Among this album's many charms, which continue to emerge with each playing, perhaps the best and most noteworthy is its chemistry. The back cover photo shows three middle-aged guys with guitar and dobro, looking relaxed and supremely comfortable with themselves and each other. The vibe carries over into the recording itself, in a way that's more commonly found on bootlegs of musicians hanging out (e.g. the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman Pizza Tapes) or those singer/songwriter circles that periodically surface in such venues as "Austin City Limits." It's pretty clear, as the three trade licks and vocals, that they're getting a huge kick out of the whole process. In contrast to the recorded proceedings of most such gatherings, though, the musicianship is stellar, the production (by Joe Ely) impeccable, and the momentum compelling throughout.
Thirty years ago, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock childhood buds and sometime roommates from Lubbock, Texas, who'd formed a band in 1970 went to Nashville and recorded tracks for what eventually became Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders, which has to figure prominently on the list of Most Snake-Bit Albums of All Time. Record-label problems from hell ensured that when the album was eventually released in 1973, it was only as an eight-track, and distribution seemed confined to a select few truck stops and variety stores in the South. Also, it was completely out of sync with what Stewart Mason in the All Music Guide terms the "countrypolitan glop" then in favor the album's lyrics and music hearkened back to a rootsier era. Besides, some of the artistic choices were pretty out there by contemporary country-music standards for example, Gilmore, who was soon to spend several years sequestered from the music biz while dwelling on a commune and studying with Guru Maharaj Ji, contributed a track called "Bhagavan Decreed," which would've had them scratching their heads at the Opry had it ever gotten that far. Then there was their pal Steve Wesson, who played no instrument until he taught himself autoharp and musical saw so he could be in the band; the Texas-theremin effects of the latter lent a downright otherworldly quality to the tracks from time to time. The band started drifting in various directions before the album saw the light of day, and that would have been that....
Except that individually Ely, Gilmore and Hancock went on to become revered founding fathers of the Texas singer/songwriter scene, then key influences on what eventually came to be known as alt-country. By the time Rounder reissued Jimmie Dale... in 1990 as More a Legend Than a Band, each member of the trio was successful in his own right; the album, whose previous incarnation had attained cult status in the interim, was a major hit, with its early versions of such classics as "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown" and "Dallas." After that the three friends sang each other's songs, worked on each other's records, and occasionally got together for one-off shows and projects, but Now Again, the initial result of their new not-from-hell record deal with New West, is the first studio album they've made together since the ill-fated Jimmie Dale.... And, while it's too bad we had to wait so long, it's clear the intervening time has been well spent.
In contrast to the previous album, which had Gilmore front and center (not at all a bad thing, mind you), Now Again is much more an ensemble production. In addition to the three singer/songwriters, the original band (including the saw-wielding Wesson) is back, along with some new players, and they're all really good.
As a songwriter, Gilmore has long been renowned for an extraordinary ability to encapsulate entire universes in simple, sometimes almost wispy lyrics (see the aforementioned "Dallas" and "Tonight" for prime examples), and he brings that quality to his delivery of cover tunes as well. He's also got one of the most incredible voices in the music world, a sweet reedy tenor that, rather in the manner of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo or the late Garcia of the Grateful Dead, can convince you within a few syllables that going wherever he's going is the best thing you can possibly do. So it is that when he kicks off Now Again with a version of Utah Phillips' "Going Away" that's as seductive and melancholy as the song's train passing in the night, you know it's going to be a rewarding journey.
Next up is Hancock's evil-woman tune "Julia," with plenty of great harmony from his pals; the other dozen songs, on which Ely, Gilmore and Hancock share songwriting credits, allow them all to shine, individually and together. There are tender ballads, desolate landscapes (of the earth and of the soul), barroom rockers and apocalyptic interludes before the band finally rides off into the sunset with the ethereal "South Wind of Summer," soaring with heavenly vocals and lovely guitar-picking. Some songs are instantly accessible, while others take a bit longer to unfold, but Now Again is one of those albums that just keeps getting better the more you play it.
Besides, now The Flatlanders have a record deal after 30 years. So the further good news is that there'll be more.