Zen and the art of The Flatlanders

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May 3, 2004 // UPDATED 1:25 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Burl Gilyard
Burl Gilyard

Texas troubadours to play Pantages

If it seems like The Flatlanders were just in town, it's because they were. On April 10, they shared the stage in St. Paul with Garrison Keillor on "A Prairie Home Companion," which is beamed to public radio stations across this vast land: flat or otherwise.

"Man, did we have fun, or what?" recalled Butch Hancock a few weeks later from his home in Terlingua, Texas. "It was really amazing. We got to do five songs. I'd never net him [Keillor] but always admired his work. It was really incredible. I love live radio, anyway."

The Texas trio returns to the Twin Cities for a Wednesday, May 5 concert at the Historic Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave. S.

The legend

The group first recorded together in the early '70s, but for most of the last three decades, the band has been something of a rumor.

Hancock, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore all hail from Lubbock, Texas. They met in the early 1970s and recorded an album in Nashville that only saw limited release on 8-track tape. As each went on to pursue his own career, the lost recordings of The Flatlanders gradually achieved mythic status. "More a Legend Than a Band" finally saw domestic release on CD in 1990. Among other things, it is probably the world's greatest album to prominently feature the musical saw.

The band reunited in the late 1990s and simply picked up where they'd left off. The band released its second album in 2002, "Now Again," just three short decades after recording their first. Now, they're back with a fresh album, "Wheels of Fortune," released in January.

The Flatlanders often get lumped into the modern "alternative country" genre by default. But truly, they are three unique Texas troubadours, each with a distinctive style. Ely is the honky-tonk rocker, Gilmore the mystic folkie with that high, lonesome voice, and Hancock is the salt-of-the-earth tunesmith. Since getting back together, The Flatlanders have earned piles of praise.

Yet despite the all the critical acclaim, the group hasn't necessarily been a commercial powerhouse. At a March 2000, gig at the State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Ave. S., the venue was only about one-third full. A scheduled 2001 summer concert at the Minnesota Zoo was canceled due to slow ticket sales.

But perhaps the tide is slowly turning.

All the way to Winnemucca

After finding a groove on their last tour, The Flatlanders were anxious to get back into the studio. The group convened last year at Joe Ely's studio.

"I think we laid down something like 32 or 33 tracks in a couple of weeks there back at Joe's place. I think these [songs] that are on the album just kept bubbling to the surface. It kind of became obvious which ones were related to each other in the usual bizarre way," says Hancock. "It was just a good feeling and we were able to get all that energy down on tape."

This year, the band finds itself touring steadily in support of "Wheels of Fortune." "It's going to be pretty solid," says Hancock of the road duty. "I think we're even going to play Las Vegas. That ought to be pretty bizarre. And we'll be doing the Winnemucca Rodeo or something, I think -- everything from the House of Blues to the Winnemucca Rodeo."

In addition to performing at the "senior" rodeo (featuring contestants over 40), the band's touring schedule also lists a July date at the Superior Livestock Auction in Winnemucca, Nev.

For The Flatlanders, this all makes perfect sense.

On "Now Again," songs such as "Right Where I Belong" reflected a band living in the moment, rather than its musical past. It seems that a certain Zen sensibility is at work.

"Well, it is and isn't," laughs Hancock. "That's been part of our psyches. We were all kind of in this strange Zen world of humor."

Amid the reunion of The Flatlanders, each member has had less time to devote to his own music. Hancock hasn't released a solo album since his 1997 "You Coulda' Walked Around the World," released on his own Rainlight Records label. It's a tremendous modern folk record but little known beyond the cult of Texas music diehards.

"I know I'm way overdue," admits Hancock. "I've got tons of songs. I'm trying to get to doing some recording while we're off here. I'd like to get an album out before the end of the summer. I've got some songs that need to be heard before the election, rather than after."

Many of Hancock's tunes have been widely covered. His "If You Were a Bluebird" has been recorded by many artists, including Emmylou Harris. "It's kind of what songs are for," says Hancock matter-of-factly. "People to pick 'em up and sing 'em. I kind of like Freddy Fender's version of 'She Never Spoke Spanish to Me'." (The Texas Tornados, featuring Fender, recorded the tune in 1990.)

In concert, The Flatlanders are prone to cover the work of fellow Texans such as Terry Allen or the late Townes Van Zandt. Call it paying a karmic debt to friends, co-conspirators and influences.

Asked if he's been called "the Bob Dylan of Lubbock," Hancock simply chuckles. "That and better and worse. It's better than being called the Bill Anderson of Lubbock," says Hancock, referencing a mainstream country singer popular in the 1960s.

But Hancock is as likely to cite architect/inventor/renaissance man Buckminster Fuller as a songwriting influence as the bard of Minnesota. "I've always thought if you're going to really learn something, you need to study something else," says Hancock. "The same thing is kind of true about songwriting. To me, it's just got to be something that comes out of your life, out of your experience. I think it's why I drove a tractor for so long."

The Flatlanders play Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave. S., Wednesday, May 5, 7:30 p.m. Reckless Kelly opens. Tickets are $25 (plus fees). To order tickets by phone, call Ticketmaster at 651-989-5151. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Historic Hennepin Theatre District box office at the State Theater, 805 Hennepin Ave. S., Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday, noon-3 p.m. For more information, visit www.hennepintheaterdistrict.com.