The Flatlanders unearth a time capsule on soon-to-be-released ‘Odessa Tapes’
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It’s been 40 years since three young singer-songwriters from Texas made the drive from Lubbock to Odessa to cut a record, but one of them remembers that night with vivid clarity.
Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore wouldn’t last much more than a year after that night as The Flatlanders, but the three pals went on to individual acclaim as singer-songwriters, and eventually reunited as the band they started all those years ago.
In August, New West Records will release “The Odessa Tapes,” the record the boys cut on that fateful night a month before they would travel to Nashville to make their “official” debut, 1972’s “All American Music.”
Although “The Odessa Tapes” have been lingering in a Lubbock closet for four decades, the quality of the recordings is powerful, showcasing the promise the three men had early on with a clarity matched by Hancock’s memory of the event.
“We took off down the road to Odessa, and it was that time of year when they were just finishing up the cotton ginning,” Hancock told The Daily Times this week. “There was cotton hanging in the air between Lubbock and Odessa, and it was just that wonderful kind of weird, winter’s-approaching, halfway-there, halfway-not time of the year. We drove up to that little place out in the middle of an oilfield with the sun setting, and I wondered what we were getting into in that little concrete building in the middle of an oil patch.
“I found some old notebooks, some journals and things, that had the details, or at least the dates and a few odds and ends, from that time. I remember Joe and I drove down in my old VW van, and the rest of the guys went down in this big ol’ car Jimmie had, just piled in like a bunch of circus clowns. It was a beautiful night, and we went late into the hours, but we made it back to Lubbock and lived to tell about it.”
After a couple of days back in Lubbock, Hancock recalled, the boys gathered in his old van to listen to what they’d made in Odessa. The problem was two-fold, he remembered: Only one channel was working on the van’s cassette deck, and the cassette had been over-recorded. What they heard was a hot mess, and none of them suspected the original masters might be of better quality. Bass player Sylvester Rice wound up with the masters, which he tossed into a closet in his Lubbock home. They sat there for almost four decades.
In the meantime, The Flatlanders traveled to Nashville to cut “All American Music.” Before the album was released, the song “Dallas” was released as a single; when it flopped commercially, the label pulled the plug on the record, releasing only a few 8-track versions of it in order to fulfill contractual obligations. The Flatlanders kept at it for another year, but eventually the guys went their separate ways.
“We’re pretty stubborn; it’s hard to affect somebody from West Texas unfavorably,” Hancock said. “We just said, ‘OK, that’s our welcome to the music industry.’ It was just the peculiar big world of Nashville, and it was great fun, but we were kind of unaware that there was a little bit of deception going on.
“I think Jimmie, after 30 years, made something like $800, and he had to pay the lawyer half that much or more. Ultimately, it was funny. We’ve had more than our share of jokes about it, and it’s just been a great story to tell folks.”
Individually, the guys found healthy followings on the folk and Americana circuits, but they stayed in touch with one another, and in 1991, Rounder Records reissued the “All American Music” sessions as the album “More a Legend Than a Band.” When director Robert Redford asked Ely to contribute songs to his film “The Horse Whisperer” in 1998, the three went from occasional appearances as The Flatlanders to a recording band again, releasing “Now Again” in 2002.
“I think the great blessing has just been the fact we became friends first,” Hancock said. “Jimmie and I got to be friends in the seventh grade; Joe was a couple of years behind us, and he and Jimmie got to know each other pretty well after high school when they lived in Austin together, about the time I was living in California. Joe took off to Europe for a while, and we all kind of wandered back into Lubbock at the same time.
“We had tales to tell and songs to trade with each other, and it’s kind of been that way ever since. We go on about our careers, come back from our travels, and one of us will say, ‘I’ve got a line or two for a song here; let’s see what we can do with it.’ And a lot of times we don’t worry about the songs; we just go somewhere and hang out.”
The discovery of “The Odessa Tapes” in Rice’s closet has given the long-time friends another opportunity to do both. This weekend, they’ll perform at “The Shed” in Maryville, and while it’ll be another couple of months before the rest of the world hears the new-old album, Hancock is excited for fans to get a glimpse into a time when just over the far-stretching Texas horizon, hopes and dreams were still within reach of three country boys.
“Back then, we never heard any realistic version of it, and our expectations on hearing about it were just simple curiosity,” he said. “We weren’t even sure what tape it could have been, but we figured out it was the one we did in Odessa, and Lloyd (Maines, a long-time friend and musical collaborator of all three) told us we needed to check it out.
“And it was just a pristine recording. There was no tape hiss or anything; we were just utterly amazed. None of us could believe it at all. We were just blown away and overjoyed to hear something that good. And we’ve been joking a bit about how record executives should just rent houses in Lubbock instead of expensive vaults in New York and Los Angeles to store all of their recordings.”