The Flatlanders’ new album Wheels of Fortune is a hodgepodge of country, folk, blues, and straight-ahead rock and roll delivered in the Texas tradition of Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt, among others. Elsewhere the group has been dubbed “a country Beatles”. If references must be made, as they often must, the Flatlanders might better be described as a country Traveling Wilburys.
The Flatlanders, like the Wilburys were, are a bit of a country supergroup comprised of three singer/songwriters: Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. Each one of these performers’ styles and compositions are deeply rooted in Americana. However, all three have distinct voices.
The story goes that these three came up together in the early ‘70s in Texas. After making a record and shopping it in Nashville, where, apparently, no one was interested in their product, the three went their separate ways, evolved as writers and performers, and all had relative success in the biz. That initial recording was eventually picked up by a British label and released on vinyl in 1980, then was rereleased on CD in 1990. It was an underground hit. Folks began to speculate about what might happen if the three reunited to cut another album. Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock also began to speculate. Finally, in 2002, the trio returned to the studio and cut Now Again. They received all kinds of critical acclaim, and the album sold well.
Wheels of Fortune is the follow-up to that album. And where Now Again comes off as a novelty, three old friends getting together to sing and play and reminisce, Wheels of Fortune sounds more like an album by a band that’s been together for years. Perhaps this is because Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock have kept in touch and the Flatlanders went right back into the studio when the band was hot, mere weeks after their eighty city tour for Now Again.
The charm of this album, of the group really, is the absence of any overbearing egos. Writing and singing duties are divvied up quite equally, and production is evenhanded. Likewise, no artist can really be said to steal the show, but each has his moments.
For Ely it’s the country-funky “I’m Gonna Strangle You Shorty” and “Neon of Nashville”. “I’m Gonna Get You Shorty” is a goofy song about a womanizer, the arrangement and feel akin to something you’d find on early Elvis recordings. What makes the tune a standout, beyond the fact that it’s simply a fun song, is the wah pedal guitar and the musical saw, played quite impressively by Steve Wesson. “Neon of Nashville” is a touching, somber track about a female singer who becomes wrapped up in the glitz and glam of Nashville and how it destroys her.
Gilmore really shines on “Whistle Blues”, perhaps the coolest track on the album. “Whistle Blues” is straight up rock and roll. The contrast between Gilmore’s bizarre and delicate vocal, and the distorted guitars and driving percussion on this track makes for an interesting listen. Wesson once again adds his musical saw, leaving the listener with an eerie feeling in his gut long after the song is over.
Hancock is his most confident on the album opener “Do You Love Me Still?”, a Wilbury-esque, medium-tempo tune, which asks precisely this question of an old love.
Most importantly, it sounds like Ely, Gilmore, Hancock and bandmates enjoyed making this record, which has translated into an enjoyable album to listen to. There’s some filler here, no doubt. But that’s to be expected on this type of project, especially when the egos are left at the studio door. Everyone’s willing to let a song or two slip onto the album, even against their better judgment. These three have been around long enough to know when not to make a stink and when not to screw up a good thing.