Comprising three of Texas's most revered songwriters—Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock—The Flatlanders come to Zankel Hall on April 13. An iconic country band that first collaborated in the early 1970s, they have reunited over the years for a string of well-crafted alternative country albums, including the latest, The Odessa Tapes, which was originally recorded in 1972 in Odessa, Texas, and thought to be lost.
Here, K. Leander Williams reflects on how the West Texas town of Lubbock gave rise to this long-lived trio.
In the collective psyche, Lubbock, Texas—the city where the Flatlanders were formed in the early 1970s—will probably always be associated with rock 'n' roll pioneer Buddy Holly. It's no wonder. Situated in West Texas, it was the town that launched Holly's meteoric ascent into rock history, a legacy that has had implications the world over, perhaps most auspiciously in the British industrial city of Liverpool within a year of the plane crash that killed Holly in 1959. Teenagers George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney decided to name their nascent band after a harmless insect in polite homage to Holly's Chirping Crickets.
Musicologist and historian Ned Sublette remembers Lubbock fondly in his recent book, The Year Before the Flood, about the vibrant musical culture in New Orleans just prior to Hurricane Katrina. During the author's adolescence in the '60s, his maternal grandmother lived in Lubbock in a house on 19th Street; his dad, also a scholar, had taken a job at a university in neighboring New Mexico, precipitating regular family sojourns east into Texas. "The drive from Portales to Lubbock was an endless two-hour trip," writes Sublette, "on two-lane state roads through mostly pure flatness, punctuated by a couple of gentle rises and falls that seemed breathtaking, especially if there had been a little rain in June and everything had briefly turned from its normal yellow-brown to a glorious green."
More than one writer has speculated about how the emptiness of those sprawling West Texas plains sparked the imaginations of singer-songwriters Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. At the turn of the '70s, each was a young adult who had found himself back in Lubbock after rambling here and there. They were sharing a house on 14th Street just more than 40 years ago, when they decided to make a go at teaming up. The wider world kept beckoning—much as it had Holly before them—and continued to follow each Flatlander even after their disappointment at the ill-fated yet ultimately iconic Nashville recording session in 1972 that eventually made the partnership legendary. (Tellingly, they've been friends for life ever since, despite going their separate ways until the'90s.) It's almost as if the universe was trying to fill that mystic, undefinable space Gilmore searches for in one of the Flatlanders' masterpieces, "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown."
"I think I'm gonna look around," he offers, wistfully. "For something I couldn't see when this world was more real to me." Thankfully, the universe made the Lubbockites an offer to make a mark on world culture that the trio couldn't refuse.
K. Leander Williams has been around the block a few times and has yet to tire of the scenery. He lives in Brooklyn.
The Flatlanders perform "I Know You" from their album The Odessa Tapes.
Related: April 13, The Flatlanders