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Members include Joe Ely (born on February 9, 1947, in Amarillo, TX), vocals, guitar; Jimmie Dale Gilmore (born on May 6, 1945, in Amarillo, TX), vocals, guitar; Butch Hancock (born on July 12, 1945, in Lubbock, TX), vocals, guitar; Tommy Hancock, fiddle; Tony Pearson, mandolin; Sylvester Rice, string bass; Steve Wesson, musical saw. Addresses: Record company--New West, P.O. Box 33156, Austin, TX 78764-0156. Management--Fitzgerald Hartley Company, 34 North Palm Ave., Suite 100, Ventura, CA 93001. Website--The Flatlanders Official Website: http://www.theflatlanders.com.

More a Legend Than a Band was the title of the Flatlanders' first and only album when Rounder Records reissued it in 1990. It still fits: After putting out 15 rickety hillbilly songs on an 8-track nobody heard in 1972, the Lubbock, Texas, band disappeared into myth. Its three singer-songwriters, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock, graduated to solo success, but the album stood as a sort of unheard country-rock benchmark, up there with Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel and the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

The band formed in Lubbock, where West Texas cotton farmers and Texas Tech students regularly attended honky-tonks on Saturday nights in the 1960s. Gilmore and Hancock met at age 12 and, seven or eight years later, Gilmore befriended Ely, after realizing they were both born in Amarillo and their parents met in high school. Lubbock had also been the home of rock legend Buddy Holly and country pioneers such as Waylon Jennings and members of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. "There were all these amazing musicians around, old swing-band guys with fiddles and young kids with Stratocasters," Ely told the Washington Post in 2002. "Lord knows how they ended up there, but there they were."

Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock drifted apart for various musical reasons. After a chance meeting with a British journalist who'd visited the Land of Buddy Holly, Gilmore recorded for Holly's father in the mid-1960s. He tried to sell his demos to Holly's former producer, Norman Petty, but didn't get anywhere, then wound up in a go-nowhere Austin band called the Hub City Movers. Ely had been traveling in Europe at the time, and Hancock was in San Francisco. By 1970, the old friends found themselves in Lubbock. They started playing together and realized they loved the same music--folk, country, blues, and the Beatles, among other things.

So in the spirit of the early 1970s, they moved into an $80-a-month house on 14th Street and invited an eclectic local braintrust of musicians, artists, professors and writers to drop by anytime. Among the guests were musical saw and autoharp player Steve Wesson, (unrelated) fiddler Tommy Hancock, string bassist Sylvester Rice, and mandolinist Tony Pearson--who later became the backup band on the 8-track Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders. The core presence, of course, was rock 'n' roller Ely, country-and-blues musicologist Gilmore, and the Woody Guthrie-Bob Dylan folkie Hancock.

"We were a fraternity more than a band," Ely told the Chicago Tribune in 2002. "We did maybe a dozen paying gigs in the whole time we were together, but we probably played hundreds of gigs in our living room and in people's houses around the neighborhood. Every door at our house was always open, and someone with an instrument would walk in at any hour and we'd start playing."

Tentatively calling themselves the Supernatural Playboys, the trio followed connections with people like freelance producer Royce Clark and ventured to Nashville, where they found a record company (Sun Entertainment Corp.) and a studio (Singleton) that were interested if not enthusiastic. (Some remember the band as being laughed out of town.) With Gilmore's high, meditative voice as the lead, and Ely and Hancock strumming acoustic guitars in the background, the group recorded an eclectic range of songs, from Gilmore's wistful "Dallas" to Hancock's bluegrassy "One Road More," with Ed Vizard's spacey "Bhagavan Decreed," and Willie Nelson's straightforward "One Day at a Time" in between.

After the first few singles received no interest from radio, Sun decided to put out the record simply as an 8-track. It went nowhere. "Our music, and especially my voice, sounded real hillbilly, and the album's producer, Royce Clark, said, 'This is so strange; it took a bunch of flatlanders to come to Nashville and show us how to play mountain music.' Steve Wesson, our musical saw player, said, 'That's it, we're the Flatlanders,'" Gilmore recalled to the Washington Post in 2002.

The band returned to Texas and waited for the hits and royalties to roll in. They never did. So after a few gigs around south Texas, they broke up. Gilmore studied under the guru Maharaji and moved to Denver. Butch Hancock dabbled in architecture and gradually embarked upon a solo career. Ely became most famous of the three, rambling all over the world, serenading New York subway passengers, recording hard-rocking albums and eventually opening for the Clash in the late 1970s. But none were exactly superstars.

Meanwhile, the reputation of the Flatlanders' 8-track grew in stature over the years, giving all three musicians something to talk about to an adoring press when they promoted their solo albums. By the early 1990s, when Rounder Records released 13 of the tape's original 15 tracks as the More a Legend Than a Band CD, Gilmore had established himself as something of a Texas treasure, earning critical acclaim for solo albums such as 1991's After Awhile. Ely found himself an alternative-country pioneer, influencing younger artists from singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, Jr. to the Illinois country-punk band Uncle Tupelo. Cult hero Hancock, always more prolific than popular, he once released 140 live songs at the same time on 14 cassettes.

By 1998 certain young rebels of the early 1970s had taken over parts of the country-music business; one was Tony Brown, president of MCA/Nashville, who contacted Ely about a Flatlanders reunion for The Horse Whisperer soundtrack. "I knew I could get Joe-- he's a good guy. He told me, 'Well, Jimmie Dale's in the desert. Who knows where Butch is?'" Brown told the Chicago Sun-Times at the time. "But the next thing I knew, they got together and wrote three songs to submit to the movie. We used one. Joe said writing the songs for the movie was so much fun he wanted do to another Flatlander album."

Ely got his wish, but in true Flatlanders fashion, it took another four years. After recording the ballad "South Wind of Summer" for The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, they returned to the studio eight months later and began writing and recording for a new album. Now Again, starring the original three singers, plus Wesson and Pearson in the backup band along with established studio musicians Lloyd Maines and Donald Lindley, came out to critical acclaim in 2002. It sounds less like a band than a showcase for individual talents, though, with Ely rocking, Hancock reflecting, and all three channeling the Traveling Wilburys on "Down in the Light of the Melon Moon."

While touring to promote the album in 2002, Ely was surprised to hear about veteran radio shock-jock Don Imus ripping on the Flatlanders during his show. Assured the abuse meant Imus liked the band, the Flatlanders went on the air and charmed the influential DJ so much that he offered $10,000 to a charity of choice for the first major radio station to land Now Again in the Top 10. That didn't happen, but influential country stations took up the challenge--Los Angeles' KZLA played the rocking "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye" every hour--and the Flatlanders earned the first collective sales boost of their career.

This was perhaps not surprising given the success of another old-school country record, 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. But it sure surprised the Flatlanders. "This morning Joe said, 'What if what we play really is country music?'" Hancock told The Post. "We'd be the most surprised of all."

by Steve Knopper

The Flatlanders's Career

Group formed in Lubbock, TX, 1970; released debut 8-track Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders on Sun Entertainment Corp. label, 1972; reissued original album as More a Legend Than a Band, on Rounder Records, 1990; contributed to Horse Whisperer soundtrack, 1998; released second album, Now Again, on New West Records, 2002.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

October 21, 2003: Band member Sylvester Rice died on October 21, 2003, in Lubbock, Texas, after an illness. He was 73. Source: Entertainment Weekly, November 7, 2003, p. 21.

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