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
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