As their 1992 album title says, the Flatlanders are more of a legend than a band. The three Texans recorded a now famous demo in 1972, and then after a year or so, went their separate ways with each artist carving out his own path, all sharing the starting point of Lubbock.
It can be hard to pin any one of them down but on Friday, November 22, the three men will share the stage at the Heights Theater for what is sure to be a special performance.
Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock all grew up in the same town and met in school as young men. The three gravitated to each other with each bringing to the table their own flavor, mixing together to make some of the best sounds to ever come out of the Lone Star State.
“We just did what we loved without regard to what was commercial, that’s the whole secret of what it was about back then. Each of us, Butch, Joe and I, all had different musical backgrounds and we just shared them with each other. We blended our musical educations with each other and the amalgamation that was the recipe that added up,” explains Gilmore.
Lubbock can mysteriously lay claim to some of Texas's most unique artists despite its dry and conservative landscape. The Flatlanders are no exception. Gilmore was encouraged by none other than the father of Lubbock’s pride and joy, Buddy Holly.
“He paid for my first demo recordings. I put together a band, I had never put together a band before. I never had a band before, I had been a totally solo performer. I put together a band that Joe Ely was in, and the band that I organized for those recordings, in lots of ways, that band was a springboard for a lot, even the Flatlanders and the Ely band.”
Gilmore also admits the influence of another Lubbock native, Terry Allen. “Terry was a real major early influence on me. Terry is a little older than us, Butch and I are the same age and we’re a little older than Joe. I was friends with all three of them, years before any of them knew each other. I didn’t know that I was best friends with some of the best creative people in the world,” says Gilmore.
Gilmore reflects that in the moment they all took for granted the amazing company they were keeping, not realizing that together and separately, they would go on to form the major blueprints for Texas music. “I think in my case, Terry is who made me realize that I could write songs, that’s pretty freeing,” he adds.
Within the Flatlanders, Ely provided the rock and roll, Gilmore the country and Hancock the folk. In 1972 the group began to perform together and recorded two demos; one in Odessa and another in Nashville, with the previous sitting in a closet for 40 years until its release in 2012 by New West Records.
Their Nashville recording, released as Jimmie Dale & the Flatlanders, didn’t go much further than the racks of 8 tracks at truck stops. The record company tried and failed to launch their now famous song "Dallas" as the single. That same year the band dissolved with each member forging his own path.
Ely went further in rock, starting his own band and becoming good friends with another Joe, Joe Strummer of the Clash. The two bands toured together and Ely provided backing vocals on “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
Gilmore dropped out of the scene and dedicated his time to the study of metaphysics under the Indian guru, Prem Rawat in Colorado. He returned to Texas in the ‘80s, this time relocating to Austin and refocusing on his solo career.
While Hancock, who was also in Austin, focused on his lyrical abilities and made a name for himself with his songwriting skills. Ely helped turn broader audiences onto his friends songs by frequently performing Hancock songs like “West Texas Waltz” and “Boxcars”.
Rumor of the Flatlander’s lost and overlooked recordings began to circulate among fans, but it wasn’t until 1990 when Rounder Records released the 1972 recordings as More a Legend Than a Band, that the Flatlander’s original recordings could be listened to and accessed by fans.
The Flatlanders began to reunite for tours and have gone on to release four additional albums of new material. Though all three members continue to fill their schedules with solo work and additional artist efforts, they still make time to get together now and again.
Ely has written two books and exhibited his artwork throughout the United States. Gilmore famously appeared as the berated pacifist “Smokey” in The Big Lebowski and is constantly touring with Dave Alvin. Hancock for his part has exhibited his ball point pen drawings and photographs.
In a perfect example of the brotherhood the three Flatlanders share, when Ely showcased his art this summer at the Redbud Gallery in the Heights, in attendance offering his support was Butch Hancock. Hancock was performing that same evening at Anderson Fair but made time to scope the art and take a few pictures for fans.
When asked about their long friendship and the excitement around reuniting from time to time Gilmore says, “We love it! You know, even though we’re not touring together and stuff, we’re still really close and always have been.”
The Flatlanders will perform Friday, November 22 at The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Doors open at 7 p.m. $35.
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.