For 50 years, The Flatlanders have reigned as one of the most quintessentially Texas bands in existence. For Texans (and fans of the Lone Star State's rich musical history), the trio, made up of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, represents the state as wells as bluebonnets, barbecue and Larry McMurtry.
Even the origins of the band is the stuff of Lone Star State lore, involving ties to Buddy Holly, whose father paid for Jimmie Dale Gilmore's first demo recordings, and Townes Van Zandt, who was a then-unknown singer-songwriter hitchhiking around the South Plains of Texas (with a backpack full of LPs) when he was picked up by Flatlander Joe Ely.
For the band's latest release, Treasure of Love (out July 9), the trio teamed up with another Texas legend, Lloyd Maines, to create a collection of songs that span five decades of friendship and music.
Wide Open Country caught up with Jimmie Dale Gilmore to talk about Treasure of Love, the magic of Lubbock music, his role as Smokey in The Big Lebowski and how the The Flatlanders have stayed together for 50 years.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did 'Treasure of Love' come about?
These songs were all recorded quite a while ago in sort of like off times on other projects. We didn't go back into the studio to do this record. We had them all there and that was kind of the beauty of it. There were songs that were recorded, through the years, just simply because we liked the songs. It wasn't originally set up as a particular project and that's why there's not really any theme to it or anything... Except for the new ones, a couple of them by Butch and one by Joe -- there are songs that we were doing together --some of them going back to when we were first together back in the '70s -- but we had never recorded.
You formed The Flatlanders 50 years ago. Did you ever dream that you'd still be working with these guys all these years later?
You know, in a way I did. We came together as friends and mutual fans of each other actually. Early on, Joe and I both played professionally much earlier than Butch did. And we were fans of each other -- Joe and I were -- and then when we started doing things together...We didn't decide to have a band. We just liked hanging out with each other and we liked each other's music... It just became the center of a giant circle of friends. We didn't predict this because it wasn't a formula to begin with. It was just friendship, you know? And then the fact that it stayed that way all through these years, through all the different things we've done -- we all had our separate careers and everything -- but at the same time, we all stayed close with mutual support of each other.
Is that what's made this partnership work over the years -- mutual support and friendship?
I really believe that. It also helps that each one of us had something to bring. And as I said, we were fans of each other. Each of us liked what the other two did. We enjoyed, you know, our different styles and then we all learned [those styles] from each other.
There are so many creative people that come from Lubbock. What do you think it is about that part of Texas that inspires so much creativity and such great music?
Terry [Allen] has one theory. I think [it's] the only theory that has held up all these years: He says it's because there's nothing else to do. [Laughs] I don't know. I've been mystified by that myself because still there are young, new musicians coming out of Lubbock. I'm not connected with them anymore. I've gotten kind of out of the nightlife scene in the last few years, but there's something about it that just provides -- it's like a breeding ground or something for the arts. Not just music, but for writers and artists of all kinds.
Also, Austin was there waiting... In Lubbock, we couldn't make a living playing music. It's kind of an ironic thing. So many people came from there, but generally had to leave in order to really pursue it as a career.
One of my favorite songs that you record on the new album is Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' On Raton." Townes plays a pivotal role in The Flatlanders' story...What was your reaction when you first heard the music of Townes Van Zandt?
That was in the period when Joe and I were first beginning to know each other a little bit. We would go hear each other play, but we didn't really know each other well. We were just mutual fans. Joe called me up one day and said 'Hey, I picked up a hitchhiker and he had a record...' You know, the story that he always tells is Townes had a backpack full of LPs and no clothes. He'd come all the way from San Francisco with a backpack full of LPs. And he gave one to Joe. We'd never heard of him. At that time nobody had, except people in Houston and Fort worth.
But Joe called me and said 'I've got this record I want you to listen to.' So we got together and listened to the record and both were just knocked out by it. We already were Bob Dylan fans. And that was something that Butch and Joe and I all had in common already before we started playing together. But Townes -- it's like we got into Townes' music together. It just became the soundtrack to our lives. And then much later we became -- in different circumstances -- we became close friends. Townes and I became real close friends. Joe used to say that [Townes] was the patron saint of The Flatlanders.
For a long time, he was one of our favorite artists and nobody else knew about him. And then his reputation slowly grew, especially down here in south Texas and Colorado. He spent a lot of time in Colorado.
You've said one of the main things that you get recognized for is The Big Lebowski. How did your role in the film come about?
Joel and Ethan [Coen] had made their first movie here in Austin. It's a movie called Blood Simple. I don't know if you've ever seen it. It's really good for a real low budget thing. I found out real recently that my daughter, who was little at the time -- now she has daughters, our granddaughters -- but she was in that movie. She had a little part, just like an extra in Blood Simple. I didn't know that at the time.
I think maybe Frances [McDormand, Oscar-winning actor and wife of Joel Coen] was a fan of mine back then. I don't know this for certain... but I think she was the one that brought Joel and Ethan to hear me sing.
Then through the years as I got record deals and all that they used to come to lots of my shows around the country. If I was in town, they would show up in all kinds of different places -- San Francisco and New York City. Then at one point they talked to me about maybe doing some music for one of their movies, which I would have loved. But they finally gave an official call to my manager and he thought 'Oh boy, Jimmie's going to have some music in a movie.' And they said, no, they want me to play a part in it, which I thought was insane. I told them that too. Not only do I not know how to act, I am aware that I'm camera shy....I always knew when the filming started I became self-conscious. But they said 'We know what we want you to do and we can coach you through it.'
It's turned out to be one of the strangest things -- I don't even think it's an exaggeration -- I think I got more attention for two minutes in a Coen brothers movie, than 45 years of playing the music. And still to this day, it just has grown and grown. I run into people all the time, they say, 'Oh that's my favorite movie. I've watched it 25 times.' [Laughs]
Treasure of Love is available for pre-order here.
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