“I even made a radio spot and put it on the Tucson radio, trying to get my bicycle back… but I never did,” Joe Ely said. “Maybe somebody’ll read this and find it.”
The Zoom call had just started recording—Ely was finishing up a story about when a bike that had been given to him by Buddy Holly’s wife was stolen outside a Flatlanders show at Club Congress in Tucson, Arizona. He had chained it to a street sign overnight, but in the morning he awoke to discover that someone had lifted the sign itself out of the concrete, slipped the chain off and took the bike. On the Zoom, Ely’s bandmates from the Flatlanders—Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore—sat patiently, listening to the story that they’ve surely known for years. Nonetheless, after Ely finished, Hancock hopped in: “Well, they oughta give you the sign at least.”
For the legendary trio of Texas troubadours, the story about Ely’s bicycle is just one of countless that are swirling around their colorful, four-decade history. Founded in the early ‘70s in Lubbock, Texas—in part because of a miraculous encounter with Townes Van Zandt—the initial run of The Flatlanders didn’t last too long. But once Ely, Hancock and Gilmore started making names for themselves in their own rights, the legacy of the trio started to reach legendary proportions.
Through it all, they were undeterred by temptations of fortune or fame—instead, what kept them pushing forward was their friendship and their love of songs. Over the years, they made records and played shows whenever they could, building up a catalog of standards, go-tos and treasured tunes. Now, on July 9, The Flatlanders are releasing Treasure Of Love, a record featuring some of their most cherished songs from throughout their long run.
With covers of everyone from Townes Van Zandt to George Jones to Bob Dylan and more—as well as a few new tunes—this record itself has been yet another story. Originally recorded a decade ago, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic hit that the trio started shaping it into an album proper. In the end, the final result is a beautiful encapsulation of the power, majesty and emotional brilliance endowing these well-traveled songs.
Hopping on a Zoom call, Ely, Hancock and Gilmore recounted the story of making Treasure Of Love and reflected on their storied careers. Having been at the forefront of the ‘70s Texas music scene that laid such an important foundation for today’s Americana and country scenes, the insights from the three songwriters were profoundly fascinating, historically and creatively. Likewise, their friendship and commitment to their shared passion became palpably evident, revealing something beautiful about the culture they helped forge. Read the conversation below:
American Songwriter: When y’all started working on the songs for Treasure Of Love, you weren’t really working on a record, so much as you were recording the songs just for the sake of recording them. What were those sessions like? How did this record come to be?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: We did the basic recording—the rhythm tracks, the vocals, probably one lead instrument—around 10 years ago when we were recording other projects. We were just in the studio and everything was already set up. Someone would say something like “Hey, do y’all remember when we used to do that Leon Russel song?” We’d all be like “Oh yeah!” Some of these songs we’ve been playing for 30 or 40 years now—they’ve stayed part of our constant repertoire, but we’ve never recorded them. Joe was doing all the engineering, so he’d be the one to say “Well, let’s just put it down while we’re all here.” The selection process was simply playing the songs that stood the test of time through all the different versions of the band and everything.
Then, when COVID came, Joe had all of those recordings out at his studio. He said “Hey, what would y’all think about getting these fixed up and putting them out?” He played them for us long-distance and we said “Okay, let’s do something.” At that point, COVID was hitting and Joe had them all, so he said “I’m just gonna go into this.” He and Sharon [Ely, his wife] started going into them all and fine-editing them. Then, Joe contacted Lloyd Maines, who loved the songs, so he started to go to work on them too.
So, the whole process was kind of a fluke all the way around—it was never planned. It’s just songs we’ve always loved, except for a couple new ones that we hadn’t done before.
AS: After so many years, what was it like to document these songs in this way?
JDG: They’re still just the songs that we love, you know? We’ve always done them and we’ve always enjoyed doing them. One of us might remember, like, “Hey Butch, remember when we used to do that Mickey Newbury song?” Butch was the first person who showed me Mickey Newbury back in the early ‘70s, and he became one of my favorites. So, all of us have turned each other on to different artists and different songs over the years, and this record really reflects that—it’s the funny, cross-pollination that we’ve all been for each other.
AS: What was the process like once Ely and Maines started fleshing out the tracks? How did they evolve in that time?
Joe Ely: Lloyd added an extra-sparkle and some production quality, but in the background—you didn’t really hear it as “produced,” you heard it as just a really nice track, you know? That passed on between all the songs and it started to become obvious which ones to continue to work on, which ones fit the groove that we had set up for ourselves.
AS: One highlight in particular on this album is “Snowin’ On Raton,” which was originally written and recorded by Townes Van Zandt. His story and y’all’s story intertwined at an early age—what can you tell us about the influence Van Zandt has had on y’all?
Butch Hancock: I’ve been doing “Snowin’ On Raton” in my mind since the first time I ever heard it. Then, I finally got to hear Townes do it in-person, way back when, and then it just kinda osmosed into my life, just like it became part of Jimmy’s and Joe’s lives too. We had all seen Raton in New Mexico, so it was just a beautiful picture of the deep, deep old feelings we had from traveling over those mountains.
I’ve been hosting a Townes tribute show on his birthday in Austin at the Cactus Cafe just about every year since he died. That’s been an amazing experience—I’ve gotten to watch seasoned musicians come in and play Townes songs that they were affected by when they came out, but I’ve also gotten to see new kids and younger generations coming in, loving Townes’ songs as much as we did. So, that’s part of what we’re influenced by too—we’re inspired by what we hear and what we do. Sometimes, the influence goes from one source into other people. So, it’s strange mixing a bowl of influences and then re-expressing it.
JDG: Townes was a big inspiration for us, not only musically. Early on, Butch and I were playing together because we had already been friends for years. Joe was a little bit younger than us, but we were becoming friends with him and all going to each other’s shows. One day, Joe called me up and said “I just picked up this hitchhiker and he had a backpack without any clothes in it—it was just full of his records.” It was Townes—who we had never heard of at that point—coming from San Francisco with his new record. Joe listened to it and said it was really good, so we met up to all listen to it together. And, of course, we loved it. That’s really when Joe and I started hanging out together all the time. Later on, Joe called Townes the “Patron Saint of The Flatlanders,” because that moment is really what started our association. It was an odd fluke. Many years later, we became good friends with Townes, but we started playing his songs at the very beginning. “Snowin’ On Raton” was one that Butch did that we’ve done on most of the live shows we’ve ever played.
JE: I was especially dumbfounded when Townes recorded one of my songs. When I was traveling with the circus, I wrote a song about an Indian cowboy and I guess Guy Clark had discovered it first—we had gotten together one night and played near every song we knew until he said “Wait, I’ve got one more song” and it was that one. Things like that kinda throw you off because they’re so unexpected, but it’s highly complimentary.
AS: The scene y’all came from—alongside writers like Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and more—was pivotal in paving the way to today’s Americana scene. What does it mean to y’all to see how much influence the Texas songwriting tradition (and sound) has had?
BH: I remember one time a friend of ours, Michael Ventura, was visiting from Brooklyn. He was hitchhiking around the country and came through Lubbock and hooked up with us. He’s a great writer and he hung out with us for a few weeks. We became really great friends and we were reading some of the same books he had, the same philosophy kind of stuff, and we got him to start listening to the same music as us. Eventually, he said “You know? Texas… you guys got a culture here!” I thought that was hysterical. It’s like, “Well, yeah!” Back in the Northeast, they usually look at Texas as anything but culture. So yeah, we were born into the funny little pod of Texas culture that kinda noticed itself.
JDG: Butch, Joe and I were really interested in all kinds of music. Growing up, we all loved hillbilly music and rock’n’roll. The golden age of radio came through Lubbock, which is how we knew most of what we knew—except for some friends with esoteric records. I had one friend from New York who had Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Dave Van Ronk records. We also got into older stuff, like the Carter Family. But, for the most part the radio is all we had. Butch had just learend to play banjo and we were big bluegrass fans, but Joe played rock’n’roll, going the kinda “Buddy Holly” route. In the end, the three of us came together because it’s all we had, but you really couldn’t stereotype what we do.
Maybe the one thing we all definitely are is blues fans. We love the blues, perhaps most of all. We’re also huge Bob Dylan fans. I recently read an old interview with Townes where he said that he was inspired by Bob Dylan, which I thought was interesting. I had never heard Townes say that. We never talked about any of that when he was still alive, but it makes sense. Bob Dylan opened up doors all over the place, including for the three of us—we were all already Dylan fans when we started playing music together. So, I guess everything came together by accident, from our different personalities and backgrounds melding together through our friendship. To this day, we still learn about things and new songs and new books or whatever from each other.
JE: I’ve actually got a question for Butch: how do you support being “on a roll” with writing songs? Does that come from anywhere in particular? Is it triggered by natural events? Personal events? Political events?
BH: I think the answer would have to be “Yes.” I don’t know, Joe—we’ve talked about this kind of thing before. I’ve said that I don’t think anybody really knows how they write a song. They can describe all the processes they may go through, but where something comes from… man, if we knew that, we’d always go to it. But instead, it’s the universe—it’s the life we live, it’s in front of our faces and behind our backs. It’s everywhere, every direction. You gotta keep the eyes on the back of your head wide open because you never know when you’re gonna have to duck to get out of the way of a bad song!
I love what Townes said—he told us that it’s kinda like, you have to be sitting in the right chair or you have to know that the song’s already there. Joe described it beautifully too, talking about how when we get together and write sometimes, it’s like someone found an old box up in the attic. You brush off the dust and uncover a little treasure in there, you know? Sometimes you go into it blind, sometimes you go in with an open mind and heart, hoping that something waltzes through.
But I don’t know. I think allowing it to be what it’s gonna be is the best support I can give. I don’t want to give support to something when it’s not there. It’s really a living mystery that just keeps working. That’s one thing that keeps our attention and keeps our hopes up high.
AS: After the 10-year journey it’s gone on—and the decades of playing the songs themselves—how does it feel to finally be releasing Treasure Of Love?
JDG: I love it. I love this record, especially after Lloyd put all of the sparkle on it. It feels like a strange fluke of the universe that it even exists. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t know if it would’ve happened at all. It’s just strange. Serendipity, for sure.
The Flatlanders’ new album Treasure Of Love is out now—watch the music video for “Sittin’ On Top of the World” below: