Interview: The Flatlanders Share the Songs That Bond Them on New Album ‘Treasure of Love’
Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore — together known as the Flatlanders — are not only bandmates, but friends, who have known each other for more than five decades. They share various common interests; they trade book recommendations.
But, when you get right down to it, it's music that's the basis of their strongest bond.
"It's more than just the music, but the love of the music is the real core," says Gilmore. "And it's it's still there as much now as it was when we first started."
Hancock and Gilmore have known each other since the seventh grade. They were good friends at school, but didn't really hang out after the bell rang, Hancock explains, because he was playing sports and they lived in different parts of town.
Gilmore met Ely first, through friends in the Lubbock, Texas, creative scene. Hancock, meanwhile, remembers seeing him play "a little folk joint" in an old grain elevator.
"I don't know if we got introduced that night or not, but it was an amazing experience hearing Joe pick and sing like he owned the place — which he did," Hancock remembers. "I mean, he walked into it and he owned it from that moment."
When Gilmore did finally introduce his two friends, they, too, found common ground. All three of them would spend get-togethers talking music, and playing it, for as long as they could.
"We had all journeyed out of Lubbock on different road trips and this and that, and we we wandered back in just about the same time," Hancock tells The Boot, tracing the trio's origin story. "And that's when we found ourselves kind of sitting around the same, as we put it, goat roasts and hippie banquets and back porch guitar pulls."
Hancock recalls one night in particular — "one of those impetus moments," as he calls it.
"Joe walked through the door — and Jimmie had already said, 'Hey, Joe's back in town' — and the next thing you knew, we were back on the kitchen floor, sitting down, trading songs, and we went on for hours doing that," Hancock says. "And we just found ourselves doing that more often and enjoying it more often."
And so, they became the Flatlanders ...
Well, actually, Gilmore shares, they became the Super Natural Playboys — a joke between friends. It wasn't until some people in Nashville told them they couldn't possibly use that band name that they became the Flatlanders.
On Friday (July 9), the Flatlanders released a new album, Treasure of Love. It's their first record of newly shared recordings in more than 12 years; in fact, for a band that first got together in 1972 — nearly 50 years ago — their catalog contains relatively little music.
After about a year together, Ely, Gilmore and Hancock disbanded as the Flatlanders to focus on their solo work. Each found success separately, but they still kept their friendship and musical partnership alive: Ely produced several albums for both Gilmore and Hancock, for example, and they'd play live together. They'd go long stretches without seeing each other sometimes, but picked back up easily when they got together.
As an artist, Ely, in particular, grew a large following, and continued to play songs written by his Flatlanders bandmates. "He kept our names out there," Gilmore says, and their collective success was enough to draw attention to their early-career work together and create demand for more Flatlanders releases.
Treasure of Love offers a few originals, but its 15 songs are largely covers: of Johnny Cash, Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, Mickey Newbury and others. They're songs that the Flatlanders hold dear — songs they've sung time and time (and time ...) again together.
"These songs were kind of more spiritually powerful than we had thought them to be back in the old days," Ely reflects. "They were what held us together and what kept us interested in what the others were doing."
The Flatlanders began recording what would become Treasure of Love about five years ago, when Ely brought everyone to his Austin studio, "turned on the machines and said, 'If you have anything that you want to add to this collection ...'" They continued tracking whenever they could get together; in fact, the men say, this record "barely scratch[es] the surface of what they have recorded."
"The only rule was: There were no rules," says Ely, who co-produced the album with Lloyd Maines (Ely's wife Sharon is also credited as an assistant producer).
"We would get together at odd times and not know whether we're going to write more songs or just sit around and look at each other tell a joke or two or a story or two," adds Hancock. "We started thinking about a lot of the things that we were doing, you know, back when we were literally sitting around on the floor, because we couldn't afford any furniture, back in Lubbock, and we'd just take turns bringing in songs from our repertoires, which were pretty vast even at that time."
Notes Gilmore, "The culling process originally was just — it was songs that we loved so much that we had kept on doing them through the years [but had] never recorded them. And so, we would just try it and [see] if it came out."
The recordings were "rough" still, Gilmore says, until, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Flatlanders decided they could turn them into a record with Maines' help. The Texas great understands what they trio is about, they say — he's known Ely, Gilmore and Hancock for decades — so they let him do what he thought was best instead of offering detailed instructions.
"The next time Joe sent what Lloyd had done with them," Gilmore says, "it was like, 'Wow, this is ... not only okay, this is really good."