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The First Alt-Country Record? Flatlanders Rediscover The Odessa Tapes

L-R: The Flatlanders in Odessa: Steve Wesson, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Pearson, Joe Ely
L-R: The Flatlanders in Odessa: Steve Wesson, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Pearson, Joe Ely
courtesy of New West Records

A lot of stellar music came out of that flat land known as West Texas. Bob Wills, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Terry Allen, Guy Clark, and the Sparkles are just a few artists who found something in the wind, the dust, the heat, the cactus, the mesquite, the sandstorms, the blizzards, the endless horizon, the solitude and isolation that translated into great music.

In January 1972, almost 20 years before Uncle Tupelo recorded No Depression and the media began to use the term "alternative country," a carload of Lubbock guys drove down to Tommy Allsup's recording studio in Odessa to record a glorified demo.

The purpose was to convince Shelby Singleton, the new owner of Sun Records, to sign the group and release an album. The resulting Odessa Tapes, recently released by New West Records, is considered by many to be the first alt-country recording.

Recorded on what for the time was state-of-the-art equipment, the tape impressed Singleton enough to cut an album of the same material later in 1972 in Nashville. But when the promotional single "Dallas" failed to go anywhere, Singleton scaled back his plans for the album, releasing only a small quantity on eight-track tape as All American Music to meet his contractual obligations.

In spite of winning the first-ever Best New Folk award at the Kerrville Folk Festival, by 1973 the Flatlanders -- Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Steve Wesson, Tony Pearson, Syl Rice and Tommy Hancock -- were done as a band. They all forgot about the tapes from the sessions in Odessa until they were rediscovered a few years ago.

According to the story, Ely held them for a few years until he finally located someone in Los Angeles who could work with the brittle tapes, restore them, and get them into a medium where they could be played again. Once they had the tapes in a listenable form, they all agreed they liked the Odessa tapes better than the formal album recorded in Nashville with, as Michael Ventura describes in his extensive liner notes, its "self-conscious, Bob Wills-style asides." (That album was re-released on Rounder in 1991 as More a Legend Than a Band.)

Lonesome, Onry and Mean grew up in Odessa and worked in radio there 1972-73 before migrating to Austin where the progressive country/cosmic cowboy musical revolution was gaining force. 1972 Odessa was dusty, windy, bleak as hell, and one of the roughest oilfield towns ever deposited on this planet, meaner than a pit bull bitten by a rattlesnake.

Yet because there was money and because there was fuck-all to do, music played a big part in life, especially in the bigger West Texas towns like Odessa, Midland, Abilene, San Angelo, Lubbock, and Amarillo. And where there are paying gigs, there are musicians to fill them.

LOM thinks it is safe to say that within those towns and their huge agricultural/oilfield hinterland that had tossed up guys like Bob Wills, Hoyle Nix and LaMesa native Don Walser (the "Pavarotti of the Plains"), there were probably as many professional musicians per capita as anywhere on the planet.

 

With highways lined with honky-tonks, Odessa could boast live music (and fist-fighting) every night, as could Lubbock and its thousands of college kids. And in the '60s and '70s, it was a rare weekend that a rock and roll band from nearby weren't playing the fraternity parties and clubs in Austin.

Those bands included Lubbock's legendary Sparkles and Odessa groups like the Road Runners, the Starfires, or Al Perkins' and Bobby Bailey's band the Shades. Perkins, who would later play with the Eagles, Rolling Stones and Flying Burrito Bros., also had another band, a combination of guys from Midland and Odessa called the Mystics.

In an ironic turn of events, Bailey now owns the studio where the Odessa Tapes were recorded. Perkins, of course, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Being from Odessa and a fan of the solo careers of Gilmore, Hancock, and particularly Ely since my little brother showed up in Holland, where I was living 1976-78, with the first Joe Ely record, it was with more than casual interest that I listened to the Odessa Tapes when they arrived in the mail a couple of weeks back.

They would all go on to write equally good material and to make their own marks, but when the CD spins, there they are, young and hungry and, as Ely has so often noted, without a shred of ambition beyond making an album and playing music.

The vocals are so West Texas it sounds like they sandpapered their vocal chords before each take or practiced by imitating Woody Guthrie's warbling, nasal, hick-from-the-sticks voice. The playing is straight up country or folk, with Ely wailing constantly on his dobro like he is trying to get Brother Oswald's job in Roy Acuff's band. And drums? Who needs drums when you've got a musical saw warbling through the melodies?

But while the performances are riveting in their own right, it's the lyrics, the songs and their beautiful interpretations, that really spin heads. This is country and folk the way artists like Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Judy Collins and others were doing it, but with virtually no calculated affectation, no thought of "will this be a radio hit?"

And the lyrics, mostly by Hancock and Gilmore except for a few tunes by other Lubbockites, have more in common with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Bukowski, Newbury, Rilke, and Rumi than with Roy Acuff or George Jones. Nashville wasn't cutting songs like Ed Vizard's "Bhagavan Decreed."

The Flatlanders may have looked like a West Texas version of hippies, but these guys were actually beatniks in disguise. They'd seen the psychedelic thing, heard the music pouring out of San Francisco and Austin, but that wasn't their path. So with typical West Texas skepticism of fads, they shrugged and went their own way, making what for years was viewed as some odd chunk of musical coal.

And now, after all this time, we have it, the first recording of these eternal songs -- "Dallas," "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," "Down In My Hometown," "Stars In My Life," "Rose of the Mountain," "One Road More" -- that are today as much a part of Texas music as "Faded Love" or "She's About A Mover," if not as widely known.

Texans had never taken this musical and lyrical direction. So, of course, like most things ahead of their time, the record was doomed from the beginning. After all, the earth is round, not flat.


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