The Flatlanders have always been “more a legend than a band,” which is why that was the title of their first proper album in 1990, put together by Rounder from tracks they’d previously recorded in a career that stretched back to the beginnings of Texas country rock in the 1970s. It seems like they still are, because Treasure of Love is the first album they’ve put out in 10 years. The Flatlanders is three fellas who’ve been active in the Texas music scene for going on 50 years now, and Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely have also maintained active solo careers as well.
Like so much of the music coming out in 2021, we have the COVID-19 pandemic to thank for it, at least in part. When touring and most other activity shut down in early 2020, these guys realized they had nearly enough material to fill up an album. They’d been laying down tracks for some time, just some of the songs they’d always loved playing live since their early days – classic country takes as well as stuff by Dylan and other ’60s singer songwriters. The pandemic gave them the time to complete it.
“A lot of groups our age are either dead or not speaking to each other anymore,” says Gilmore, “but I think part of the reason The Flatlanders are still together is that we’ve all had our own separate careers along the way. We’re all such strange individualists, but we can co-captain this ship together because every time we come back to it, we feel that same magic we felt when we first started playing together.”
My favorite lyric of 2021 so far comes in the second verse of the opening track, a new song by Butch Hancock called “Moanin’ Of The Midnight Train.” It’s got biblical allusion, pop culture reference and some succinctly stated old-guy truth in it:
Wandering all alone down the road to roam
Wondering ‘bout the seeds you sowed
A rock is a rock, a hard place is a hard place,
but a road is a road is a road.
You trash it out and clean it up and almost get it right
about the time you’re finished and through…
When I hear the moaning of the midnight train
it reminds me so much of you.
It also has some kick-ass slide guitar from Lloyd Maines and rhythm licks from Robbie Gjersoe, a couple of longtime collaborators with this band and its individual members (Gjersoe was with Gilmore when I saw him on the One Endless Night tour in 2000.)
Here’s a Spotify playlist of the first three singles, starting with “Moanin’ Of The Midnight Train.”
This is Texas country music done right. Actually the album is pretty much a showcase of the subgenre, from Tex Ritter and Ernest Tubb to Townes Van Zandt, George Jones, and Mickey Newbury, and some Texas-style takes on some musicians from elsewhere, like Leon Russell (who grew up next door in Oklahoma), Johnny Cash, one Robert Dylan (honest, that’s how he’s credited), and New York native country-folk singer Paul Siebel.
The classic covers are uniformly great. Chief among them is Tubb’s “I Don’t Blame You.” Hancock gives an emotional reading of this, a real gut-wrenching song by one of country music’s royal figures. This version almost exactly matches the tempo of Tubb’s hit single from 1946, but the modern arrangement and production convey the deep emotions of the song in today’s terms as well as Tubb did for his day. As always Maines gets the mood just right with his pedal steel.
Gilmore and … um, one of the other guys (sorry, I have a little trouble telling Hancock and Ely apart on record sometimes) nail Ritter’s “Long Time Gone” as a classic honky-tonk shuffle; they give a heavy mid-tempo rocking arrangement (including a screaming knife-edge slide guitar) to “Love, Oh Love Please Come Home,” an obscure 1956 bluegrass tune from Leon Jackson; and Gilmore acquits himself quite well with lead vocal on George Jones’s 1958 hit “Treasure Of Love.” He even tosses in a bit of melisma in his vocals which, you know, nobody can do like George, but Jimmie Dale truly is an excellent singer with a unique voice and a grasp of phrasing. Just in passing, Jones co-wrote this with J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. The Big Bopper, who very few remember as the country songwriter he was before his one rock and roll hit. The Flatlanders’ take on Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love To Rose” isn’t breaking any new ground, but this is a nice arrangement complete with tic-tac bass or something that sounds very close to it.
The blues are big in Texas, and their fast rocking version of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” covers the blues base handily. The guys trade leads on the verses, Butch gets a harmonica solo, and somebody, possibly even Ely, shreds an electric guitar solo on this one.
The other covers shine pretty well for the most part. Hancock and Ely swap lead vocals and harmonies on Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ On Raton,” with a wrenching dobro solo from Maines and tenderly brushed snares by one of the two drummers on the sessions, Pat Manske and Rafael Gayol. Gilmore sings lead on Leon Russell’s sunny, mostly accoustic “She Smiles Like A River.” Their shuffling country rock cover of Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” with Gilmore singing lead is okay, a nice nod to the guy who influenced all aspiring singer songwriters back then, and this is one of his songs that I don’t think gets covered all that often. Mickey Newbury’s “Mobile Blues” is kind of kick-ass. We don’t think of Newbury as a Texas troubadour although he was from Texas, but he was best known (when known at all) as a songwriter for Acuff-Rose in Nashville, and perhaps most remembered for the beautifully maudlin folk song “San Francisco Mabel Joy” from from the Frisco Mabel Joy album that also spawned “Mobile Blues.” Gilmore sings lead on the honky-tonk weeper “The Ballad Of Honest Sam” by Paul Siebel. It’ a good arrangement by a neglected talent, but I’m not too crazy about this one, which is sort of a spoken-sung hybrid.
That leaves a few originals, the best of which is Ely’s “Satin Shoes,” a shuffling honky-tonker with dobro and some neat unison fills by Maines and Gjersoe. “Midnight Train” is enough of a killer track to forgive Hancock for his other two songs here, the silly “Mama Does The Kangaroo” and the rather ’80s style production and mid-tempo calypso vibe on his splendid song “Ramblin’ Man.” Seriously, look for Gilmore’s version of this on One Endless Night instead.
Lloyd Maines deserves as much credit for this album as anybody. His pedal steel and other instrumental contributions add something special to every single track, plus he co-produced with Ely, and mixed and mastered it with drummer Manske.
I’ll let one of the musicians take us home with a quote. “We’ve all been fans of each other from the start,” says Gilmore, “but the thing that’s always struck me about The Flatlanders is that, first and foremost, it’s a band rooted in friendship. Beyond the music, we just connect with each other in these deep and personal ways, and that’s been a lifelong treasure.”
(Thirty Tigers, 2021)