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‘Treasure of Love’ by the Flatlanders and ‘Welcome to Countryland’ by Flatland Cavalry Reviews: Pleasures From Wide Open Spaces


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Two groups hailing from Lubbock, Texas—one an American classic and the other an up-and-coming regional favorite—release records that pay tribute to their country roots.

 
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The Flatlanders band

Photo: Paul Mobley
 

A longstanding source of amusement among Texas music aficionados is the title chosen for a posthumous collection of country-tinged Buddy Holly recordings—“Holly in the Hills.” Anyone even remotely familiar with the territory around his native Lubbock, where those recordings were made, a decade earlier, knows there are no green Appalachian-style hills in sight, the area being famously arid and flat.

It’s regularly assumed that that vast, unvarying West Texas landscape produces remote, laconic musical loners, but in practice the territory has been home to a series of gregarious and verbally effusive outfits, from Holly’s day to our own. Two new albums from Lubbock-born bands—the genuinely iconic Americana veterans the Flatlanders, and the relatively young but practiced Flatland Cavalry—illustrate the point while heralding the geography.

The Flatlanders, singer-songwriters Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, have all had notable and distinct individual careers since they first joined forces in 1972, and after, they belatedly won recognition as a group in the 1990s. Mr. Ely is a rocker and honky-tonker as leathery as Johnny Cash; Mr. Gilmore, a sweet-voiced, spiritually inclined folk and country artist; Mr. Hancock, a more literary, rasp-voiced ironist. Yet their strong camaraderie and shared sensibility is unmistakable and has lasted nearly five decades.

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Photo: Thirty Tigers

Out now is their first new Flatlanders album in a dozen years, “Treasure of Love” (Rack’em Records/Thirty Tigers), built on the simpatico sorts of songs from classic country, blues, roots rock, folk and literary singer-songwriter genres—categories they have melded and which have defined the band from the first. Eleven are favorite numbers they have recorded but never spruced up for release until the Covid-19 break, and there four new originals.

From the deep country catalog come the honky-tonk title track, an early George Jones song delivered with prominent pedal steel by their buddy and album co-producer Lloyd Maines ; Mr. Ely’s acoustic take on Ernest Tubb’s 1940s confessional “I Don’t Blame You”; and a jaunty version of Tex Ritter’s “Long Time Gone,” the trio working close harmonies similar to those used in the Everly Brothers’ version. There are charming Gilmore-sung versions of Leon Russell’s “She Smiles Like a River” and Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.” And fellow Texas songwriters are represented by Hancock takes on Townes Van Zandt’s moody “Snowin’ on Raton” and Mickey Newberry’s more comical “Mobile Blues.” The distinctive, frisky Hancock style is also central in his three originals, which include “Mama Does the Kangaroo.” (It’s a dance.)

They conclude with a rocking version of the Mississippi Sheiks/Bob Wills standard “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” linking blues, Western Swing and rock; such border busters are these gents’ trademark—and lasting contribution. It’s the music they love, presented lovingly, and fans will be rewarded hearing it.

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Flatland Cavalry band

Photo: Fernando Garcia

Flatland Cavalry is not a half-century established name, but these fresh-faced 20-somethings have had a strong regional following for a half-dozen years, done much touring, and released several apprentice recordings, rather folky at first. This new album, “Welcome to Countryland” (an independent release produced in Nashville and available on the major platforms), is a marked step forward for them, with a clear musical point of view, original melodies, mature confidence in portraying romantic matters, and increasingly fresh, distinctive lyrics.

This is a straightforward, upbeat electrified country-rock band, but as the 14-track album’s title suggests, they’re hard-country aware, so heartbreak may get mentioned, and often fiddle-centric, as so often happens in Texan aggregations. Their thoughts on genre rules are acknowledged in the opening track, “”Country Is . . .”: “Don’t rely on first impressions; Country is what Country means to you.” 

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Photo: Flatland Cavalry

Cleto Cordero, lead vocalist and main writer of nearly all of their songs, is central to the band, but this is a cohesive unit, not just backup for him. The instrument lineup includes that prominent fiddle ( Wesley Hall ); keyboards, including B3 organ; banjo, drums and acoustic and electric guitars. Thematically—which works, given the sound and their own experiences—multiple songs are set in local bars or starry-skied backyards, generally before, during or after dates, or encounters with old flames. Consequences vary. “Well Spent Time,” “Some Things Never Change” and “Dancin’ Around a Fire” all take place in these regionally specific but generally understood places.

The airy “Getting By” may sound more familiar, but it goes where few rock or country songs do, honestly—to a forthright depiction of expectations in middle-class life, neither rich nor poor, “somewhere in the middle, just getting by.” “Life Without You” begins with the sort of line that shows the country language is getting mastered: “Life without you would be a Tuesday at the motel by the Denny’s on the dingy side of town.” That’s a mouthful, but well-phrased as sung—and, to these ears, memorable. In the ballad “Daydreamer,” Mr. Cordero sings of “roto-tilling rainbows in my mind,” and you won’t hear about that elsewhere.

One new track inevitably getting attention is “A Cowboy Knows How” by mainstream country star Luke Combs and writing partners Dan Isbell and Jonathan Singleton. It’s an “after she’s left me” song so Western in references that Mr. Combs thought it more appropriate for these fellows than for himself. And it is.

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