[11 September 2012]
Every alt-country fan knows the story of the Flatlanders. The band of Texans made a record at Shelby Singeleton’s Plantation Records in Nashville back in 1972 called All American Music. It was only released on 8-track tape and soon faded into obscurity. As three of the central group members (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock) became known as talented solo musicians, interest in the old recordings grew. Rounder Records reissued the recordings in 1992 as More a Legend Than a Band. Since then the three main members of the Flatlanders have toured and recorded both as solo acts and a group. Americana fans and others who love Texas music consider the 1972 Nashville sessions as the seminal recordings whose excellence has not dimmed with age.
And now comes this, a previously lost three-track recording made before the Flatlanders hit Nashville. It contains four never before tunes as well as ten that made it on to All American Music . (And it should be mentioned that a DVD featuring interviews with the Flatlanders about the early days of their career and an informative booklet with photos are also included in the CD package.) These slightly older renditions are less polished and dynamic than the Nashville sessions and have a different kind of homespun charm. The 14 tracks here suggest the wide open spaces of Texas (where the studio was located) more than the countrypolitan sophistication of Nashvegas. A sense of expanse can be heard in the words and music.
Most of the songs have Gilmore handling the lead vocals. He has a beautiful, shimmering voice on tracks such as “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” and “Dallas”. The Odessa production sometimes allows the instrumentation to overwhelm the vocal harmonies, which is a shame because this is one of the Flatlanders’ best qualities. Tracks such as “I Know You” put the strings atop the singing. This would be welcome the other way around. And a less prominent musical saw on all tracks would be welcome.
The four previous unheard songs feature two tracks each by Gilmore and Hancock, but none by Ely. Gilmore’s “Story of You” is the best of the foursome. “To live my life with all the world and never live it lying,” Gilmore sings with conviction now he has found the truth – in a spiritual sense. He understands the being true to himself brings him into a closer connection to others.
However, these are three-track recordings and they suffer from the sonic limitations one would expect from such technology. The unadorned nature of the material is its greatest strength, but will limit its audience. This disc would appeal more to the folk-oriented Flatlanders’ fans than those who approach the group from a country music perspective. The simplicity of a track such as Hancock’s “I Think Too Much of You” rings with naked emotionalism. The lonesome narrator (Gilmore sings it) puts his emotions out there for all to hear. There is nothing saccharine about it. Love is what it is.
The Flatlanders have always exposed their Lone Star roots. Nashville did not know what to do with them back in 1972. This was still when T stood for Tennessee instead of Texas in terms of country music. These recordings would have sounded odd back then, but the Flatlanders helped start a country music revolution with the tunes on here.