Is it possible to be a supergroup in retrospect? Certainly when Lubbock natives Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely started living and making music together in the 1970s, they had no idea the impact they'd make on music collectively and individually. Each provided his respective specialty — folk, country and rock — cross-pollinating the styles and helping lay out the template for Texas alt-country.
"We didn't get into music for the business," says Hancock. "We got into it for the music and the sheer wonder of it all."
"We had zero ambition," Ely concurs. "We cared nothing about the music biz. We didn't even think of ourselves as a band. We were just three guys with similar interests who enjoyed each other's company."
In truth, not that much has changed. Indeed, "Not That Much Has Changed" is the title of a song from Ely's last album that was initially intended for The Flatlanders' 2009 release Hills and Valleys. The underlying dynamic between the three remains the same — they're a trio of kindred dusty vagabond spirits sharing some time on the road.
"It's never small talk," says Ely. "It's always about something that is interesting to all of us. We try to talk about something, though it often turns out to be nothing."
It's a fitting time for a look back. In August, The Flatlanders will release The Odessa Tapes, a collection of the first recordings the trio did together. They were demos in advance of recording their debut for Shelby Singleton at a studio in Nashville. But The Flatlanders' wide-ranging Americana sound befuddled the record execs. It was shelved for 18 years, finally receiving a proper release as 1990's More a Legend Than a Band.
"When we first recorded this Flatlanders album, there were, like, five genres in the world, and we had nothing to do with any of them," says Ely. "It just didn't fit in. It wasn't a country record, and it wasn't a rock record."
When the album wasn't released (except on eight-track to fulfill contractual obligations), The Flatlanders went their separate ways. Gilmore moved to the mountains of Colorado and lived in an ashram for years before returning to Austin and launching a critically well-regarded solo career in the late '80s. Hancock studied metaphysics while indulging other passions like photography, architecture and whitewater rafting. He released more than a dozen country-folk albums between '78 and '97, before letting family life take precedence and releasing only one album since.
Meanwhile, Joe Ely opened for The Clash and helped lay the foundations of "country rebel rocker" — until Steve Earle usurped his crown, anyway — his strong, adventurous playing and writing making him a critic's darling. Then, in 1998, MCA record exec Tony Brown suggested that Ely contact Hancock and Gilmore, reunite the band and cut a track for Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer.
"That was really the first time we had really ever sat together and wrote a song together," say Ely. "That kind of kicked it off."
From there, The Flatlanders went on to release the 2002 full-length Now Again and 2004's follow-up Wheels of Fortune. That prodigious moment waned, however, and the subsequent eight years have only seen the release of the aforementioned Hills and Valleys. With three distinct musical personalities, The Flatlanders admit, songwriting can get contentious.
"It can be like pulling our own teeth," says Hancock.
"We have such a high standard of what it should be and each one of us comes from a totally different background, so we don't have a common ground," says Ely. "Each word in a song gets debated for hours. It took two to three years to write some of those songs. So it's not easy, but it's satisfying, because we realize it's not anything that any of us would write individually. Not even topic-wise."
But one day, Sylvester Rice — the bassist on those first Odessa demos — mentioned to producer and Flatlanders collaborator Lloyd Maines that he had an old Flatlanders tape in his closet. Maines called Ely, who only remembered hearing it once on the shitty stereo of a VW bus — it sounded awful.
"We never even thought of that record we did in Odessa," says Ely. "We had such a bad taste with the record never coming out that Shelby Singleton recorded."
The songs on The Odessa Tapes had been recorded in a single all-night session — 14 tracks, 10 of which were re-recorded for those Nashville sessions, and four unreleased tracks. The performances were straight to tape with no overdubs. The band was surprised by how good they sound. Surprised and enthused — enough to release it, as is, 40 years later.
"This is kind of a full-circle thing," says Hancock. "This album was just us sitting around in a room, playing the music we love to the way we love to play it. Just relaxed and hearing the song, doing the barebones, essential stuff to get it across. It's full of Texas, full of the wind. Full of all the love of life and wonder about it all that we could muster at the time, and that's still driving us today."