Right Where They Belong

Going away with the Flatlanders

Right Where They Belong
Photo By Will Van Overbeek


Monday

The green room is yellow. Naturally ... .

Ed Sullivan Theater, W. 53rd & Broadway, NYC. Backstage at 'The Late Show With David Letterman.' 3pm.

And commodious. Like the lavatories aboard Continental's Houston shuttle into LaGuardia. At least those were air-conditioned! Today's hospitality suite is yesteryear's hat check, and tonight, a pastel pound hyperventilating with stupid human tricks. St. Bernard preserve us.

That explains the barbershop quartet from Queens, perspiring in four-part harmony. One uses his straw boater to fan the trickles of sweat constricting his bow tie, while the other three beefeaters tug at their candy stripes and contemplate laying off the bratwurst. Me-me-me-me baritones slightly more bovine.

David Spade's vaudevillian understudy, meanwhile, already bumped from the program, digs through the welcome cookie basket with one hand, and balances a Tupperware container filled with eyeballs bobbing in formaldehyde atop a wheeled suitcase in the other. Like everyone else in the room, his eyes are Super-Glued on the breathtaking blond hooker towering toward the couch.

Central casting's idea of the model next door, it turns out she's no trickster. Try Howard Stern's girlfriend. Beauty and the beast. For The Late Show, her S.A.G. card's dealt her a prostitute, Dave's squeeze, and a random audience member. Scratched from the evening lineup, yet grateful for the freed time and pay, tall, bright, and congenial, wraps a cookie into a napkin for her grandmother. Call the vice squad, they've got Stern on a morals rap.

Tired of staring, Mr. Visine burps the lid of his sealed snack and pops an eyeball into his mouth. Oh. Ping-Pong balls in Listerine. Tilting his head back, he spouts an orange orb three feet into the air, and catches it in his blowhole. Again. Rotate in another ball. Another. Might as well do his schtick while he's here.

Out of his bag, he pulls a miniature bicycle, then a wheelie. The schmoe who lands on the show hours later by (not) blowing pennies into a jar with his nose couldn't sneeze this guy's mouthwash.

Street: Paul Schaffer slips in the side entrance undetected while a line curling around the block watches a union local wearing a moose suit unload an equipment truck. Behind it, the Flatlanders van skids to a stop and its occupants execute a perfect 'Hard Day's Night' dismount. They must be famous. The mob claps. 4:20pm.

Joe Ely tilts toward the mic and projects his stout Texas tenor out into Lenin's tomb.

"Now that I know everything that I know is wrong ... Am I right if I say I didn't know that you knew all along?"

Three acoustic guitars ripple beneath the lyric, warming the dark, sub-Arctic confines of the storied stagespace.

"Put me on the hot seat, put me on the spot. Tell me I'm in trouble, or tell me I'm not ... ."

Biff Henderson scuttles across the stage.

"It feels so good I might be right where I belong."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore, center, and Butch Hancock, stage right, step forward into amplification, and with Ely, boom the campfire chorus of "Right Where I Belong."

"Riiiiight where, riiiiight where I belong!! It feels so good I might be riiiiight where I belong!"

Paul Schaffer, cornered behind his bank of keyboards, cups a harmonica between hand and mouth, and honks. Three hornmen on the riser in back of him respond with tonk. Joe and Butch deflank as Jimmie Dale canters through the second verse, then has it punctuated by his longtime collaborator Robbie Gjersoe's ricochet Fender break. Ely's beat keepers, bassist Gary Herman and drummer Rafael Gayol, break out grins. That's when the song skids to a halt. Schaffer looks up.

Sharon Ely, Joe's wife, and Amy Maner, an Austin filmmaker shooting a documentary on Lubbock, nod their approval down front of the plush auditorium. Back a row, Butch's spouse Adrienne doesn't need the applause sign overhead to prompt her enthusiastic reaction. Their 4-year-old son Rory, headfirst in his seat, entertains himself. An empty theatre responds with tacit indifference.

Forty minutes later, as 400-plus studio guests are Mirandaized about audience do's and don'ts under the hawkish gaze of Mr. Really Big Shoe's chalk caricature in the lobby ("no woo-hooing"), the Flatlanders run through "Right Where I Belong" yet again. Forty minutes to get a four-minute tune to time out at 3:30. Woo-hoo.

'Late Show' #1825, starring A-list all-star Tom Cruise. 5:30pm.

Although the contractor who hoists an NYPD sawhorse onto his chin exposes his profession's unlikely time-killer, he's no match for a Stephenville, Texas, teen who jumps rope though his multijointed arms. Yee-haw!

For his part, Minority Report-er Tom Cruise, unshaven and dressed for a Hollywood funeral -- black blazer, black T-shirt, black jeans, and work boots -- can't stop readjusting his pants throughout the segment, and hops through a few hoops of his own: Letterman's line of questioning on his braces. Commercial cutaways punch up Don Henley on the Late Show orchestra jukebox, first the Eagles' playboy creed "Life in the Fast Lane," then the Lone Star's "Boys of Summer."

The set change for the Flatlanders resembles an Olympic time trial -- gold in four minutes flat. When the on-air light blinks red, the show's gap-toothed host flashes the group's new disc, Now Again, up flies a screen concealing the band, and out stride three troubadours in shining black suits. Though he's already left the building, at that moment Tom Cruise never looked so shabby.

Even from the balcony, the Texas-sized twinkle in Ely's eyes is visible. Point man Jimmie Dale Gilmore, for his part, seems nervous; Butch Hancock gives off a mischievous glow. For three minutes and 30 seconds, then, the stage on which the Beatles made history is the Flatlanders'. Right where they belong.

Sixth floor dressing rooms: Narrow halls and walk-in closet compartments. Half-dressed musicians and happy families. The word "Beatles" peppers the air like crickets in the brush. 7pm.

"We had the Lubbock look!" beams Ely when complimented on the trio's flash attire. "I found that stuff in a Western store in Lubbock."

Actually, there's some question whether it's the suits or the matching, embroidered shirts that came from Buddy Holly's birthplace. The same Panhandle crossroads where Amarillo sons Ely and Gilmore roomed with their boyhood pal from Lubbock, Hancock, and from which they left for Nashville in 1971 to record Gilmore's debut. An album only pressed as a limited run 8-track tape until Rounder released The Flatlanders - "More a Legend Than a Band" in 1990.

"Now, we're more of a band," chuckles Ely. "Touring together these last two years has really made us a band."

Touring precipitated by a song commissioned for The Horse Whisperer soundtrack and performed on Letterman in 1998, "The South Wind of Summer." Asked if it's true the Flatlanders played the first Kerrville Folk Festival in 1970, Ely flashes a boyish affirmative.

"LBJ was at that first one," he says. "The year before he died, I think. He had let his hair grow long. He'd gotten so frustrated with Vietnam while in office that when his term ended, he started relating to the anti-war movement."

During the Flatlanders' initial early-Seventies stint, Kerrville gave way to the Armadillo World Headquarters beer garden. Instant Austin audience. An audience that's helped sustain three individual careers over three decades and a corresponding number of albums.

"Music was always a vehicle for people to get together," adds Gilmore. "It was the same way with us."

Must be why Now Again feels like it was written at a barbecue.

"A couple of those songs," agrees Gilmore, "right after we wrote them, we noticed they were sing-alongs. No matter what the songs, they're always that way."

Butch Hancock, taking it all in, leans over with a dry mutter.

"When I get back to Terlingua, I'm gonna have a bumper sticker printed up that says, 'I'd rather be roofing.'"

Not so fast, Butch.

Lincoln Center Tower Records, in-store performance and signing. 8:05pm.

Elvis Costello is in the house. Or rather he was, having finished shopping not long before the Flatlanders' arrival. Gilmore is reminded of a 1994 split single he halved with Seattle fuzzbombers Mudhoney.

"Except for being in The Big Lebowski, that was the most attention I ever got," asserts the silver-haired warbler.

Minutes before the trio amigos and Robbie Gjersoe take their stools on a platform downstairs, the store's fire alarm sounds. Defcon 4. Seems Rory has just encountered his first emergency exit. None of the 20 or so spectators assembled in front of the stage budges.

Beginning with Ely's loping oldie, "I Had My Hopes Up High," the band segues into the otherworldly opener from Now Again, Utah Phillips' haunted "Going Away" ("a bridge between the old songs and new," says Ely). Like moths to wool, the music draws onlookers, doubling, then tripling the crowd. "Rose From the Mountain," taken from More a Legend Than a Band, clinches the gig 30 minutes later.

Afterward, the three Flatlanders sign CDs, LPs, T-shirts, hats, and guitars until dark. No small percentage of fans are European, including one man hailing from the Netherlands, home of Ely's sometimes flamenco guitarist, Teye. One woman can't stop staring at Gilmore.

"Didn't I see you in a movie?"


Tuesday

MJI Broadcasting, 6th Avenue between 50th & 51st. Triple A radio interview, syndicated. 10am. Two coffees, one water, and wet hair. Three pairs of cowboy boots.

"Should we talk in stereo or mono?" quips Ely, awake, aglow.

The small, soundproofed room deadens the laughter. Padded, barren, mocha-colored interrogation room, with the three Flatlanders lined up in chairs against the back wall. The tribunal is presided over by Steve Reynolds, jolly, judicious, inquisitor.

"Thirty years is a long time between records," opens Reynolds.

"We wrote it over a three-year period," motions Ely.

Jimmie Dale, the tallest, always center stage -- Joe to the left, Butch on the right -- hasn't had his Styrofoam start-up kick in just yet. Butch, eyeing the only other person in the cell, wears a Jack Benny expression that asides, 'We're a long way from Terlingua, Toto ... .'

"We used my home studio as a clubhouse," continues Ely. "Out in the country with no neighbors. That way we could rattle all night."

Passing the baton in stride, n'sync, the musketeers engage each query with camaraderie, wit, existentialism. Panache. Sure, they tried writing together in the past, but hilarity torpedoed productivity. "Pay the Alligator"? A bastardization of the misheard "Play the Radiator." Tough business, that -- writing serious silliness.

Right Where They Belong
Photo By Will Van Overbeek

  • On said same subject:

    "No one really knows how to write a song," exclaims Hancock. "I think Townes Van Zandt had it right: 'You just have to be sitting in the right chair.'"

    "I can lock myself in a room for weeks at a time," acknowledges Ely, "but you really just have to go out and live."

    "Butch ruined my writing career, because I spent so much time learning his songs," laughs Gilmore.

    "You accumulate pieces until it turns into a song," wisens Butch. "Like barnacles collecting on the bottom of a boat."

  • On how that fits with Nashville's sweatshop tunesmiths:

    "It doesn't fit at all," states Ely. "We don't think in terms of Austin, Nashville, New York. In terms of getting together at 10am over coffee, done [writing] by noon, and [having the song] recorded by nightfall. We thought that was illegal, immoral."

  • On that Nashville-produced first LP:

    "It made the 8-track hall of fame," winks Hancock.

  • On tour, currently:

    "Are we having flaming camels on this tour?" asks Hancock swiveling toward his bandmates.

    "Truckloads of buzzards," corrects Gilmore.

    "Sphinxes," pipes Ely.

    "A couple of pyramids," smiles Hancock.

    Lubbock, UFOs, the wind's dominion up in the flatlands. Three school chums racing behind DDT trucks on their bikes. The usual suspects are ID. Toward the end of the 40-minute session, Ely reveals that there exists a newly discovered alternate version of More a Legend, cut before the Flatlanders' trip to Nashville, mixed and mastered one afternoon 30 years ago in Odessa.

    On that grenade, the musicians are mazed back to the lobby, where they're immediately confronted by their publicist, Mark Pucci, commander-in-chief of operation Storming NYC. Now Again sponsor New West has just turned its indie PR investment.

    "Guys, I have great news," glows Pucci. "Guess who called?"

    Athos turns to Porthos, who shrugs at Aramis, bewildered.

    "Uhhh ...," ventures Ely finally, "the President?"

    "Elvis!" parries Hancock.

    "Imus!" announces Pucci.

    Three scratching heads note the realization spreading across Ely's face. He shakes his head, a bemused smirk on his lips. So much for being "cussed out" by the MSNBC TV personality and syndicated radio mega-host.

    "I called up Kinky [Friedman]," explains Ely, "and Kinky says, 'You don't understand. When he does that, it means he likes you. It's his way of inviting you on the show.'"

    But the Web thing this afternoon, and the concert tonight. Tomorrow, Austin by afternoon.

    "He's got a huge audience," enthuses Pucci.

    "Nobody we know, of course," snorts Ely.

    Butch winces.

    "When, what time?" he asks.

    "Tomorrow, 8am," marks Pucci.

    'The A-List,' performance and Q&A for Internet Web site Get Music, hosted by music scribe emeritus Anthony DeCurtis. Lunch and a visit to the offices of New West's distributor are hot off the band's itinerary. 1pm.

    The green room is white, naturally, though the trim on the doorway conforms to color code. Cold caffeine, warm hosts, and cramped quarters. Someone mentions orange Ping-Pong balls.

    "Turk Pipkin can do that," retorts Ely upon explanation.

    Stupid Human Tricks Part II.

    "Remember on Letterman, the monkey washing the cat?" chuckles Butch, uncasing a harmonica.

    Jimmie pulls down his sunglasses and nestles into the armchair by the door. There is nothing weary about his burnished croon once he and the others acoustic their way through "Julia," "I Thought the Wreck Was Over," and "My Wildest Dreams Grow Wilder Every Day" in a makeshift studio across the hall. Between performance and interview, Ely hops on the Internet via a computer in the hospitality airlock.

    "Look, we're already listed on the Imus page," he marvels.

    "Really?" furrows Butch, moving toward the electronic portal.

    DeCurtis' 20-minute survey is smart, insightful. At one point, he characterizes More a Legend as a roots music talisman, to which Hancock lays the blame squarely on onetime Lubbock crony Michael Ventura, who coined the phrase "legendary Flatlanders" in the mid-Seventies. (See Ventura's "Letters at 3am" column, p.54.) Only when the proceedings wrap, at almost 3pm -- two hours before soundcheck -- does Gilmore discover that he wore his shades through the entire shoot.

    "You look like Howard Stern," snickers Hancock.

    Irving Plaza, 10pm. Eight hundred-plus New Yorkers in search of a Lone Star state of mind have packed this revered venue on the outskirts of Greenwich Village.

    B-l-o-w-o-u-t. Beginning with "Hopes Up High," through the two-step reverie "My Wildest Dreams Grow Wilder Every Day," and unleashed with the inclement audience response to "South Wind of Summer." Call to arms "Right Where I Belong" kills, before Hancock's yodeling standard, "West Texas Waltz," electrifies the timber hall like the heart of Saturday night. "Pay the Alligator" rips into Terry Allen's "Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy," holy hitchhiking Panhandle anthem.

    "Gimme a ride to heaven, boy, I'll show you paradise," chorus the king's guard into the center mic. "Gimme a ride to heaven, boy, my name is Jesus Christ."

    Set ender "Dallas," plus encores "If I Were a Bluebird" and Townes Van Zandt's stampeding "White Freight Liner Blues" bring down the house and up go the house lights.

    Jesus Christ. Imus in T-minus five hours and counting.


    Wednesday

    Milford Plaza hotel lobby, 6:45am. No coffee, no water, no Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Wet hair and drizzle. Two pairs of cowboy boots.

    The only thing remotely musical about pre-dawn in a hotel lobby near Times Square is the sound of an alarm clock hitting the wall opposite your bed 45 minutes earlier.

    A black limo stretching the length of two or three city blocks pulls alongside the curb in front of the Milford's revolving door. Butch, Adrienne, and Rory trade goodbyes, as Joe, Robbie Gjersoe, and road crew Tommy Mack wrangle instruments and equipment anywhere they'll squeeze into the luxury vehicle.

    When JDG materializes, seven comatose tourists approximate a game of Twister in the broom closet back of the car. Rory, buoyed by Adrienne, pokes his head in through the window just prior to lift-off.

    "Remember," chirps the child, "ya gotta 'Pay the Alligator.'"

    "That's what we're doing right now," groans Gilmore.

    Across the 59th Street Bridge. Feeling groggy. Sunk into the deep leather rumble seats in the rear of Pucci's hired transport, Joe and Butch command the presence of Family men, Dons. Ely, the Capo, always with a plan -- always the first to execute it -- left, in the power seat. Hancock, watchful, robust, square-jawed enforcer, on the right. Each surveying the graffitied gloom from opposite vantages as our carrier glides into Queens.

    "They film The Sopranos out here," points out Pucci.

    "This is what Austin's gonna look like at the rate it's going," grumbles Ely.

    "Just to remind you guys," reminds Pucci, "Imus won't be there. He's in New Mexico. He already played 'Wavin' My Heart Goodbye' all the way through earlier this morning."

    A global communications satellite might be helpful in locating the studio. After some confusion, the driver homes in on a nondescript concrete bunker. Deplaning, everyone is handed a nylon "Visitor" pass.

    Down From the Mountain
    Down From the Mountain (Photo By John Carrico)

    "Here, Joe," offers Butch, peeling his press-on. "Put this on your forehead. We're all just 'visitors' on this planet."

    Soon, our troupe is guided through the bowels of the Lifetime Network, arriving at the WFAN Sports Radio 66AM inner lobby. Pucci, Gjersoe, and Mack are taken to the pick-me-up dispenser, while Joe and Butch strap on their acoustic guitars and strum up. It's the first nice sound of the (7:35)am.

    "I guess we should decide what to play," coughs Gilmore.

    "How 'bout 'Wildest Dreams,' 'Wreck,' and 'Julia,'" suggests Ely.

    Led through the station's shoebox news department, lumpy writers absorbed in CNN, wire script, baked goods, Gjersoe and the Flatlanders are deposited into the war room. Tucking the quartet in a half-circle around the all-consuming console, facing Imus straight man Charles McChord and a sound engineer, the glad-handlers get a thumbs up from the other side of the Plexiglas. Imus, cowboy hat and tumbleweed eyebrows, glowers down from a large screen monitor in one corner of the room. Cameras overhead are tape-delayed.

    "Are they all there," asks Imus off-air, 8am approaching.

    "All three, and Robbie Gjersoe," affirms McChord.

    "Robbie Jerso!?" cries Imus.

    "Robbie Gjersoe," pronounces McChord.

    "Robbie Gerso!?" incomprehends Imus.

    "Robbie Gjersoe," stresses McChord patiently, spelling it.

    "Jesus Christ!" gruffs Imus. "How can you spell a name like that?"

    And with that, suddenly, introductions are going out live over the airwaves. Imus is familiar with Ely, less so with his partners.

    "Where's Delbert [McClinton]?" barks Imus.

    "We've got the Flatlanders here ..." intones McChord.

    Good thing, too, since Imus requests "Wildest Dreams," which may not have been Ely's best first choice, anyway; as the least hearty Flatlander, Gilmore also possesses the most fragile musical gift, his golden throat, easy prey to road-induced fatigue. With JDG's lead vocal more than a mite froggy, Ely watches him like the Hubble Telescope, and at precisely the right moment, adds the perfect, sustaining harmony. Butch makes three. The song slays.

    "Something weird about this freaking little space," ponders McChord aloud at the break. "Music always sounds great in here."

    Imus wants "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye" next. Ely explains to McChord that their proposed set list is designed to feature a different Flatlander singing lead. "I Thought the Wreck Was Over," sung by Ely, then, gets a stomping national debut. Imus is stoked.

    "How did Letterman like you guys!?" he roars. "Did he come over and shake hands with you?"

    Affirmatives all around.

    "Good sign, 'cause he's a cranky bastard!"

    During another commercial spot, Imus orders up "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye."

    "No," sighs Charles. "Remember the different leads?"

    Silence.

    "All right," sniffs Imus.

    "Letterman thinks Tim McGraw is country," shouts Imus at commuters everywhere. "Or worse, the anti-Hank, that fat little Garth Brooks!

    "You guys know Sammy Allred?" pauses Imus. "He was on the show once and was great. But the next time we had him on, we come to find out that was all the material he had. He's a friend of Kinky's."

    So's Butch, whose "Julia" sashays like former Gov. Ann Richards on the Town Lake Trail.

    "Time for one more," trumpets Imus. "Can we do 'Wavin' My Heart Goodbye' now?"

    And how. Bonus song, beautiful take.

    "I love Jimmie Dale Gilmore," gushes Imus afterward. "I may be 30 years too late, but Jesus Christ, that's great shit, Charles."

    A thought echoed, more or less, in the limo 30 minutes later as team Austin heads into Manhattan and then off to various airports.

    "Pretty good media blitz," says Tommy Mack, shaking his head.

    "If we live through it," rasps Ely. "As Butch says, 'I feel like I've been eaten by a buzzard and shit over a cliff.'"


    Thursday

    La Zona Rosa, 612 West Fourth St., ATX. Home Sweet Home.

    S-L-A-C-K. Beginning with "Hopes Up High," through the beatific "Going Away," and uncorked on the intro to two-step reverie "My Wildest Dreams Grow Wilder Every Day."

    "Butch dreams about writing songs," relates Gilmore to a room full-up on cold, Lone Star state of mind. "But I'm singing 'em. So I think they're my songs."

    "We still haven't worked out the copyright," rumbles Butch.

    In midsong, Jimmie Dale forgets a word, and for a moment, there's chaos. Rather than collapsing, however, like the rest of the performance, the tune's relaxed pace settles into that certain in-the-pocket Austin magic. Never mind the fireworks, firelight works fine.

    "I forgot a word!" claps Gilmore.

    "What word was it Jimmie?" wonders Ely.

    "It was 'dream,'" wrys Butch.

    Gruene Hall, Gruene, Texas. One week later. Dusk. Flatlanders fanatics crowd the main square out front of the sold-out honky-tonk.

    Out back of the old, armory-like structure, Jimmie Dale Gilmore stares with pride through the chicken wire at his 27-year-old son Colin Gilmore warming up tonight's throng. A chip off the ol' vocal cord, this young singer-songwriter-bandleader.

    "He's the age we were when the Flatlanders got started," reminisces Dad, who looks somewhat rested.

    Road manager Jimy Gunn informs us that Butch and Joe are waiting in the mini-trailer 'cross the way. Pucci has sent warning that their tanks are almost empty.

    Ely

    We knew it'd be like this. But we wanted to do it, because we like the record, and we want people to hear it. It's just after New York, we got into this thing where we'd play till 3am, then get up at 5am and do a radio show.

    Gilmore

    We're just behind on sleep.

    Ely

    We got back to Austin, and it was the same thing: play La Zona until 2am, get up and do the KUT show.

    Gilmore

    We knew that if we put out a record, we were gonna be serious about it. We're complaining about being tired, but this is fun. This is our profession, and this is some of the most fun we've ever had.

    Right Where They Belong

    Ely

    When Rounder licensed the old album and called it 'More a Legend Than a Band,' I think that sunk into our subconscious and we thought, "One of these days we'll have a band." Now it's a band. Really a band. And it gets tighter every night. Remember, we're at the very beginning of the tour. The New York show, we hadn't played in six months. We did a little warm-up thing out on Long Island Saturday before Letter--

    Gilmore

    And South by Southwest!

    Ely

    It's only been since last August or September that we really came together as a band. That's when we went in and re-recorded a lot of the songs on 'Now Again.' We had the harmonies better then. If we can get back to how we were at the end of last summer ... . Man, we were smoking. By September or October we'll be hot.

    Screenwriter

    By then, it'll be time to release that alternate version of your first album.

    Ely

    We don't know what to do with it. We're taking all suggestions. We think of that record as something that was stolen from us, because we never saw one penny of royalties. I know it's sold a lot of copies. I don't know really how to compare it in terms of which one is better, but I actually like this old record better.

    Gilmore

    As a snapshot of the time, it's more accurate.

    Ely

    And it's much more laid-back. You can tell in Nashville we were trying, and this one we weren't.

    Hancock

    If we'd heard that Odessa tape like we've been hearing it lately, I think we would have said, "Let's release the other one."

    Ely

    The Odessa tape, you can tell it's five guys sitting around playing without any consideration for there being a microphone in the room. It's just like we were sitting in our living room on 14th Street in Lubbock.

    Screenwriter

    Same three guys?

    Ely

    There's a world of difference, but there's none at the same time.

    Hancock

    It's definitely a continuum.

    Ely

    We've all been around the world several times since then.

    Hancock

    And around the block. We had 30 years to polish our crafts.

    Ely

    Thirty years of stories.

    Gilmore

    It all blends together for me. I've lost my sense of time.

    Ely

    I don't have any sense of time. The way we related to each other back then is exactly the way we relate to each other now.

    Gilmore

    It's exactly the same.

    Ely

    When we first met, we realized there was some kind of trinity there between us, and we just became immediate friends.

    That evening, on the eve of a three-month tour, the Flatlanders slip Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" into the set. Strapping oneself to a tree with roots seems like a good idea right about then.


    TGIF

    'Austin City Limits' #2803, starring the Flatlanders. Day 5, 8pm

    "When this show started in 1975," declares ACL producer Terry Lickona to the buzzing, SRO assembly, "this was the type of music that got it rolling."

    A casual gait out from the wings, Jimmie, Joe, and Butch lead the band onstage, the three having donned matching black western shirts and black jeans. Clean shaven and scrubbed, they've got their "Hopes Up High," Ely in good spirits, Gilmore in good voice, and Butch giving his arched eyebrow a good workout. "Down in the Light of the Melon Moon," "Now It's Now Again," "You Make It Look Easy," it's Now Again every night.

    "Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy," "Dallas," "South Wind of Summer," and another tribute to patron saint Townes Van Zandt. For 60 minutes, then, the stage on which TVZ, SRV, and Doug Sahm were preserved for history, is the Flatlanders'. Right where they belong.

    'Larry King Live,' with guest Don Imus. One week later.

    "I know you're hot -- and we just got the CD -- on this Flatlanders album called Now Again," pitches King. "What's so special about them?"

    "This is the best album I've heard in 25 years," boasts Imus. "It's the best album I've heard since Paul Simon's Graceland ... I'm almost ready to fly around the country like the old days and give disc jockeys money to play the record ...

    "[In fact], the first country station in any Top 10 market -- L.A., Cleveland, Chicago, New York -- the first country station that reports to Radio & Records or Billboard that they have any single from the Flatlanders album in their Top 10, I'll donate $10,000 to that radio station's favorite charity -- their program director's favorite charity, whatever."

    The University of Texas' Frank Erwin Center, 'Down From the Mountain Tour.' Last Friday.

    The shining black suits are back.

    "Nice tailor!" yells a man from the floor.

    On the naked stage, stripped of everything save for five or six microphones and MC Rodney Crowell's podium/armchair combo, the Flatlanders and their six-string Sancho Panza, Robbie Gjersoe, ascend the stage one more time.

    Without the arena's full-blown PA amping ear-shredding electric guitar, bass, and drums, the Flatlanders and the rest of the star-studded mountain music hootenanny all sound like they could debuting at the first ever Kerrville Folk Festival.

    "Right Where I Belong" misses the modest turnout of several thousand hollering the chorus. "I Thought the Wreck Was Over," on the other hand, brings down the usual hoots and woo-hoos! "South Wind of Summer," their third and final number, wafts out into the surprisingly acoustic-friendly drum, and returns the best reaction.

    Unlike Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, both of whom guest with a number of acts, the Flatlanders don't reappear until evening's end, when bluegrass emperor Ralph Stanley gathers his children onstage for "Amazing Grace." Tomorrow, they'll be long gone.

    Roll around ... roll around,

    roll around 'n' sing forever.

    Spread your wings ... spread your wings,

    spread your wings 'n' fly tomorrow.

    So goes another Butch Hancock lyric, and whether your favorite of his Rainlight delights is "Boxcars," as is Joe Ely's, or perhaps "Just a Wave," Jimmie Dale Gilmore's personal choice, even "Roll Away" from 1997's stirring You Coulda Walked Around the World (produced by Ely), one thing is certain. The Flatlanders are right where they belong. Everywhere. end story

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