The name "Flatlanders" isn't all that appropriate any more. All three of the principals in the Lubbock-born group have spent many of the last 30 years in the bumpy terrain of Central Texas; and even though Butch Hancock has moved back out west, he frequents places like Big Bend, where the ground is broken by ragged, river-cut canyons.
But the name remains, and the sleeve of their new record even echoes the picture on Rounder's edition of their previous one, which was cut back in 1972: one blue sky, one perfectly horizontal horizon, in pretty much the same proportions. Where the original landscape contained the musicians, though, the photo on the new record is populated only by a rainbow, a bolt of lightning, and a piece of battered farm equipment.
It would be easy to concoct some symbolism out of those three components, for in the years since these three men were in a band together, each has established an artistic identity of his own. Jimmie Dale Gilmore is the kooky metaphysicist; Hancock the front-porch philosopher with eccentric linguistic tools; Joe Ely is fucking Joe Ely, reworking the iconography of the West into his own image.
After 30 years, these three men are confident enough in their own personae to behave like the band they never really were. Where they used to think that collaboration was "cheating," the writing credits for all but two of these songs list the trio equally. The vocals are shared, too, where the original focused almost exclusively on Gilmore's warbling tenor.
While Now Again has a hi-fi quality and an instrumental breadth that sets it apart from its predecessor (which had no drums, for one thing), the songs are clearly coming from the same place. "My Wildest Dreams Grow Wilder Every Day" and "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye" would have been right at home on the first disc, as would the Utah Phillips tune "Going Away."
Those songs make a comfortable bridge from one decade to another, but the most satisfying numbers this time around are the ones that go further with the songwriters' original inclination to push the boundaries of what lyrical content is acceptable in a country song. (How many cowpokes in 1972 were quoting Bhagavan?) If we printed the lyrics to "Now It's Now Again," for instance, it might sound too much like a mere marijuana meditation - but listening to the lyrics' sober delivery on Now Again, it's more substantial than that.
That convention-confronting tendency is more upfront in "Yesterday Was Judgment Day," which asks the listener to envision the day after the Big One: "Did you lay down in Heaven/Did you wake up in Hell?/I bet you never guessed/That it would be so hard to tell." And then the day after that: "Yesterday was Judgment day/Where will we go from here?"
There's a little bit of silliness here, like "Pay the Alligator," but that's par for the course with a group that now, like back then, employs a musical saw (played again by Steve Wesson). It's just more evidence that the Flatlanders, whether legend or band, never took themselves very seriously - and that's one of their best qualities.
(CD, New West Records)
8pm, Thursday, June 27
$20, Gruene Hall
1281 Gruene Rd