The Flatlanders weren’t expected to be a band still. Back in the day, its members (Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock) played and recorded together and achieved some local success in the West Texas region, but their mix of country, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll fell on deaf ears outside the area. Their sole achievement, a poorly distributed eight-track tape from 1973, received scant airplay. The trio broke up soon after its release and went their individual musical ways. However, their separate careers began to blossom, and rumors about the genius of their past collaboration abounded. This culminated in 1990 when Rounder Records reissued the group’s original recordings under the humorously appropriate title More a Legend Than a Band. The record enhanced the band’s reputation as a creative and innovative Western Americana act.
In some karmic way, the Flatlanders’ latest full-length album Treasure of Love resembles the first one. Fifty plus years later, individually and collectively, the trio still draw from the same musical wells from which they had originally. They mostly cover classics by the pantheon of Texas and country singer-songwriters: Townes Van Zandt (“Snowin’ on Raton”), Bob Dylan (“She Belongs to Me”), Mickey Newberry (“Mobile Blue”), Johnny Cash (“Give My Love to Rose”) and some fine new original songs.
These recordings were not originally intended as part of a specific LP. Instead, band members would get together in the studio when time permitted between tours to lay down tracks with no particular plan in mind. Then COVID hit, and they realized with some additional work, they had an album on their hands. Ely contacted Lloyd Maines, who had worked with these artists in the past, and with Ely’s wife, Sharon added some instrumentation and produced the new record. The instrumental performances are all top-notch. These three play their guitars, acoustic and electric, with skill and gusto. The music rocks even when it rolls.
What’s amazing is how ageless these singers sound on these timeless standards. Jimmie Dale’s pure cowboy mantra crooning is as ethereal as ever. His vocals float over the proceedings like angel wings blowing the clouds around. Hancock contributes three great songs, including the lively hoot of a dance number “Mama Does the Kangaroo” that will have one hopping out of one’s seat. Ely seems large and in charge. He comes off as confident as ever, making declarations (“I won’t ever do you wrong again, my darling”) and spinning yarns, including his own tale of passion “Satin Shoes”.
The album takes its name from a line from a George Jones/J.P. Richardson song about love making a person feel as rich as a king. Maines steel guitar accompaniment gilds the lyrics in a golden frame even as the lyrics describe the narrator’s poverty. Gilmore sings it straight as if he’s just stating a simple fact. Love conquers all. But it’s clearly just a pipe dream. The real heart of the album lies in another song with the same theme of denial and boasts, but with a country blues twang. The Flatlanders do a blistering take on the Mississippi Sheik’s “Sitting on Top of the World”. They let their voices and their axes wail and celebrate their fate, whatever that may be (“Xmas in one’s overalls?”).
The Flatlanders end the album with “Sitting on Top of the World” and therefore go out in a blaze of glory. But as electric guitars and screaming voices drop out, the music continues to ring on in one’s head as the album insists upon being replayed.