A sure sign that all is getting back to normal in the world – well the music world at least – is when Americana legends the Flatlanders release an album. Treasure of Love is their first for a dozen years. But it is well worth the wait.
It is not that the trio – Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock – have exactly been idle this last decade.
There’s been a tour or two, not to mention regular get-togethers for festivals. Last year, Ely released a solo album – Love in the Midst of Mayhem. About 18 months earlier, Gilmore teamed up with California singer-songwriter Dave Alvin to produce the acclaimed Downey to Lubbock album, supported by a year-long tour. And on the eve of the pandemic lockdown, Gilmore and Hancock did a whistle-stop, two-show visit to New Zealand.
Gilmore said in a release: “A lot of groups our age are either dead or not speaking to each other anymore. But I think part of the reason the Flatlanders are still together is that we’ve all had our own separate careers along the way. We are all such strange individuals, but we can co-captain this ship together because every time we come back to it, we feel that same magic we felt when we first started playing together.”
Treasure of Love surely signifies a welcome return to the airwaves for one of the finest trio combos in Americana music – even though most of the 15 tracks, while freshly recorded, are old Flatlander set standards or polished reworkings of classic country releases.
Three delightful standouts of timeless classics are Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love to Rose,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ on Raton” and the thirties old-timer “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Each seems tailor-made for this ageless trio.
“Give My Love to Rose” is often over-looked in Cash’s finest-songs category. But the mournful tale of a dying man’s request is a Man-in-Black classic, so this cover, by three iconic musicians, is well deserved. They do Cash proud, with a masterful interpretation. Subtle reverb on Hancock's vocal arrangement serves as a nice reminder of the original.
Playing Townes Van Zandt is nothing new for the group. Ely loves to tell the story of when, in the late sixties, he first literally bumped into Townes after the lanky Texan had hitch-hiked through the Mojave desert with only a backpack and a guitar full of records. They pay due homage to their long-departed friend, with Hancock leading a soft, melodic rendition of “Snowin’ on Raton”- long considered one of Van Zandt’s most beautiful laments.
“Sittin’ on Top of the World” is one of the most covered songs in popular country music and The Flatlanders have long made it their own in concert. And, indeed, it is one that Jimmie Dale can really nail with his astonishingly-distinctive vocals. It is nice to see this classic now in the trio’s digital locker.
Butch Hancock said about the song: “Sometimes you’re sitting on top of the world, the next minute you are face down on the bottom. Such is life.”
It is no surprise that on an album which reflects the kind of music the ageless group played and loved over decades, there is space for a Bob Dylan song. “She Belongs to Me” - off Bringing It All Back Home - also gets the Gilmore mystical vocal treatment.
“Jimmie’s voice and this song still echo the miles and miles the Flatlanders have shared,” said Hancock.
“Butch, Joe and I have shared an appreciation of Dylan’s artistry and wit from the beginning, and after performing this for so many years, I am happy to finally have a recorded version of it on a Flatlanders release,” added Gilmore.
The opening track “Moanin’ Of The Midnight Train” is one of the few originals and among a number of singles released prior to the album. It was written by Hancock and Ely’s voice - at its agonising best - is as twangy and gritty as the instrumental solos!
“A soulful Joe Ely vocal and an emotional Butch Hancock song is a powerful combination,” said Gilmore.
Another Hancock original goes by the quirky name “Mama Does the Kangaroo” – Papa does the monkey/And Mama does the kangaroo. This foot-tapping, clap-ya-hands delight only illustrates how this ageless combination can switch from musical slap-stick one minute to serious Dylan in the next.
Most of the 15 songs were originally recorded at Ely’s Spur Studios in Austin before the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve been chipping away at these songs for a while without ever really finishing anything, so when lockdown started it seemed like the perfect time to really focus on it,” said Ely.
The final polish was provided by the group’s old friend from Lubbock, legendary producer-musician Lloyd Maines – father of Natalie. He co-produced the album with Ely and his wife Sharon.
Polish being the operative word, for this collection truly shines.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation