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. They had done only a handful of gigs in this configuration when they traveled to Odessa, Texas in 1972 to record an album-length demo session in a tiny studio there. Nothing came of the demo tape, and it went home with Rice, who held onto it for some 40 years, although he had pretty much forgotten about it, as had the rest of the group. Two months later the same band configuration recorded a slightly more polished set of mostly the same songs in Nashville, a project that was originally released in 1972 as All American Music
on eight-track tape only, which assured the album a commercial failure. The Nashville sessions appeared under different titles over the years, coming out as a vinyl LP in 1980 as One Road More
, and appearing on CD in the U.K. on Charly Records in 1989 as More a Legend Than a Band
. The Odessa sessions? Everybody had forgotten about them, but here they are, released as The Odessa Tapes
some four decades later. They show a band looser and with more spark and energy than the band that played the Nashville sessions two months later. The two recording sessions share ten songs in common, and there are two "new" Hancock songs ("Shadow of the Moon" and "I Think Too Much of You"), two "new" Gilmore songs ("Story of You" and "Number Sixteen"), and no "new" Ely songs (Ely contributed few songs to the early Flatlanders catalog). There is a small handful of tape irregularities, with out-of-phase guitars in places, but overall the Odessa sessions are charming and more lively by degree than the Nashville sessions, although the difference between them is very slight and probably comes down to preference. Either way, The Odessa Tapes
is a nice addition to the Flatlanders story, and if it's more of an archival release than a necessary one, it's very listenable and catches an eccentric, odd little band of three fine songwriters doing that thing they did -- and that they still do.