By Andrew Dansby
Five years have passed since Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock last released music as the Flatlanders. Compared to the 30 years that separated the band’s first and second recordings, that span is a bat of the eye. But as Gilmore points out, each of the three has an ongoing solo career to tend to. And Hancock lives hours (and hours) away from the other two.
So nipping at the heels of Wheels of Fortune, released back in 2004, is the new Hills and Valleys, which further finds the Flatlanders becoming more a band than a legend, especially since it includes eight songs that the dynamic trio wrote together. (Wheels featured all individually-penned songs.) The title is fitting (see below), as it deftly balances sad and serious with rowdy and rollicking fare.
LoneStarMusic.com caught up recently with Jimmie Dale to discuss the new record, writing by committee, and the joy of an 8-track tape still in the cellophane.
There’s a perfection in the album’s title: It seems to fit the mood of the recording as well as the times.
I’m grateful to you for noticing. I think it’s so great. … In fact, the way the title came about was that we were really trying to figure out the sequence. I was out in California and I think Joe was home and Butch was somewhere in the Midwest. We had to agree on deadline about the order of the songs on the CD. We came up with all kinds of interesting titles, just phrases from the record. “Homeland Refugee” was one we thought was pretty good. Joe and Butch were working on the sequencing when it came up. Joe and I had been trading calls and he finally called me back and said, “We got a title!” I said, “What is it?” He told me when he and Butch got an order they liked, Joe said it was like a bunch of hills and valleys. Butch said, “That’s it. I wish we’d thought of it beforehand.” And the whole idea of the Flatlanders and hills and valleys, we knew it worked immediately. . … I’m extremely happy with the outcome of this record. I love everything on it. Which is not necessarily always the case. Usually there are a few clunkers when I make a record.
Do you know something’s a clunker going in? Or does time reveal a clunker?
I never know. Well, I shouldn’t say “never.” Sometimes I don’t feel right about something and later I’ll wish I trusted my gut.
How do you guys know it’s time to convene? Does a red light go off at your homes?
Well there’s been a lot of time between this one and the last one. It’s difficult to get us all in at once with Butch living so far away. He’s in Terlingua. Joe and I have such different schedules. We don’t do many things together. And Joe tours a lot more than I do. So we really have to schedule things to where we have a time and place. We go in deliberately to make a record; these things just don’t pop up spontaneously.
Do you sit at a table with a pot of coffee and just start trading lines?
We wrote a lot of it out in Joe’s little studio. One of us will come up with something he doesn’t want to lose. We’ll put down a rough draft, and if it keeps moving, we’ll go ahead and record it. Things are sometimes in raw stages, but we’ve developed a routine. It’s interesting, we’re so different, we work differently, so we’re always negotiating twists and turns about the way we think. It’s sometimes like a puzzle.
Better that, I suppose, than a bunch of people thinking alike. Then you might as well do it on your own.
Yeah, extremes can be good. Sometimes the differences make us disagree. Other times it’s like, “Wow, I never thought of that.” It’s a mix. But you’re right, there’s no point working with somebody who thinks the same way you do.
I think Steve Earle said co-writing songs was like having somebody watch you have sex. I guess you guys don’t have that problem.
(Laughs) No, I teach a songwriting class once a year in upstate New York. I’ve been doing it quite a long time and I love it. I’ve used collaborative writing as a springboard into a discussion and learning in the class. I’ve actually done very little collaborating over the years, other than what I’ve done with Butch and Joe. There are a few friends I’ve done things with, but that’s about it.
There seems to be a rock critic snobbery about writing by committee; I guess it was initiated by the reaction to Bob Dylan. But there’ve been some fantastic songs done by committee over the years.
You know, early on I acquired that sort of prejudice: that you had to be doing it solo or it wasn’t as good. Then somebody pointed out the Gershwins. Lennon/McCartney. I still think the VERY best stuff is individual. People like the geniuses, Leonard Cohen. I don’t think that music could be written by committee.
I keep hearing about songwriters being happier with a new presidential administration. But this still seems like it’s going to be a rotten year for a lot of people. The valleys on your album — “Homeland Refugee”, “After the Storm” — seem to acknowledge this.
My wife and I were just talking about that today. Change was inevitable and necessary. The whole way the world is running is out of whack and needs to be changed. But people have to be shaken up; they won’t change until they’re forced to. In one way, I think that can be positive. At the same time such a disruption is so painful for so many people.
“No Way I’ll Never Need You” is a favorite. I detect a playful ‘60s honky-tonk vibe on it. But there’s a lot more going on.
That’s another one, Joe had that phrase and we tried to help him work his way out of it. As we worked on it I thought it was a throwaway. It’s so light-hearted. But we laughed a lot. “I don’t need no key to let me in,” there’s something mysteriously funny about that. When we did it, it was just a lot of fun and instead of a throwaway it became one of my favorites on there. That song we took advantage of playing with such good musicians. We allowed them to invent something new. It’s not honky-tonk exactly; it’s a little Mexican sounding, but not entirely.
Do you guys hold out anything? Do you put all your ideas on the table as possible Flatlanders songs?
Oh yeah, there’s plenty of stuff that just would feel too personal. Or you feel like it would be better as your own song. Excuse me a minute. (Pause.) Sorry my wife said one of our dogs just returned. We have five dogs and one of them had gone missing, but he’s back. We have this beautiful husky and we hadn’t seen him for a while.
That seems like a breed that might not care for Texas’ climate.
He definitely stays inside when it’s hot. But he loves it when any cool weather comes. You can tell how it affects him. He becomes like a puppy. Another way he deals with it is twice a year they completely shed. It’s the most shedding I’ve seen from any dog I’ve been around. For a couple of weeks before summer and before winter, they switch the type of coat they have. It doesn’t look any different, though.
Do you find that other people sit around pontificating about Lubbock more than you do? The university seems to be a bit of a catalyst for its reputation for having creative types milling about .
Yes, it did a lot. It helped feed this atmosphere, with a whole lot of really creative people. Musicians and artists and writers. It was an intelligent crowd. Before I really teamed up with Joe, I hung out in a combination of crowds: There was this college bohemian intellectual crowd, and this group of really seedy nightlife people. Those worlds both existed there. In the context of a general society that was straight and narrow and closed-minded, I think both were a reaction to that.
There’s greater shared vocal duties today. Were you always supposed to be the voice on the first one?
I was, though I don’t think you’d call me the leader of band or anything. But in a sense, I might’ve been the instigator of it. That record featured mostly my vocals, but the best songs were Butch’s. We never tried for any specific sound or image. It all just fell together the way it was at the time. When we came back together so many years later, things had changed in all the myriad ways they do.
After the three of you went your separate ways, was there any sense of competition?
Well what happened was I went away, and the reason I left was to go become involved in a spiritual community. It wasn’t at all that I was going away from something. I was going to something else. I wanted away from the music business, and I wanted something else to occupy me. During that period Joe kept my career going in a way. I didn’t need to tend to it the way you’d have to if you were doing your own career. When I did make the decision to come back, Joe had become ultra-prominent, especially in the Southwest. Because he did my songs he kept my presence out there, he kept an awareness of me. Joe used my songs and when he became successful, it seemed like I’d stayed in the business all that time. So there was no competing.
You’ve written eloquently and in a touching way about your father and his love of playing music. Do you think a different turn and he’d have had a career like yours?
No, not really. He loved playing. But he didn’t have the temperament to do what it takes to have a music career. He always liked to have his warm bed and knowing where his next meal was coming from.
So the road wasn’t for him?
No. For some reason Butch, Joe and I all had that wanderlust.
It makes you wonder if your career is shaped more by nature or nurture.
I think it’s both. I think everything is. It always seems really obvious looking back, some feelings and attitudes you just have and others come from associations with friends and stuff you read. Things happen in school.
It’s been four years since you last had a solo album. Is there something in the works?
Butch works pretty quickly. I think he’s about to have another. Joe just did one. He also works quickly. Me, I’m the slowest. But yes, I’m working on one. I’m hoping it’ll be done and released in 2009.
Does touring feel more like a drag than it used to?
Well the thing is, Joe and Butch and I travel well together. We like each other’s company. And the whole band. So we have a lot of fun being on the road. We don’t like being away from home that much, but the trip itself is fun. It’s a little more grueling than it used to be. But the last couple of records we’ve toured in better style, with a bus and everything, than I ever had. I could keep doing it.
Do you ever come across copies of that first recording on 8-track?
Actually I have a copy Joe gave me for Christmas a few years ago. He’d saved a couple of copies. Joe’s really good about keeping everything. Artwork and posters and stuff from over the years. I have a lot, but it’s scattered.
Do you have an 8-track player to play it?
Oh no, this one, the cellophane still hasn’t been taken off.