Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock have been friends for almost 40 years, and members of that not-really-a-band, life-of-its-own musical entity known as The Flatlanders for nearly as long.
But when the trio decided to collaborate on songwriting for Hills And Valleys, the fourth in a rather elongated string of Flatlanders albums, they realized it wouldn't be easy. They'd done it before for one thing, first for the soundtrack to the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer, then for their "reunion" album, 2002's Now Again. So they already knew they'd be as likely to spend hours trading tales and laughing uproariously as they would trying to agree on a lyric.
And they knew how long that could stretch out, too. "Sometimes we'd work on one line of a song for several days," Ely reveals. "That's just one line, not a verse. It's hard to please all three of us at once."
But for Hills and Valleys, they not only managed to come up with eight eloquent joint efforts, they added Ely's "Love's Own Chains" and "There's Never Been," Hancock's "Thank God For The Road," one by Gilmore's son, Colin ("The Way We Are"), and, for good measure, their arrangement of Woody Guthrie's "Sowing on the Mountain." That one serves not only as an homage to one of their musical guideposts but, as Hancock notes, a representation of the album's general theme: "the ups and downs, emotionally, of peoples' lives these days."
"One moment you're sitting on top of the world," he explains, "and the next, you're 'sowing on the mountain and reaping in the valleys.'"
They didn't set out with an agenda, but what Ely calls "the heavy-dutiness" of the last eight years—9/11, Katrina, Iraq, border walls going up while the economy careened downward—all were definitely on their minds as they wrote.
"Even though all of us are very active politically, a lot of times we don't want to bring certain things into our songs," Ely explains. "This time, we had to say, 'Hey, let's look at this, not in a pushy way, but really
figuring it out in our own heads. Putting it into a song and trying to unravel it.'"
The psychological approach. Which explains how a song called "After The Storm" never mentions a specific deluge, but examines, via Gilmore's gentle tremolo, the feelings of loss and aloneness one might experience "looking out after the storm, wondering what to do and where to go."
That was the first song they came up with. The last was "Homeland Refugee," which addresses foreclosures and the "so-called security trust," though it was composed months before the credit crunch triggered a string of bank failures that unleashed even more economic calamity.
The song was partly inspired by an irony they saw in the current "reverse migration" of Californians to
Texas, because their families had been part of the original Dust Bowl exodus. As they wrote at Hancock's home in Terlingua (writing sessions were also held in Austin, where Gilmore and Ely live), they also watched the construction of a wall designed to prevent Mexican people from migrating to America. Telling a simple story in simple words, they cut right to the core of these complex issues. An overt reference to Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" and an implied one to his "Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos)" further allude to those hills and valleys of earth and life—which they put in irrefutable perspective in the line: For everything this world is worth, we're all just migrants on this earth, returning to the dust from where we came.
"After the Storm" and "Homeland Refugee" form a trilogy of sorts with the Tex-Mex-flavored "Borderless Love." Over the jaunty notes of honorary Flatlander Joel Guzman's accordion, the song draws the conclusion: A wall is a mirror, it can only reveal/one side of the story that passes for real.
But not all of these tracks are so obviously topical. "Just About Time" makes seeming allusions to a long-needed change in leadership, but it's also a song about mortality—the happiest little rocker about death you're likely to ever whistle inside the shower. It prominently features that early Flatlanders staple, Steve Wesson's singing saw—which automatically adds levity just by the weirdness of its sound. Another original Flatlander, Tony Pearson, performs mandolin and sings harmony on the disc; both were heard on the band's first recording, that long-fabled entity from 1972 that finally got a proper release 20 years later with the title, More A Legend Than A Band.
Though Ely produced its follow-up, Now Again, and 2004's Wheels of Fortune, Hills and Valleys was produced by another old friend who grew up in the cotton-furrowed flatlands of Lubbock: Lloyd Maines.
In addition to their long musical history with Maines (he was a member of Ely's band for years and produced Gilmore's Hightone Records debut), Gilmore points out a trait that further strengthens their bond: Maines' off-the-wall sense of humor is similar to theirs. His Dixie Chick connection apparently didn't hurt, either; daughter Natalie's bandmate Martie Maguire contributed some fiddle. A who's-who of Austin sidemen (and friends) also participated: Robbie Gjersoe on guitars; Glenn Fukunaga on bass; Rafael Gayol on drums; Bukka Allen on keyboards and accordion; Brian Standefer on cello; and Pat Manske on percussion. Maines played steel, mandolin, banjo and guitar, and contributed harmonies.
Perhaps all that involvement makes him an honorary Flatlander, too. But none of them takes the designation too seriously. As with each Flatlanders album or tour, no one knows about a next one; they're a product of fate, chance, inspiration, the gods ... and come around when they come around. They've each got successful solo careers to keep up as well.
But here they are, 37 years after they were prodded into recording together the first time, still collaborating—and still the best of friends. In his soft Texas drawl, Ely sums the philosophy behind their creativity: "We might as well write music and make songs up, because there's not anything that we'd rather be doing."