The Flatlanders, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely, were always (and remain) three separate Texas singers and songwriters who just happened to fit in well together. Beginning as roommates in Lubbock in 1970, the three just started doing gigs together as a casual thing, eventually enlisting Tommy Hancock (no relation to Butch) on fiddle, Tony Pearson on mandolin, Sylvester Rice on upright bass, and Steve Wesson on musical saw and autoharp to fill things out. The three did original songs, usually with Gilmore singing lead and Hancock and Ely filling in with background vocals, developing an odd (mostly due to Wesson's eerie saw playing), lonely, and windswept take on traditional country music.
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.
Every alt-country fan knows the story of the Flatlanders. The band of Texans made a record at Shelby Singeleton’s Plantation Records in Nashville back in 1972 called All American Music. It was only released on 8-track tape and soon faded into obscurity. As three of the central group members (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock) became known as talented solo musicians, interest in the old recordings grew.
The Flatlanders are the most magical of bands: little-known and elusive, they possess the ghostly sound of the lonesome (and archetypal) American West, that desolate buzz of shortwave radio and broken pay phones and neon motel signs. You feel like you’ve heard them once in a dream, inside the the perfect truck stop diner that you can never, in reality, seem to find, sitting in a dimly lit vinyl booth, waiting for that last piece of pie when from a tinny Wurlitzer speaker in the corner it crackles: the strains of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s reedy, gentle voice. You think you can make it out, a soundtrack fit for this particular American fantasy.
More a shelved Jimmie Dale Gilmore album than a long lost Flatlanders' 8-track, The Odessa Tapes reiterates the fact that the all-star West Texan troupe originally formed as a backing band for the golden warbler from Amarillo. Remember that in 1990, when Rounder Records floated More a Legend Than a Band, they had recovered mostly forgotten Nashville sessions from 1972 meant to hock Gilmore as a country singer. While Lubbock compatriots Joe Ely and Butch Hancock lent harmonies, with the exception of the former's co-lead vocals on two tracks, one would never know it from the final product, and The Odessa Tapes unspools no differently.