The Flatlanders cant be accused of releasing their second album too soon. Their first effort was issued as Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders on 8-track tape in 1972. It was distributed by Plantation Records, whose main source of income was the budget bins in truck stops and variety stores (places like Dollar General) throughout the South. The Flatlanders probably would have been forgotten had its three primary members, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, not gone on to bigger things. In 1990, Rounder Records reissued the Flatlanders debut as More a Legend Than a Band, with an additional four tracks from the same sessions.
Ely, Hancock, and Gilmore went off in different directions after the Flatlanders, but their connection to one other remained. Joe Ely signed with MCA records in 1977, and his releases since then have included songs by both Hancock and Gilmore. Gilmore began his solo career in 1988 with a disc produced by Ely and hes been sure to include songs by his two friends in his subsequent recordings. Hancock has a series of titles on his own label, Rainlight, and he and Gilmore recorded a live disc together in 1992. All but two of the songs on the new Flatlanders disc, Now Again, were written by the three of them together.
Theres something reassuring about three musicians whose friendship can endure the pressures of the music industry. Perhaps being based in Austin helped. The city has a thriving music scene, but its not a company town like Nashville. And since the Flatlanders have maintained a creative relationship alongside their friendship, Now Again has a strong sense of musical familiarity -- each player knows what the others need. Of the bands early days, Ely observes, "We played more porches than stages." Now Again feels like a well-recorded front-porch get-together.
Thats not to suggest that the disc sounds thrown-together. On the contrary, the songs are carefully arranged and the playing by the three principals and the Austin session musicians who join them is often dazzling. Still, this isnt a disc that necessarily hits you on first hearing. Its relaxed virtuosity takes some time to fully appreciate. These guys have a lot of Texas music history flowing through them and they have the talent to make their playing sound effortless. Theres real passion here, but no one plays ten notes when two will do.
The best thing about Now Again is that it gives you the chance to hear three great, distinctive vocalists. Jimmy Dale Gilmores slightly eerie tenor is an acquired taste -- he often sounds like hes on the verge of yodeling -- but the purity and sincerity of his singing wins you over quickly. Joe Elys more relaxed approach keeps things loose, while Hancocks gruff, everyman voice gives the disc a down-to-earth tone.
Its the contrasts among the three vocalists that make Now Again so enjoyable. When Hancock sings in "Julia" that he's "acting half my age and feelin' way too proud," theres a little cockiness in his self-deprecation. When Gilmore joins him in the bridge to sing, "Heaven knows/Only love will do," the song seems deeper. The narrators love for a younger woman invigorates him, but Gilmores voice -- a sort of Greek chorus here -- suggests that it also reminds him of his own mortality. On several songs, such as "Yesterday Was Judgment Day," each singer takes a verse and presents a different point of view, not simply a different vocal style.
Joe Ely, who produced the disc, has always had an ear for good guitarists (Jesse Taylor, David Grissom). Robbie Gjersoes work on Now Again is strong enough by itself to recommend the disc. Playing with Ely and his friends requires being able to negotiate a lot of different styles, from rockabilly to Tex Mex, and Gjersoe easily manages them all. As with all the players here, his work is never showy, but every tune has a moment where he does something impressive, beginning with the dobro playing that opens the disc.
Ely, Hancock, and Gilmore have been making music on their own terms for a long time now. This is the sort of disc that Nashville has never appreciated and that country radio wont play. Its proudly traditionalist -- there are even a couple of solos played on saw by Steve Wesson, an original Flatlander. If the Americana movement causes people to seek real music like this, Im all for it.
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