Spend years traveling America’s byways, literally singing for your supper, and you’re bound to have stories to tell. Whether those stories translate into memorable song, though, is another matter …
As the Flatlanders, Texans Jimmy Dale Gilmour, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely have been making music together on and off for almost forty years. They cut their debut album in 1972, though it didn’t see significant distribution until it was picked up by Rounder in 1990 and released as More a Legend Than a Band. A rather belated followup came out in 2002, with Hills And Valleys their second outing since.
Friendships that last that long imply an intuitive understanding, and while all three participants are iconic individuals with significant solo careers, here they collaborate seamlessly on a relaxed, easy-going collection that combines hard won wisdom, rueful regret, and a celebration of sheer survival in an indifferent world.
All three share co-writing credits on most of the material, with Ely adding two and Hancock one solo composition. Not surprisingly, the passing of time looms large, with the struggle to reconcile individual freedom and the very human need for love a recurrent theme.
“No Way I’ll Never Need You” is a clear-eyed confession of dependence, but more believable is “Thank God For The Road,” an ode to moving on tinged with equal parts loneliness and acceptance. One senses none of these fine gentlemen will be settling down for any length of time anytime soon. Hooks aren’t overly obvious, but these are impeccably crafted songs that seem to sink deeper with each listen.
Producer Lloyd Maines keeps the sound organic, adding a variety of stringed instruments (he plays guitar, dobro, pedal and lap steel, mandolin, and banjo) to a rootsy mix that features subtle strains of accordion and occasional fiddle. Voices aren’t exactly exemplary – Gilmore’s in particular is an acquired taste – but the harmonies have a sublime simplicity, and all three bring a rugged dignity and unquestionable honesty to every line.
Supergroups rarely live up to potential, but The Flatlanders are friends first and foremost, and the results, when they find time to record together, are a truly collaborative sum greater than its considerable parts. A wise and wonderful collection from seasoned veterans, Hills And Valleys is highly recommended.