The band lasted less than a year — just long enough to write a bunch of songs and record an album in Nashville in 1972 that was promptly forgotten. Saying it barely made a mark would be overstating its impact.
Ely left Lubbock to hop boxcars to New England, where he hoped to watch the leaves turn color (well, it was the ’70s). Gilmore departed for Denver, where he would study Eastern religions and philosophy (again, the ’70s). And Hancock moved to Clarendon, Tex., to drive tractors and help his friend build an amphitheater.
The three remained close friends, but the band was over. And the band might have remained over if it weren’t for a little thing called fate — and Elvis Costello.
Ely, reached by phone last week in Chicago, one of the first stops on an anniversary tour that brings the group to the Birchmere on Friday, tells the story.
In the ’70s, he, Gilmore and Hancock were all enjoying successful individual careers. Ely formed a honky-tonk band, toured often and even opened for the Clash, with whom he’d become pals. A full 10 years after the Flatlanders’ Nashville recording session, Costello’s record label got wind of the long-forgotten album and obtained the rights to release it in Europe.
The record took off overseas, but it would be another 10 years before its release in the United States. When Rounder released “More a Legend Than a Band,” in 1991, it essentially offered up a 20-year-old album as the group’s American debut. And what a debut: With such songs as the withering “Dallas,” the heartbroken “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown,” and the wonderfully wordy “You’ve Never Seen Me Cry” it delivered country that was twangier and thinkier (and weirder) than anything else out there.
The success may have been a long time coming, but the delay never bothered the guys, Ely says. “The key is to have incredible patience and no ambition, he says, laughing. “We’ve always joked that between the three of us, we have less than a thimbleful of ambition.”
Indeed, there’s a let-it-be-ness to the Flatlanders that almost defines the group.
“For one thing,” Ely says, “we never thought of ourselves as a band. We just thought of ourselves, and still do, as close friends. Every few years or so, we get together and either write some songs or go out and do a little tour. It’s probably what’s kept it fresh for us.”