Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A folk-country-rock band which really transcends categories, making music that we should nowadays describe as Americana. The band is a core trio of Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock. Ely once told the New York Times that rather than country outlaws, they were country inlaws; for decades they have had 'a backpack full of yesterdays'.

All from Lubbock, Texas, Gilmore and Hancock had known each other since they were 12 years old, and teamed up with Ely, who is a couple of years younger, when they were in their twenties. They were helped by Buddy Holly's father, made an album for Shelby Singleton's Plantation label in 1972, and played the first Kerrville Folk Festival that year, as well as a few live gigs. A standout track on the album became one of Gilmore's best-known songs, 'Dallas' ('Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC9 at night...'); another good one was 'Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown', co-written by Gilmore with John X Reed. Only a few copies of the album were issued on 8-track tape until it was reissued as One More Road in 1980, on Charly in the UK, probably because Ely had had some commercial success by then. At around the same time there was also Unplugged [LIVE] on Sun Entertainment (Singleton, Charly and the Sun Records catalog were all in bed together): this was neither Unplugged nor live, but another edition of the first album with two tracks added: 'Waiting For a Train' and 'Hello Stranger'. The Flatlanders played a reunion at Kerrville in 1983, and finally the first album was issued as More A Legend Than A Band on Rounder in 1991.

Meanwhile they had each gone their own way, and each established a unique reputation in Texas music, to quote Don Wilcock in Folkwax
Joe Ely is the edgy hard rocker dancing dangerously on the Tex-Mex border. Butch Hancock is Johnny Cash's southern cousin, blurring the lines between folk and country. And Jimmie Dale Gilmore is the hot pepper mystic with flowing grey hair and a voice like raspberry iced tea, simple and smooth but with an exquisite jolt that focuses you on the lyrics and makes you believe he's pulling his words from somewhere deep within...
Somewhere along the way they were asked by somebody who worked for Robert Redford to do something for The Horse Whisperer, and the results included 'South Wind Of Summer', included on an album 'inspired by the motion picture'. As Gilmore told Wilcock,
Butch and I had co-written a couple of things earlier on, but what happened was that by that point we had all run musically, I think, from where we were when we were younger and just [had] more life experience, and we discovered that we could write together ... and that we really liked the songs that we came up with. So that just started. We just said, 'Let's do that some more,' and we didn't even have a record deal or anything. We just started spending all the time we could together which is hard 'cause Joe and I live fairly close together [near Austin], but Butch lies about nine hours from us [in Terlingua, near the Mexican border].

Somewhere along the way they had also recorded Townes Van Zandt's 'Blue Wind Blew', which appeared on a Van Zandt tribute album. They finally reunited in 2002 for a new album, Now Again on Rounder, summoning Steve Wesson on musical saw and vocalist Tony Pearson to return after 30 years and reprise their contributions on the first album. Of the 14 tracks, 12 were credited to all three, plus Hancock's 'Julia' and 'Going Away', by Utah Phillips.

Then 2004 was a Flatlanders year, all on the New West label: Wheels of Fortune featured Wesson, Pearson, Lloyd Maines on two tracks, and several others; there were five songs by Hancock, four by Ely and three by Gilmore, plus Al Strehli's 'Whistle Blues'. Live from Austin the same year was a DVD, and Live at the One Knite June 8 1972 was a blast from the past, an obscure live recording (made in Austin on the Red River in what is now Stubbs Bar-B-Q), a gig sounding like Gilmore's band: Ely got few leads and Hancock none at all, but they were 'into songs, period', going everywhere for material little of which was otherwise recorded by any of them, such as Gilmore's cowboy version of Sam Cooke's 'Bring It On Home To Me'.

Hills and Valleys was a new Flatlanders outing in 2009, this time produced by Maines, and engineered by drummer Pat Manske. The co-writing was going splendidly: eight of the thirteen tracks were co-written by the inlaws, and 'The Way We Are' by Gilmore's son Colin. Wilcock in the FolkWax interview raved about the opening lines of 'Homeland Refugee': 'With a backpack full of yesterdays /on a freeway full of smoke and haze/Where the power lines and fault lines double cross/ I left our yellow porch light on.' And Gilmore said,

Joe came up with the original idea which was just that he'd seen some news report he was talking about, people leaving California and just abandoning their homes and leaving the porch light on. So that's where it started from and I don't really exactly remember who came up with the very first line of it, but we started kinda kicking around that whole image of being left rootless unexpectedly, and we all had a little of that in our younger days. It just seemed like it kinda grew organically once whichever one of us came up with 'the backpack full of yesterdays.' I can't remember if it was me or Joe who came up with that line and then the rest of it, it just seemed like it just kind of popped up easily to one or the other of us.

They are a country crooner, a rocker and a dust-blown tractor-driver, but they are all Lubbock. Where the land is flat, you can see a long way. Gilmore added, 'As far as I am concerned, I am the beneficiary of one of the great musical treasures of modern times by being friends with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. Either one of them alone is...amazing.'