Alt-country band the 'Flatlanders' was born in 1971, when three high school pals from Lubbock, Texas – Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock – casually crafted a pile of hippie honky-tonk songs before drifting away to peripatetic lives as spiritual seekers and successful solo artists. The group disbanded almost as soon as it was named, so the discovery five years ago of lost recordings from January 1972 – recently released as 'The Odessa Tapes' – offers a rare look at a group that's been called "more legend than band."
On the three-track tape, found in a producer's closet, was a crisp snapshot of early-Seventies West Texas, when an assortment of local bohemians lived in an $85-a-month rental house and spent their days reading poetry, studying Eastern mysticism, and swapping country, rock, and folk songs they'd soaked up in their travels through the Sixties' counterculture. They refined their fathers' vintage Hank Williams sound into a spare, subtly off-kilter twang, with bright guitars, dobro, and autoharp backing mystical lyrics about "consciousness and holy vision."
The songs were grounded in Gilmore's high, mournful voice and leavened by the lonesome campfire harmonies of Ely and Hancock. There's a singing saw warbling in the background like a homemade psychedelic effect. "There was an innocence about it," Ely says. "Almost like there's not a care in the world."
Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock became musical soul mates in 1968, after Ely picked up a hitchhiker, Townes Van Zandt, who was carrying a guitar and a backpack of LPs. Van Zandt gave Ely a record and changed the three friends' lives with his haunted country folk. By the time they reunited in 1971, Hancock and Gilmore were steeped in Buddhism and inspired by the beat poets. With Ely, they took trips to New Mexico, investigating Native American peyote rites and Sufi dancing. "We were interested in literature and the spiritual realm," says Ely. "A lot of those themes showed up in the songs."
But the band scrapped 'The Odessa Tapes' without even listening to them. Instead, they went to Nashville to record a more commercial album. Radio rejected the single "Dallas" as insufficiently pure. However, they did play a fateful show in Lubbock, witnessed by a short-haired songwriter named Willie Nelson. "He really liked us," says Gilmore.
Outlaw country came soon after, but the Flatlanders went their separate ways, reuniting in the late Eighties for a successful musical afterlife guided by the pure spirit of the peculiar place and time heard on 'The Odessa Tapes': West Texas, 1972.