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Lone Stars

Thirty Years into an Interrupted Career, the Flatlanders' Find Group Acclaim after Their Solo Wrangling

Clean SlatClean Slate: (from left) Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Joe Ely's old band the Flatlanders is in demand again after 30 years of obscurity.e: (from left) Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock's old band the Flatlanders is in demand again after 30 years of obscurity.

By Rob Trucks | Posted 3/31/2004

The Flatlanders play Annapolis' Rams Head Tavern Thursday, April 1.

For some, Jimmie Dale Gilmore's voice is an acquired taste. His trembling tenor is surely among the most earnest and poignant currently eschewed by commercial radio. The uncommon character of his singing is one of the reasons that the Flatlanders, the band Gilmore shares with fellow singer/songwriters and west Texas natives Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, remained an utter obscurity during their initial run in the early '70s. It is also without a doubt one of the reasons that the Flatlanders have overcome career roadblocks worthy of bad fiction and become an overnight sensation, 30-plus years in the making.

"From early, early in my career, before I started singing professionally, I discovered that some people really loved my voice--really a lot--and some people didn't," Gilmore says from his home west of Austin. "Some people disliked it. That was very strange to me because I was just singing. I wasn't trying to offend anybody. I was just singing because I loved it."

Without a record player at home until his junior year in high school, Gilmore's vocal influences came almost entirely from the country stations tuned in on his father's radio. "I think what happened, just unconsciously, is I copied what I liked about all my favorite singers," he says. "Not deliberately, but I just think that's the way it works." Gilmore cites Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Jimmie Rodgers, Slim Whitman, and, well, Brenda Lee. "I loved her singing and her voice," Gilmore says.

One man who showed an appreciation for Gilmore's voice early on was the father of Lubbock's most famous son, Buddy Holly. It was Mr. L.O. Holley (Buddy dropped the "e" from the family name when he began recording) who paid for Jimmie Dale Gilmore's very first recording sessions back in the mid-'60s.

"I met him through an English journalist that had come through town for the explicit purpose of seeing Buddy Holly's hometown," Gilmore says. He says he was introduced to the English visitor at a party: "I played a few songs and he really liked them a lot, and he said, 'You know, I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Holley.' So he took me over there, and Mr. Holley really loved my music.

"We kind of got to be friends," Gilmore continues. "I used to hang out at the house some, and at a certain point he said, 'You know, I'd be willing to put down some money to get a few of these songs on tape.' It wasn't a big amount of money, but it was certainly more than the zero that I had at the time."

Though Gilmore had known Butch Hancock since they were both 12 years old, the Holley-financed recording session marked the beginning of his musical relationship with Joe Ely. "That was the first time that I organized a band," Gilmore says. "I'd been playing solo to that point, just in little kind of coffeehouses, little dives and stuff. And so I just called around to several musicians that I liked. I wasn't really wasn't a band person, but Joe had played in lots of bands when he was younger."

The Gilmore standard "Tonight I Think I'm Going to Go Downtown" was recorded then, as well as Al Strehli's "Whistle Blues," which eventually appeared on the Flatlanders' 2004 release, Wheels of Fortune. And even though the session technically pre-dates the Flatlanders' beginnings, in the best tradition of what some have called America's unluckiest band, those tapes were lost.

The Flatlanders proper formed five years later, in 1971, after Ely and Hancock, who had left Lubbock independently to find their fortunes, returned home. The trio shared a house, writing songs in the evening, sharing them the following morning, and performing where they were invited. Soon friends convinced the band to try Nashville.

The response they encountered in Music City was underwhelming, but in 1972 the three--along with musicians on bass, mandolin, and musical saw--recorded an album, Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders, which received what might be charitably described as a limited release. A few hundred copies were distributed to various Southern discount stores and truck stops, and only on 8-track. The band returned to Lubbock before going their separate ways.

Ely began a solo career that included 1978's well-received Honky Tonk Masquerade and 1980's Live Shots, as well as an opening slot for the Clash's "Take the Fifth" tour in 1979. Hancock released records on his own label while serving as a whitewater rafting guide and campfire singer on the Rio Grande. Gilmore, however, avoided professional music entirely, choosing instead a regimen of Eastern religious and philosophical study. He spent a good portion of time as the janitor at a Denver synagogue.

But in 1988, Gilmore finally recorded his first solo album. Throughout their careers Ely had covered songs by Gilmore and Hancock, and Hancock had recorded Ely and Gilmore songs. By turn, Gilmore's Fair and Square contained two Hancock songs, "99 Holes" and "Just a Wave, Not the Water," and was produced by Ely.

With Ely, Hancock, and Gilmore having established reputations individually, those lost Nashville recordings were rereleased by Rounder Records as More a Legend Than a Band in 1990. And though the Flatlanders themselves didn't receive a penny from the rediscovered treasure, the album found an audience eager to hear it based on the legend surrounding it and primed by the Americana/No Depression boom to appreciate its idiosyncratic twang. More than 20 years after they first called it a day, Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock resurrected the Flatlanders as a going concern, although Gilmore downplays any sense of occasion.

"From the outside it looks as if there was a big gaping absence in there somewhere," Gilmore says. "But for us it wasn't really that way. It never was a hard-luck story because we all remained best friends and collaborators through the whole thing, through our own individual careers. We've all been with each other and doing various things to help out. We were just like family, you know."

The reconstituted group has since recorded two albums, 2002's Now Again and Wheel of Fortune (both on the New West label), and now tours. While its fanbase is still small compared to many of their current Nashville contemporaries, the fans they do have are near cultish in their devotion, especially to Gilmore's singing. After 30 years, he is sanguine about those the Flatlanders have yet to win over.

"There's been a strange phenomenon that's happened quite a bit with me of people who don't like my voice," Gilmore says. "It grows on them. I've had a lot of people come up and tell me that very thing: that when they first heard me they didn't like it at all, and then something about it just started sticking in their brain. And they ended up being real fans."

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