Friendships forged in song
by Erick Trickey
The Flatlanders Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely are college buddies who played in honky-tonks in Lubbock, Texas, in the early 1970s. They recorded a country album, Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders, that was released only on eight-track and sold at truck stops. Then they drifted apart. Each went solo, and all of them became revered for their blends of old-time country and folk poetry. In 1990 Rounder Records rereleased their old album on CD, retitled More a Legend than a Band. Still friends thirty years after their first time around, the Flatlanders got back together, set out on tour, and released a new album, Now Again, in 2002.
Soon after Now Again came out, I caught one of their shows. They came on stage wearing matching black jackets; each of them had an acoustic guitar. Ely played a few leads, but the trio mostly strummed chords, left the solos and country twang to electric guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, and concentrated on singing: Ely in his deep, clear voice; Gilmore with his soft, quirky twang; and Hancock with a talky drawl. Between songs, they reminisced as old friends do, about hauling their own kegs to honky-tonks and traveling the Texas flatlands where (they say) you can see fifty miles if you stand on a crate.
Their songs celebrate classic country themes: watching trains and time pass, getting pulled over by the sheriff, being vexed by love. But the lyrics have hidden twists. "Yesterday Was Judgment Day" resonates with gospel's ominous warning of reckoning "Were you runnin' from tomorrow / When the past caught up with you?" but turns away from gospel's certainty after it asks whether the listener woke up in heaven or hell: "I bet you never guessed / That it would be so hard to tell."
A Flatlanders show is about more than three great songwriters surprising with great lines. It's also about their bond. That became obvious toward
the end, when they got the whole audience on their feet with "Gimme a Ride to Heaven, Boy," fellow Lubbock musician Terry Allen's hilarious boot-stomper about a hitchhiker who claims to be Jesus. Ely, Hancock, and Gilmore gathered around one mike, took turns with the verses, harmonized on the chorus, and then bobbed their heads in and out, trading vocals at exhilarating speed.
They finished their set with their 1970s classic "Dallas," and their encore ended with the blues standard "Sitting on Top of the World." There are two ways to sing this song. Bob Dylan sings it as if the world he sits atop is ending. But when the Flatlanders sing it, you believe they've got no worries, even though their baby's gone. That's because, when they sing it, the woman in the song isn't really the point. The point is their friendship, forged in song and still resonating every time they sing together.
The Flatlanders return to the Ark on Friday, May 7.
[Originally published in May, 2004.]