[7 May 2009]
You could spend a long time trying to find a band that has been around long enough to have a release that only came out on eight-track and is still viable and worth listening to. Or you could stop pondering and just go grab the latest release by the Flatlanders. With a history that dates back to the early ‘70s and a mountain of success as solo artists, it is always an event when the Flatlanders record.
Formed in West Texas long before their names were recognizable worldwide, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore were the Flatlanders. Their specialty was in bringing back the traditional sounds of AM Country radio. As life moved on, the three became legendary guitar slingers and songwriters. The Flatlanders would reunite for special occasions, but it was not until they landed on New West Records that they began recording and releasing on a regular basis. The three bring more to the table each time they work together, and county rock benefits from their labor.
Hills and Valleys finds the trio returning to a more traditional West Texas sound. Opening with “Homeland Refugee”, the tone is one of loss. Like Woody Guthrie once sang, it seems that modernity has left the Flatlanders without a home. The criticism could be political or business. Either way, they make “leaving California for the dust bowl” sound appealing.
“After the Storm” is reminiscent of the Highwaymen, and has a slide guitar that runs through the song like a ghost. Jimmie Dale Gilmore aches his way through the love story. It is Gilmore whose heart sounds perpetually broken and provides so much of the soul of the Flatlanders’ output.
“Thank God for the Road” has the typical Mexican beat of a Flatlanders song. Sung by Ely, it is an open letter to God, a thankful prayer for years of doing what they wanted for a living and loving it. Coming from three true veterans, survivors of the same road that took Townes Van Zant and Hank Williams, its sincerity is beyond reproach. “Cry for Freedom” is a bit more Ely influenced. Each of the Flatlanders owe a debt to countryman Charles Hardin Holly, but it is Ely one suspects carries Buddy’s picture is his wallet, and the music that he touches is better for it. This particular track seems out of place on the collection, but it is a welcome reminder of the “roots” of roots rock.
Hills and Valleys is exactly what a fan of the Flatlanders will expect. The songwriting is solid, but not always remarkable. The musicianship is tasteful and flawless. An endorsement goes without question. What would become of records like this were it not for New West, and when we can hope for the next batch of Flatlanders material do not.