When grey summer thunderheads rise out of the impossibly flat horizon that encircles Lubbock, Texas, they have a habit of throwing up an advance wall of dust that descends on the town with an auburn haze, briefly creating a haunted, even transcendent aura. And for more than 30 years, the group of Lubbock natives known as The Flatlanders have been stirring up revelatory winds of their own out of deceptively plain materials — the country, folk, blues, and Hispanic sounds that comprise West Texas’ singular musical legacy. From meditations on fickle cities like Dallas, to lonesome prairie tales that give way to spiritual ruminations—not to mention Steve Wesson’s omnipresent saw, warbling like a poor-man’s theramin in a low-budget sci-fi flick—The Flatlanders make the ordinary visible again by recasting familiar themes in an odd light, from a different angle, or with the illuminating force of hard-won worldly wisdom.
While principle members Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmy Dale Gilmore are better known (and certainly more prolific) as solo artists, the collective entity known as The Flatlanders has always had a unique magic and authority about it. Their first album was released in a limited printing, and only on 8-track, in 1972. The album was largely forgotten, while the three songwriters went on to become key figures in what would come to be called progressive country. Rounder Records released a remastered version of that album, now titled More a Legend Than a Band, in 1990, and The Flatlanders were back in the public view. A mere 12 years later, and 30 years after that first release (you can’t rush into these things) the group officially re-formed and released its sophomore effort, 2002’s Now Again. More than just a nostalgia piece, it recaptured the literate ramble and ragged vocal chemistry of the first record, while testifying once again to Texas’ rich, eccentric songwriting tradition.
Two years later The Flatlanders are back, saw and all, with their third record in as many decades, Wheels of Fortune. The songs are humbler this time around, but not of lesser quality. There is no “Dallas” or “Julia,” here; nothing that jumps out and screams “classic” on first listen. But there’s a deeper, slower burn to songs like opening track “Do You Love Me Still,” an anxious soliloquy in which all the metaphysical confidence of Now Again is gone, Butch Hancock’s leathery voice calling into question virtually everything that gives his life stability. “What’s that look in your eyes,” he asks, “What’s that light on the hill? Whatcha starin’ at, baby? Do you love me still?”
I tried to hide the pain, but the pain it would not hide
I tried to tell the truth, but the truth turned around and lied
We were flyin’ high for each other, too high for our own good will
Take me off of this mountain back to my old molehill
Without a doubt the poorest showing yet for The Flatlanders, Wheels of Fortune is probably worthwhile for fans of the band, but it’s not a favorable introduction. Whether the fire of the group’s old chemistry has truly gone out remains to be seen; let’s hope this is a temporary stumble and not a curtain call, and that we have to wait 2 years rather than 30 to find out.