Texan “Supergroup” rides again! And it’s long overdue.
As the old adage goes “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good” and, while the events of the last couple of years have certainly been an ill wind there have been some positives to have come from them. The latest positive to come out of all the craziness is The Flatlanders first album in twelve long years. For those that don’t know (and you really should), The Flatlanders are Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock and it would be hard to imagine a finer bunch of Texan singer/songwriters gathered together in the same band.
The band first came together way back in the early 70s but didn’t last long as they failed to make much impact with their first recordings – Gilmore’s ‘Dallas’ was their first single and intended to promote their first album, recorded in 1972, ‘All American Music’. In fact, the original album release only came out locally and on 8 track tape as a means of fulfilling contractual requirements. The band broke up in 1973. The three founder members all went on to have successful solo careers over the next few years and, slowly, the story of their earlier collaboration started to circulate and become the stuff of legend – so much so that, in 1990, Rounder Records got hold of their original 1972 album and re-released it as ‘More a Legend than a Band’. Not being musicians who like to be hurried it would be 2002 before they released their second official band album (‘Now Again’). There was ‘Wheels of Fortune’ in 2004 and ‘Hills and Valleys’ in 2009. A new Flatlanders studio album is always going to be an event. They’ve continued to play together over the years and there have been occasional live recordings pushed out to keep the fans happy but ‘Treasure of Love’ is the band’s first new album in 12 years and it’s all down to the restrictions brought about by Covid.
Apparently, this album was started several years ago but was constantly being moved to the back burner because of the claims on the three artists as solo performers. The pandemic brought their solo touring careers to an abrupt halt and the three decided that, rather than sit around waiting for restrictions to be lifted, they’d concentrate their energies on finishing their new, collaborative album. And what an excellent album it is! Right from the opening staccato twang of Butch Hancock’s ‘Moanin’ of the Midnight Train’ there’s the feeling that the band is back with a real sense of intent. The fifteen tracks are a mix of new songs and material they’ve been playing for years but never recorded in the studio, and the album has a real joie de vivre about it; you can almost see the smiles on their faces when they were recording, such is the positivity that comes out of this album. As well as songs from Hancock and Ely there are songs from some of the best-known names in Americana music – Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, George Jones – there’s even a Dylan song and it’s one of the highlights of the album. There are not many bands that can do a relatively straight-ahead cover of ‘She Belongs to Me’ and still make it sound different, with some fine pedal-steel work that, one presumes, comes from co-producer and long-time collaborator with all three musicians, Lloyd Maines.
Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock are all in fine voice, swapping lead vocals around and all contributing great harmony vocals, and the production work from Ely and Maines is crisp and clean throughout but still comes across as down and dirty when it needs to be. The band has great musical range that allows a muscular rocker like Mickey Newbury’s ‘Mobile Blues’ to be followed by a Hancock ballad, ‘Ramblin’ Man’, without losing any of the pace of the album and the track order has been really cleverly designed to keep your interest right through the record. Even album closer, the old Vinson and Chatmon standard ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’ takes on a new lease of life as the Flatlanders drive it along, changing lead vocals on the verses and all contributing some stinging guitar licks and including some fine harmonica playing from Hancock.
Are there any downsides? Well, it will all come down to individual tastes, as these things so often do. On a personal level I could’ve done without the title track, a George Jones/J.P. Richardson song, which just seems a bit too old school mainstream country and, similarly, Tex Ritter and Frank Harford’s ‘Long Time Gone’ and Paul Siebel’s ‘Ballad of Honest Sam’ – these seem a little out of step with a band as willing to push the boundaries as The Flatlanders but there will be others that find the inclusion of these songs an indication of the broad range of the band’s personal tastes and you certainly can’t fault any of the performances, even if individual songs don’t always float your boat.
This is a terrific record and a testament to why so many look forward to new recordings by these musicians. Individually, they’re all outstanding performers but, put them together, and real magic happens. Let’s hope it’s not another twelve years before we hear from The Flatlanders again.