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Flatlanders find new life with 'lost' recording

Greg Kot

12:48 PM CDT, April 5, 2013

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The Flatlanders – the West Texas trinity of Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock  -- were about 50 years behind the times and 15 years ahead of it, Ely once surmised. The band left behind a batch of songs recorded in 1972 and then disappeared, leaving behind a legacy that inspired countless bands and movements over the decades. As the Velvet Underground were to punk and postpunk, the Flatlanders were to outlaw and outsider country.

For decades, it was assumed that the Flatlanders’ only recordings during their one year as a band were the 13 songs that surfaced on their “More a Legend than a Band” album, widely released domestically 20 years after it was tracked in Nashville. But last year, “The Odessa Tapes” (New West) turned up, essentially a demo recorded two months before the Nashville sessions that shows Ely, Gilmore and Hancock in a more relaxed, natural light.

“It was a demo to show the Flatlanders might be a country band, even though we didn’t even really think of ourselves as a band,” Ely recalls. “We drove 140 miles from Lubbock (where the Flatlanders were based) south to Odessa, and recorded 14 songs in a studio there from sundown to sunup. That was the demo tape sent to (producer) Shelby Singleton, and it got us an opportunity to record our album in Nashville two months later. For a long time, people thought that was our first record. I thought it was our first record (laughs). I had completely forgotten about the Odessa tape.”

The recording turned up in the closet of the bass player on the sessions, Tony Pearson, in an outdated three-track format. It took Ely about a year to find a tape machine that would even play the original demo so that it could be converted into a modern format.

“When I finally heard the session, I was completely stunned,” Ely says. “It’s not a perfect record. We were still learning the songs. I was just learning to play dobro -- I had been playing it for about a month. We were working out the harmonies. That whole band was not together for more than eight months at that time. But it gave me some insights into what we recorded in Nashville two months later. In Nashville, I realized they overdubbed some studio players, a slew of guitars to cover up some of our ‘flaws.’ It was still 90 percent us, but the Nashville guys tweaked it. There is something about the Odessa tapes that is truer to what we were. There is this pure simplicity. No frills, no weird things added. There is an innocence about it. We were not used to the recording studio. Me and Jimmie had recorded three songs with Buddy Holly’s daddy in 1969 in Lubbock, but those tapes never surfaced. We were complete novices, but it was more true to how we lived and played at the time.”

The Flatlanders set up shop in a three-bedroom house near the Texas Tech campus in Lubbock in 1971. Hancock, Ely and Gilmore had all grown up in the city, and melded divergent interests in music, books and movies. Their home became a misfit hangout that bridged generations: ‘40s and ‘50s beatniks, college students, drifters, philosopher poets, and just about anybody who had a guitar or a song. The group’s “gigs” largely consisted of casual performances in living rooms, basements, cafes, even the roof of their house during evenings when the oppressive Lubbock summer weather became tolerable.

“There was a tremendous amount of material,” Ely says. “The Odessa tapes took the songs that were more in a country vein, because the idea was to target something that Nashville might want. We had no idea, because we did all kinds of stuff. I was more out of a rock ‘n’ roll world in Lubbock, my stuff was a little more rocking and didn’t quite fit the record, so we left it off. Butch’s stuff was more in folk vein. Jimmie sang most of the vocals because he sounded more ‘country’ than the rest of us. It was just a small slice of the kinds of music we were interested in.”

But the hyper-literate lyrics by Hancock, Gilmore and their friends were still more metaphysical and mystical than standard country drinking-cheating-lusting fare.

“We were totally uninterested in the music business, so the offer to make a demo for a Nashville recording session came as a complete surprise,” Ely says. “We were on a quest to discover great music, whether it was the Beatles or Leadbelly or Butch’s collection of bluegrass records. All our friends came to our house and we’d stay up all night playing songs and learning songs. It became almost a Lubbock nightclub. People would bring over a casserole or tacos, and we’d play until dawn. Playing wasn’t just a hobby, but our lives 24 hours a day.”

When the Nashville recording was deemed too strange for mainstream commercial radio, the Flatlanders went off in different directions. Gilmore, Ely and Hancock each made their mark in music separately, only to re-unite a little more than a decade ago to pick up where the Flatlanders left off: more cosmic Americana from the “flatlands” of West Texas. 

“We were gypsies,” Ely says.  “Coming out of the ‘60s, everybody was open for anything. There were no rules. That’s how our music evolved too. A lot of those songs don’t follow any rules. I think that’s still the reason we’re together today. There was no big audience for our stuff until later, so we didn’t have to fight about money. Nobody made a penny. But it was a rich period of time for all of us.”

greg@gregkot.com

Flatlanders: 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave., $40; ticketweb.com.