Fifty Years On, The Flatlanders (Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore,Butch Hancock) Return With ‘Treasure of Love’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

How many bands do you know that have been together for 50 years, where the original members are still intact?  That’s the case with the three singer-songwriters originally from Lubbock, TX, each of whom has has successful solo careers, but every so often return to their brotherhood in The Flatlanders. To diehard fans of roots music Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock are an iconic trio.  As they’ve done so many times before, they called on longtime friend and collaborator, a legendary producer by any measure, Lloyd Maines, to help them dust off a bunch of tunes, many that had laid dormant for years, a mix of originals and covers for Treasure of Love. The presence of Maines means plenty of pedal steel and dobro as he is a master of adorning songs with just the right touches. 

Ely says the album evolved more than it was recorded, claiming that they’d been chipping away at many of the songs without really finishing them until the lockdown gave them the opportunity to do so. These guys have fun and can always be counted on for wry wit and a loose approach. Many claims that they along with The Band and a handful of other acts laid the foundation for what we call Americana today. Closer inspection reveals that only four of the 15 tunes were penned by a Flatlander, three from Hancock and one from Ely, but they cover such familiar artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Mickey Newbury, and even The Mississippi Sheiks in ways you’ve never heard in terms of harmonies and vocal leads. Of course, they get stellar support from longtime mainstays – multi-instrumentalist Maines, guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, bassists Gary Herman and Jimmy Pettit, and drummers Pat Manske and Rafael Gayol.

They kick off with Butch Hancock’s “Moanin’ of the Midnight Train” which appeared on Hancock’s 1994 solo Eats Away the Night. Here Ely takes the vocal lead as three electric guitars create a maelstrom behind him. Maines’ pedal steel signals the country waltz “Long Time Gone,” by Frank Harford and Tex Ritter, as the unmistakable pipes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore find harmony support from his two buddies.  “Snowin’ on Raton” has long been regarded as one of Townes Van Zandt’s best songs of wanderlust. Sung here by Hancock with Ely and Gilmore providing great harmonies, the song has long been a favorite of roots artists. Interestingly, until now it’s never been covered by any of these three but has been by the late David Olney, the late Jimmy LaFave, and by Robert Earl Keen, Emmylou Harris, and Gretchen Peters with Tom Russell. 

Gilmore climbs into Leon Russell’s “She Smiles Like a River,” transforming it into a two-step twanger.  Leon Jackson’s “Love, Please Come Home” seems perfectly suited to Joe Ely’s lead. It’s the kind of tune we’ve often found on his solo albums with Maines again soloing and sliding. Hancock gets another turn on Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love to Rose,” in a faithful rendition that hits home as emotionally as the heart-wrenching original. Gilmore takes the title track, penned by George Jones and J.P. Richardson.  When other singers take a Jones song, they often make the mistake of trying to emulate his singular voice in some way, but Gilmore’s voice is equally singular in its own way. He doesn’t have to try to emulate nor does he. Joe Ely’s “Satin Shoes” was penned in 2003 but apparently never made it to an album. This rollicking tune is infused by stellar dobro work from Maines and guitar picking by Gjersoe. “The Ballad of Honest Sam’ has Gilmore in classic country mode as he sings beautifully and unaccompanied as the pedal steel weeps and moans. 

Butch Hancock’s dancehall tune “Mama Does the Kangaroo” is filled with clever wordplay as he also take this vocal alone. Many of these songs have been performed by the trio over the years but were not recorded until now, Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” the classic example, here sung by Gilmore in an up-tempo, countrified version which has been issued as a single.  Gilmore, who over the past few years, did considerable touring with kindred spirit Dave Alvin, has somehow retained the magic of his voice well into his seventies. 

Ely gets into ballad mode on Ernest Tubbs’ “I Don’t Blame You,” demonstrating a superior command of dynamics, phrasing, and expression that have long defined his storied career.  Hancock gets into rollicking mode on Mickey Newbury’s “Mobile Blue” as the twangy guitars fire full throttle while Ely takes Hancock’s “Ramblin’ Man” down a couple of notches with his pals joining on the choruses. All three trade verses in the closer, the oft-covered Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ On Top of the World” delivered at a blistering pace, unlike most slower or medium tempo versions. Hancock blows his harp with abandon on the break as the tempo stays just shy of running completely off the tracks until the explosive guitars take hold.  It’s the perfect closer and one of the best renditions of this hallowed tune that must have been covered thousands of times.

 

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