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The Flatlanders 

Now Again (New West)

Wednesday, Jul 3 2002
Sometimes country bands are like high-class wines: They just need time to ripen. That's certainly the case with the Flatlanders -- Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock -- West Texans whose second album comes 30 years after their debut. The band first got together back in 1971, when the Texas "outlaw" persona was just a glint in the eyes of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, giving the Flatlanders full bragging rights for inspiring the vibrant roots-country movement still present in Austin today.

The Lubbock trio's iconic status as alternacountry pioneers was cemented by the Flatlanders' short-lived, semidisastrous career. The group's lone album, a self-titled 1972 release that was reissued in 1990 under the title More a Legend Than a Band, originally came out only on eight-track tape, then floated around for years as a cassette, before finally making it onto vinyl in 1980. Even then, it had only marginal distribution, becoming the kind of obscuro fetish item that many artists only dream of creating. Naturally, by the time Americana became a marketable genre, the long-defunct Flatlanders had acquired mythical status among the faithful, both as twangcore progenitors and as individual artists. (In the mid-'70s, Ely landed a major-label deal as America's ultimate bar-band honky-tonker, while Gilmore and Hancock pursued more modest careers as mournful cowboy poets.)

Country fans have long debated the merits of the group's first album, which was recorded on a shoestring budget and showed the young musicians still finding their footing. But the record also opened up new narrative vistas in country music, taking inspiration from the Beat poets and modern literature as much as from Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.

On Now Again, the Flatlanders reunite as a cohesive trio that can cheerfully spin out memorable, melodic tunes as ably as road-weary, metaphysical ballads. They still have their rough edges -- Gilmore's voice remains endearingly raspy and frail -- but the emphasis here is on masterfully constructed pop nuggets, such as Hancock's "Julia" and the sideways gospel tune "Yesterday Was Judgement Day." Almost every one of these new songs includes a catchy sing-along chorus and smooth, confident production. In all likelihood, many a stereo's Play button will be worn down, as listeners soak up the sweeping, playful elegance of this thinking-man's hick music.

About The Author

Lawrence Kay


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