When the legendary group from Lubbock, Texas, formed to record one stunning album in 1972, few music fans had heard of its members: Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.
But after the group
disbanded, each member went on to make a name for himself with
a distinguished solo career: Ely for his dark, muscular country
and Tex-Mex rockers, Gilmore for his delicate Zen ballad singing
and Hancock for his wise, clever songwriting.
Every so often,
the paths of these three musicians intersect, for a play, an
art exhibition or a concert. On Saturday afternoon, the three
reunited for a show at the Central Park Summerstage. First Hancock,
the brains, performed; then Gilmore, the heart, played; next
Ely, the muscle, took the stage. And, finally, brains, heart
and muscle came together to create the precious, beautiful body
that is the Flatlanders. The three performed "Dallas,"
their famous love-hate song to a city they compare to a "rich
man with a death wish in his eye"; "West Texas Waltz,"
their carnal, upbeat and very funny national anthem of sorts,
and "If You Were a Bluebird," an unrequited-love song
told in metaphors. "If you were a hotel," Ely sang
in the song, "I'd lean on your doorbell, and I'd call you
That lyric was written
by Hancock, one of the great unrecognized songwriters of the
South but an inconsistent performer. In his set (which followed
an opening set by another Texas songwriter, Jimmy LaFave), Hancock
delivered the great turns of phrase, alliterations and hard-won
truths that are his specialty in a gruff, laughing voice, interjecting
Dylanesque harmonica solos here and there.
by apologizing for opening the set with his own songs instead
of Hancock's. Tall, reedy, pale and delicate with a long flowing
mane of unkempt gray hair, he resembled a dandelion stalk whose
seeds, with one puff, could be scattered to the wind. His voice
resembled a plucked, trembling high-tension wire, his guitar
picking was light and tentative, and his stage patter was full
of endearing, unsure self-analysis. But though this sensitivity
may seem like weakness on the surface, it became powerful when
Gilmore applied it to songs that search for the dividing line
between, to quote his lyric, "the being and the seeming."
The most popular
of the three, Ely played dark, minor-key, finger-picked songs
that made Gilmore's mental dividing line physical. He set his
near the Tex-Mex border and explored characters trying to determine
which side of the line they should call home. Ely ended his set
with a tribute to the unofficial fourth Flatlander, a slightly
older muse of sorts to the three named Terry Allen. He played
Allen's "Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy," in which a young
man driving down the highway pulls over for a most unusual hitchhiker
named Jesus Christ, who, in a cosmic joke befitting of these
songwriters, ends up drinking his beer and stealing his car.