Last month in New Braunfels, Texas, 500 people clapped and stomped on the creaky plank floor of a 124-year-old tin-roofed shed called Gruene Hall. The ruckus drifted through the chicken-wire windows and over the tranquil Guadalupe River a hundred yards away.
The Guadalupe meanders gently through the heart of Texas, like the Flatlanders, the band stirring up Gruene Hall this night. For the second straight June night, the Flatlanders -- Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock -- had a raucous home-state audience hooting for more. The Flatlanders owned these crowds -- here in tiny New Braunfels and the night before in Dallas.
But then, Ely, Gilmore and Hancock have delighted music lovers in Texas and beyond with their cosmic, comic and moving music for more than 30 years. The trio, each deep into literature and metaphysics -- and well as their 50s -- have been friends since growing up in the flat west Texas town of Lubbock.
They made a record in 1971 that Nashville scorned. It wasn't released until 1980, and then only by a British label and only on eight-track. By the time it was re-released by Rounder in 1990, as More A Legend Than a Band, the members of the Flatlanders had each scored success as a solo act. As such, the album has earned vaulted status as the work of what is essentially -- retroactively, at least -- an Americana supergroup. Now Again, the Flatlanders' second album, came out in May -- the group's follow-up, 30 years in the making.
In the interim, Ely, Gilmore and Hancock have frequently played each other's songs and crossed paths at scattered concerts, art shows and plays. In fact, the seeds for Now Again and the current tour, were planted during a festival in New York City in the summer of 1999.
The three played separately, then came together at the end. A review in the next day's New York Times stirred curiosity among promoters about a Flatlanders reunion. Thus asked, Ely, Hancock and Gilmore responded.
It helped that their schedules were open. "It just felt like the next natural progression was going ahead and having an album and touring with it," says Hancock.
The old friends started writing a few tunes and playing scattered live shows. Along the way, the group road-tested the songs that make up Now Again. "We got to learn the songs before we recorded them," Gilmore says. "It all came about as an organic process, rather than a go-make-an-album-by-such-and-such-date, the way it's normally done."
"Wavin' My Heart Goodbye," for example, originated in Ely's Austin studio as a slow, country number with a prominent steel guitar lick. "As we progressed, we realized it was more of an Elmore James-feeling song," Ely says. "We started playing it with a little harder edge shuffle."
Experimentation is central to the Flatlanders. While they play what's called Americana, the trio blends numerous musical, spiritual, literary and just-plain-life ingredients into its tuneful stew. Indeed, a half-hour chat with Ely, Hancock and Gilmore turns up references to James, a Mississippi bluesman; the Delmore Brothers, a seminal country group from Alabama; Buckminster Fuller, the architect/poet/philosopher; the Beatles; and a book Gilmore recently re-read called Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory.
All three have trod some obscure paths. Hancock studied architecture at Texas Tech, mastered black-and-white photography and drove a tractor. Gilmore lived in a Hindu commune and worked as a janitor. Ely worked in a traveling circus. "I've always thought," Hancock says, "you need to go out, get some dirt under your fingernails, get some bruises and scratches in other ways besides clamoring audiences."
Of course, the Flatlanders have also had their share of clamoring audiences lately. After the show at Dallas' Granada Theater, a palpable euphoria gripped the crowd. The spark for this electricity was an energetic, nuanced two-encore show built around the Flatlanders' new release and bookended by older jewels from the eccentric minds of Ely, Gilmore and Hancock.
After The Flatlanders closed with a joyous take on a Texas classic, Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues," the crowd roared on. But the lights came up and The Flatlanders headed south, in search of the next show and destined for another appreciative audience.