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Wheeling and dealing

The topography of archetypal alt-country rebels the Flatlanders


Wheels of Fortune, the latest disc from the Flatlanders, is a delicious harvest from the place and time that spawned the group: Lubbock, Texas, in the early 1970s. That's where and when Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely were inspired to set their soul-searching and sometimes psychedelic lyrics to a variety of musical influences.

Gaining and maintaining a small but fervent fan base, and releasing a sole eight-track tape recorded for the Plantation label in 1972, the Flatlanders influenced many an emerging country rebel -- well in advance of alt-country. They did it with a high, lonesome, transcendent sound complete with traditional country credentials, yet plenty of genre disregard.

"Something that occurred to me not too long ago is just the fact that we're almost geographically halfway across the country," says Gilmore, 59, speaking in a West Texas twang from his current home in Austin. "We were exposed to influences from every direction. Locally, there was country music. On the radio, we got rock 'n' roll, when it was just beginning. And there was blues. And we got the border stations -- there was Mexican music. And German music from the southern part of the state."

Buddy Holly was an early practitioner of musical magic in Lubbock, fueling his ascent to rock stardom with elements of country, blues and Tex-Mex at a time when Gilmore and future Flatlander Hancock were just getting acquainted in junior high. The remaining Flatlander, Ely (pronounced EE'-lee), a couple of years younger, first started singing and playing guitar with Gilmore under attractively shady circumstances.

"See, Lubbock was in a completely dry county, so any place there was to play would be a bootleg joint," says Gilmore with a chuckle. "[Drinking alcohol] was already against the law, so it didn't matter if we were underage."

Ely and Gilmore later came of age in Austin, where they helped open -- in 1969 -- and sustain the Armadillo World Headquarters, a breeding ground of what would evolve into country music's outlaw and alt-country elements. In 1970, the pair returned to Lubbock, just in time to bump into Hancock, who had recently returned from San Francisco.

"I kept telling Joe, 'This friend of mine, Butch, is writing the best songs. You need to hear some of his stuff,'" says Gilmore. "Finally, one night we got together, and from that night on, it's as if we're a team. It just clicked. We didn't make much money at all, but we played a lot. We had a lot of friends -- sort of the bohemian nightlife crowd of Lubbock."

Aside from musical eclecticism, Gilmore shared with his new bandmates his quests into Eastern spiritualism and the integrated systems theory of Buckminster Fuller. They found validation of their artistic and philosophical perception "that all aspects of your life are interrelated." The band's enlightenment emerged as lyrical flights of fancy, which, together with its genre-busting melodies and rhythms, put the Flatlanders too far outside the slickly produced, redundant country concepts of Nashville.

The three Flatlanders went their separate ways, but stayed in touch, and the continued mention of their unconventional means fueled by their individual careers had the effect of enhancing the legend of the group. The lads from Lubbock finally reconvened on the 1998 soundtrack to Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. Patient fans and the trio itself felt rewarded and renewed. The reunited Flatlanders appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and the 1999 Summer Stage series in New York's Central Park. Three years later, the group recorded Now Again for Austin-based New West Records. The trio earned sales and wide acclaim, including national and international tours, which had eluded them three decades earlier.

While Gilmore, Hancock and Ely continue to perform and record successfully as solo acts, their collective Wheels of Fortune, released earlier this year by New West, is a remarkable showcase of shared brilliance. They sing each other's songs of the long roads through the unknown and back, each member's visions blending seamlessly. The whole isn't necessarily greater than the sum of the parts, but fate has been kind to the Flatlanders' collective consciousness.

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