A Flatlanders Kind of Day
It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that I got word from KGNU Music Director John Schaefer that the Flatlanders were coming in Sunday morning to play some songs and talk on the Roots & Branches program I host.
As an old-time music critic (remember those), I have known about the Flatlanders for a long time, dating back to the days when their debut album was passed around only on cassette among cognoscenti for eighteen years. But like most people, I didn’t really come in contact with the group until Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock reunited for the three albums they’ve made together since 1998.
Not that I didn’t know about the trio. Joe Ely has been a presence dating back to his MCA albums in the 1980s. I first saw him during the SXSW years in Austin, where the Flatlanders were gods, and I’ve enjoyed his last three albums, especially the live one with accordionist Joel Guzman. I kinda circled Gilmore and Butch Hancock, and often mixed up the latter with Wayne Hancock, another Texas musician. But after the always prescient G Brown put three songs from the Landers’ Wheels of Fortune onto the KCUV playlist back in 2004, I became a fan, and I’ve finally caught up with their catalog.
So the chance to throw them a few questions and listen to them play an intimate set in the studio on a program created for their kind of music on our community-powered radio station was a chance to revert for a couple hours back to rockcrit days. And there was a special bonus: I finally would get to ask Jimmie Dale Gilmore about how playing the character Smokey in one of our favorite movies, The Big Lebowski, affected his life.
The trio arrived at the studio with fourth member, guitarist Rob Gjersoe, about halfway through the show and spent half an hour setting up. Instead of forming a line, they set up in an arrangement that allowed them to face and see each other. One of the things that distinguishes the Flatlanders is that they are true collaborators. They don’t just pass the guitar around and add harmonies to each other’s songs. Though all have distinct writing styles, they somehow manage to come together in way that accentuates each others’ strengths. (You can stream or download the show’s podcast for the next couple of weeks by clicking here.)
Radio interviews are a lot of fun. You don’t have to take notes, just lob a thought out there (“how has being Smokey changed your life, Jimmie Dale?”) and when they get bored, ask for a song. In that regard, the Flatlanders were more than willing to accommodate.
A common theme when we talked was the Halloween celebration on the Boulder Mall the night before, which they attended. Apparently someone spotted Gilmore as Smokey, the “Mark-it-eight-Dude” league bowler who upsets Walter (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski. “I should have told him I was Smokey in costume as a Flatlander,” he joked. Gilmore said he is no actor, and that he never expected the acclaim he has gotten for that bit part in a film that has a huge following. He has been asked to appear at the Lebowskifests that have sprouted around the country. After noticing that Jeff Bridges has appeared at a couple, he says he might start doing it, too.
They played four songs, trading verses with each other while guitarist Gjersoe shot licks and riffs at them, and their versions of “Homeland Refugee,” “Borderless Love” and “After the Storm” were exquisitely performed, even with a couple of clunker notes, which made it very live and more powerful.
The little guitar riff that opens “After the Storm” really lit up the studio, a song that Gilmore introduced as taking them three years to finish (critic’s note: it was worth the wait), and they closed with a spirited “Sowing on the Mountain,” which Gilmore said they learned from a Woody Guthrie record (it’s on Guthrie’s Muleskinner Blues recording).
Later, Dr. Reptile and I were walking down Spruce Street at 14th, heading for the Boulder Theatre, where e-Town was featuring the Flatlanders and Bob Schneider, when we ran into Gilmore on the corner. He was heading for a rehearsal, but he stopped and we talked for a few more minutes. I’ve chatted with my share of professional musicians, and Gilmore, whose father was a non-professional musician and whose son Colin is a songwriter, too, was as unpretentious as they come.
The show was fantastic: the Flatlanders reprised the songs from the radio session with a full band, aided by e-Town host Nick Forster, who added 12-string guitar, mandolin and even some screaming electric guitar leads, and the always amazing e-Tones.
I hadn’t seen Bob Schneider before, and with a coterie of fans that included his sister, he quickly took control of the room with some incredibly catchy songs off his new album, Lovely Creatures, bringing the crowd to its collective feet for the Latin dance number, “Tarantula,” that put me in the mind of Vince Herman.
Just a Flatlanders kind of day.