistics and competing interests. "Because of the fact that Butch lives so far away (in Terlingua, Texas, near the Mexican border, while Ely and Gilmore are in Austin), and Joe and I were touring, doing our own individual things, just the plain logistics meant that we did not have very much time together. That was the great thing about it. In the small amount of time we were able to spend together, we came up with so much material."

When the three met to do songs for the movie, they churned out three songs in four days.

"The next time, we did two or three songs in three days," says Hancock. "I think there was one time we did five songs in seven or eight days, which is a pretty good run."

"We were just slow starters," he says, jokingly.

In fact, for the debut, none of the 13 songs were written together. Gilmore wrote three, including among his best known songs, "Dallas" and "Tonight I'm Gonna Go Downtown," while Hancock penned four and Ely none.

"I didn't think that that was legal, and now it's almost required," jokes Ely about the idea of writing together.

"I'd heard of Lennon and McCartney, some movie guys that wrote songs together. I guess for some reason when we first started putting songs together ourselves, we thought that it was not in the realm of possibility. It was (hard) enough to convince (us) that one human being could write a song much less two or three together."

"Now it's almost mandatory," Gilmore says.

All three indicate the writing worked out well. "I don't think it was so much a method as a condition or a situation that was ideal," says Hancock.

"We had a good place to hang out," he says. "Joe's studio became kind of our clubhouse. It was totally a relaxed thing. We didn't have to write a song. It wasn't any kind of pressure thing at all."

"Now Again" is different from the first album in several key ways. The sound is a bit harder and fresher, not as spare sounding with mandolin prominent.

And the debut found only Gilmore singing lead vocals, although others can be heard lending a hand on backing vocals. In reality, Gilmore was The Flatlanders back then. At least legally.

He was the only member to actually sign the record deal with Shelby Singleton for his Plantation Records label. Hancock and Ely did not like what was offered them and as a result were prevented from singing lead vocals.

But on "Now Again," all three take turns at leads, sometimes within the same song. And backing vocals/harmonies are more readily apparent.

"All kinds of different things pop up in our songs - the rhythm, the phrasing," says Ely. "A lot of things you don't think of in a song besides words and melody. There are always pieces of it - different parts that intersect. We also worked on harmony whch we never did before."

Hancock says, "The whole process was something we had not yet defined because we had never sat down and done anything like this before. We defined it as we went."

And how did they decide who would take lead vocals?

"That was another evolutonary process," says Gilmore. "Because of the fact of going about it in this strange way - not having a a record deal, Butch has his own, but not having a Flatlanders deal - we went out touring, doing mostly thse songs as we wrote them. Mostly new songs, which surprised everybody. They were always astounded that we didn't have a record deal or a new reord, and we were touring. Part of the beatuy of that was that we got to learn the songs in performing rather than the wierd opposite process where people record the song the first day it's written and then find out what it's about. We got to really record the song and discover ways to go about it. We'd just have different ideas and suggest them to each other."

"In some of them, I don't really know why," Gilmore says. "There are some Butch sings the entire lead on."

Ely says the decisions stayed within the group. "We can't blame it on an A&R guy," he jokes.

Answering more seriously, Gilmore says, "Somebody would just maybe make a suggestion. The three of us for some reason have this capacity a lot of times. We don't ever vote on anything, but we can just tell. When we all three agree on something, there is just a sense of it."

The only cover is the lead-off song, "Going Away" from the late U. Utah Phillips.

"We all loved Utah Phillips," says Gilmore of the folk singer. "We almost always had Utah Phillips in our repertoire. Not because we had any fetish or anything. Just because he wrote really good songs. This is one we hadn't done in those days. In fact, I learned it from Bruce Bromberg (head of HighTone Records). I just loved it, and I just played it for Butch and Joe one night not with any idea of it being on the record. They just started singing along with it. It was sort of after that - Joe said we have to record that song. I loved the song, but I was kind of surprised really that it made such an impact on them."

Except for "Julia," penned solely by Hancock, the remaining dozen songs were written by the trio, but it still was not at all clear the songs would turn into an album, according to Ely.

"We we first started writing all these songs, we didn't think of it as being a record. When we got together, there were a couple of days we just recorded a bunch of stuff - that we knew could possibly fit into a record if it came to pass. We probably did another 15 songs that weren't on the record."

And sometimes, the studio process altered the final results. "For a long time, Iwas singing the lead on 'Right Where I Belong,'" says Hancock. "All of us realized that's one of them that everybody needs to a do a verse on."

"Wavin' My Heart Goodbye" was another example of how fluid the process proved to be.

"We started it as a kind of country two-step kind of song," says Ely. "I guess we played it, but it didn't want to do that kind of country thing as it evolved, and we recorded it. I think we recorded it maybe three times, and we realized it needed to be kind of a bluesy thing. And now, it all of a sudden, it became one of my favorite songs on the record because it has a natural (feel). It's as almost like you heard the song before."

The whole record was made over the process of three years, according to Ely.

"Over that time, everything kind of just fell into place," he says. "It was not all last minute decisions of what to include. Everything kind of just fell into place. As we worked into it, we talked about the order of songs. It just became obvious, like a jigsaw puzzle, like the last piece had been plugged in."

The group will hit the road in June and July with a more full-fledged schedule than other tours in recent years.

Will the public have to wait another 30 years for a new Flatlanders album? Will Ely, Gilmore and Hanock be more band than legend or live up to the "More A Legend Than a Band" title of the Rounder release?

One, of course, is tempted to say no, especially considering they won't have to worry about a lack of material.

"The whole thing was a process, seeing where we were," says Ely. "By the time we got all of those songs on a list and temporarily recorded, we'd already been writing more songs.

"We couldn't help ourselvves," says Hancock. "We might have a whole album actually if we kept doing that."

But ever mindful of the long gap, Ely was taking no prisoners. "We wanted to save some for 30 years from now," he says, presumably joking.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com