Perhaps it’s sheer accident that club owner and amateur recording aficionado Gary Oliver didn’t tape over this set he captured of a then-unknown country band, playing to what sounds like a dozen people at the One Knite in Austin, Texas. Or maybe, if you are an amateur recording aficionado in 1972, saving the tapes of unknown bands who might be destined for greatness is your raison d’etre. Either way, we should be grateful, because what he preserved seems a little miraculous now, making what was legend—the idea of these three standard bearers of the traditional heritage of country (what would unfortunately come to be known as alt-country) out there playing these tremendous, faith-affirming shows with a blessed and total ignorance of their own significance—become tangible history. That really happened, and this tape proves it.
As would be expected, the sound is not pristine; on occasion it can be a bit muffled, and you can hear some bar-room chatter during the songs. But the marriage of rudimentary technology and the Flatlanders’ affectless approach seems especially apt, since the emotional overtones of the lo-fi medium—that it’s direct, spontaneous, and honest—reinforces the overriding qualities of the band’s music. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a cowboy hippie who would later reemerge in the early ‘90s after spending some years studying Eastern religions with a guru, takes most of the lead vocals here, while Joe Ely, who would establish himself in the ‘70s with the classic maverick-country masterpiece Honky Tonk Masquerade, takes over on the Hank covers and on Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Around to Die.” Butch Hancock, who would gain repute primarily as a songwriter (and continues to be one of the most underrated this side of Gene Clark), sings no leads, despite writing the only two originals here, the cosmically inclined “The Stars in My Life” and the mildly rueful “You’ve Never Seen Me Cry”.
What Ely, Hancock, and Gilmore are doing here sounds so effortlessly natural, it seems as though any group could do this: blend a few well-chosen Hank Williams honky-tonk classics with some traditional folk tunes and a few originals just quirky enough to be distinctive, and play them straight on acoustic instruments and with affecting, no-nonsense harmonies. It seems so easy, it makes you wonder why more bands don’t. But that other bands can’t do this suggests something of the mystery of talent, which often can only be defined negatively: It’s more than simply not sucking, it’s not sounding labored or self-conscious; it’s not being afraid to take some chances, like having someone (Steve Wesson, in this case) accompany you on the musical saw, which makes crazy flying-saucer noises and is about as conspicuous and indelible as a Jew’s-harp twang; it’s not hesitating to mix disparate genres (during this set they cover both Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke, and their harmonies owe at least as much to the Beatles as to the Louvin Brothers). This band has talent overflowing, and you know this most of all because they are never rubbing your nose (or grating your ears) with it.
Country music is especially afflicted with the tendency to ruin itself with bad, trendy production: as the quintessential American music, it always roils on the tension between its rugged, open simplicity and its eagerness to exploit a fad for a quick buck. This set, recorded just after the group had been roundly rejected by the Nashville establishment, captures them at the exact moment when they were most completely and discouragingly liberated, against their will, from expectations of success and the need to exploit their own talents, and thus finds them fully embodying the simplicity end of that country-music dialectic. It has the effect of making you feel like you really shouldn’t be hearing it, that you’re hearing something pure be sullied even as you eagerly consume it, that your passionate interest in it is what’s doing the sullying. So for all its mellow charms, this album remains a strictly complementary release, filling out the picture of what this band must have been like for fans who could not have possibly seen them in their original incarnation. And it leaves you feeling like you had to have been there to really appreciate it, and regretting just how impossible that is.