The Flatlanders: The Odessa Tapes

The Flatlanders
The Odessa Tapes
(New West Records)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Flatlanders’ reputation – mythos may be the better word – developed as much because of the scarcity of their material as their prescient attempt to infuse Texas roots and acoustic instrumentation into the otherwise-slick country music of the early 1970s. Their 1972 Nashville-recorded album was barely released by an uninterested record company, and they broke up not long afterward. When its material was re-released by Rounder Records in 1990, the CD was titled More a Legend Than a Band. That’s what the long-lost Flatlanders had become.

My, how that has now changed. The solo success that the three core Flatlanders – Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock – were starting to have in the 1980s, and that prompted the Rounder release, continued in the 1990s. As Americana developed with Austin as its center, they became celebrated heroes and that eventually prompted a serious, ongoing band reunion. There’s now a cornucopia of Flatlanders material available – new recordings and archival releases.

And the new The Odessa Tapes is one more – an important one. It’s a recently discovered and newly restored recording of 14 songs the Flatlanders had cut at a studio in Odessa, Texas, in January 1972. It was near – by Texas standards – their home in Lubbock. That two months before they went to Nashville, making this their earliest known recordings.

Originally made on a three-track tape recorder, and then kept in storage until The Flatlanders learned about it, the tape was taken to Capitol Mastering in Hollywood. There are still some minor technical imperfections, understandable given the source material’s age, but overall the songs sound startlingly fresh and new. In fact, the sound, singing and arrangements are livelier, more direct and more passionate than the Nashville versions of the same songs.

That Nashville album, originally titled All American Music, was released only on eight-track tape, and barely distributed at that. It had been made for Shelby Singleton’s Plantation Records, which – according to music historian Colin Escott – tried to push Gilmore’s “Dallas” as a hit and then abandoned the group when it wasn’t. The label was right about “Dallas” if wrong about The Flatlanders – the line “Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye” is still one of the most breathtakingly, chillingly imagist ones in country.

It helps on The Odessa Tapes that some of the goofiness of the Nashville session, particularly from Steve Wesson’s musical saw, is toned way down here. And the varied acoustic stringed instruments, as well as harmony vocals, are more intensely committed and self-assured. But also, Gilmore’s lead singing seems more forcefully upfront and confident yet still is full of the sweet, lonesome gentleness that is his trademark.

“Dallas” and “Tonight I Think I’m Going Downtown” are much stronger on The Odessa Tapes than the Nashville versions – the first has especially vigorous harmonica from Hancock. There also are four previously unreleased songs – two plaintively introspective, delicately sung ballads by Gilmore (“Number Sixteen,” “Story of You”) and two of Hancock’s finely crafted, folk-oriented compositions, “Shadow of the Moon,” and “I Think Too Much of You.”

The Odessa Tapes
shows this was from the start a talented band, one with a clear vision of itself, that was going to Nashville with pride in its performing abilities and material. It makes what subsequently happened there all the more tragic, but makes what has happened since all the more deserved. At this point they’re more than a legend, they’re an institution.

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Love The Flatlanders? Look for our feature in the Sept/Oct Issue, starring Levon Helm, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers, Cat Power and more. Pre-order here.