I'll concede the point―most books about contemporary musical groups do not start off with depictions of Plains Indians and tales of Spanish conquistadores journeying over a vast sea of grass.
But the Flatlanders―Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Steve Wesson, Tony Pearson, and in lesser roles, Tommy X. Hancock and the late Sylvester Rice―are not just any band of musicians. Not only are Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock distinguished songwriters on their own, but the band they formed had a seminal influence on many of the roots/Americana/singer-songwriter inheritors that permeate contemporary music.
Musically, they came of age when Bob Dylan released his country-tinctured albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, both recorded in Music City, while his former bandmates, The Band, holed up in a pink house in Woodstock to put their own spin on old wine in new bottles. In Los Angeles, Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Bros., and the Byrds were performing a shotgun wedding of rock and old-school country, tipping their hats to the Beatles and Buck Owens simultaneously.
But the Flatlanders didn't hail from L.A., New York, or Nashville. They arose in the isolation of what wannabe sophisticates derisively call "flyover country," and the diverse influences they absorbed and the natural and intellectual forces that shaped them made them unique and unquantifiable. And, God knows, folks have tried to quantify them over the years.
Just as their music is beyond category, the region they hail from is not just any ordinary landscape.
If the tale of the Flatlanders is to be properly told, it has to start with the circle of earth and sky that shaped them in the beginning and that still informs their music and worldview.
And it has to start with Lubbock, Texas, the insular, isolated, deeply conservative, deeply religious town that produced (and continues to produce) an improbable number of artistic and intellectual mavericks.
So . . . indulge a few historic and geographic digressions. It will all make sense, honest.
Lubbock and its surroundings are a region and a subject matter that cut close to my bones. I come from four generations of Lubbock people, mostly teachers and builders and football coaches. My paternal grandparents' house, on 13th Street near Avenue Q, was an annual destination, and most of my closest and most enduring friends hail from the city.
As a general thing, my family members share the humble and honorable characteristics of most Hub City natives―they are friendly, honest, plainspoken, conservative, hardworking, self.reliant, and proud of their roots. Those are traits the Flatlanders and their own circle of West Texas friends share. Well, maybe not so much the "conservative" part.
One of the major league treats of a life spent in music journalism has been following and chronicling the careers of Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock.
As the rodeo cowboys say, "Let 'er buck!" I've had the pleasure of listening to Jimmie Gilmore charm a honky-tonk full of drunks with nothing more than his silvery, high-lonesome voice; I've floated through the desolate, jaw-dropping canyons of the Big Bend with Butch Hancock as our Rio Grande river guide, campfire balladeer, and trickster-coyote-in-residence; and I was in the audience as Ely and Bruce Springsteen―two of the greatest live performers of their generation―slugged it out toe-to-toe onstage in Austin. . . . Wonderful memories, indelible moments, never to be repeated.
I'm indebted for their friendship and generosity over the years to these three, as well as their warm and loving spouses-.Sharon Ely, Janet Gilmore, and Adrienne Evans-Stark (soulful Texas women all and a book unto themselves)―and their remarkable children, a collective refutation to the cliché about talent skipping a generation.
This book is about them, but it's also for them. As our friends south of the Rio Bravo say, El que por su gusto corre, nunca se cansa. Who runs for pleasure never tires.
The flatter the land oh yes the flatter land but of course the flatter the land and the sea is as flat as the land oh yes the flatter the land the more yes the more it has may have to do with the human mind.―Gertrude Stein
"The country is most barbarously large and final . . ."
Those words were penned by author Billy Lee Brammer as the opening sally in his political epic, The Gay Place. That book was set in a fictional Austin in the fifties and was meant to describe the rugged Hill Country surrounding the Texas capital.
But the phrase, with its hint of the primeval and untamed, might be better applied to the high, stark, prairie landscape some 250 miles northwest of Austin: the South Plains and the Llano Estacado. It is a country that inevitably informs the men and women in this book, and the music and art they make. How else to write about a group called the Flatlanders without beginning with the land itself?
Bracketed by the New Mexico mountain ranges to the west and the palisades of the Caprock tableland to the east, and stretching in an unbroken sweep up to Canada, the Llano and the Great Plains were nearly the last expanse of North America to be explored and settled.
People have lived on the Llano for thousands of years, though never, even now, in great numbers, and their hold on the land did and does seem tenuous. Lying entirely west of the 100th meridian, where annual rainfall drops below twenty inches and the lush East yields to the arid West, the plains were a landscape wholly foreign and intimidating to Anglo immigrants arriving from wetter, greener climes.
Native people―Clovis hunters, and the forefathers of the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Apache―drifted across the face of the Llano like cloud shadows. Barry Lopez, in his introduction to Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky, writes about "the great reservoir of silence suspended above the plain, through which birdsong, wind-washed grass and thunder once flowed." Spirits dwelt in the land and in the sky, but everything else seemed elusive and transitory.
From any stationary perspective on the Llano, you stand in a circle of earth and sky divided by a distant and ruler-straight horizon.
"We often walked away from the town in the late afternoon sunset," recalled Georgia O'Keeffe, who taught art and painted in Canyon, near Amarillo, in 1917. "There were no paved roads and no fences―no trees―it was like the ocean but it was wide, wide land. . . . I had nothing but to walk into nowhere, and the wide sunset space."
When Coronado's Spanish conquistadores first entered the region in search of souls and plunder in 1541, they were awe-stricken, bordering on terrified.
S. C. Gwynne described the country as "a bad hallucination" in his Comanche history Empire of the Summer Moon, before going on to quote Coronado: "'Although I traveled over [the Plains] for more than 300 leagues, [there were] no more landmarks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea. . . . there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.'"
In popular lore, "Llano Estacado" is translated as the Staked Plains, the story being that Coronado and his men had to stab their lances into the featureless prairie to create a route back home. But some scholars take the phrase to mean "palisaded plains," referring to the ramparts of the Caprock formation, an outcropping running hundreds of miles and rising from two hundred to a thousand feet above the lower plains. The South Plains and the Llano have the Caprock as their eastern boundary.
As if the weird, spacey quality of the topography and the often malevolent weather―drought, apocalyptic thunderstorms, bone-chilling cold, tornados, dust storms, hail, and ceaseless, maddening wind―were not enough to retard the onset of Anglo settlement in the 1800s, there were the Comanches.
One of a plenitude of warring Plains Indian tribes, the Comanches vaulted to supremacy once they mastered warfare from atop horses they stole or captured from the Spanish. In their century-long heyday, their country, an enormous swath of Texas from just west of Austin to the uppermost regions of the Panhandle, was referred to simply as "Comancheria," and they guarded it with unparalleled ferocity.
"No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death," wrote Gwynne. "None was even a close second."
It wasn't until 1874, when U.S. Army Col. Ranald Mackenzie broke the Comanches as a fighting force by invading their natural fortress at Palo Duro Canyon near present-day Amarillo and slaughtering their vast horse herd, that it was safe for Anglo settlement to move permanently onto the plains.
The army made the South Plains safe. The invention of the electric pump, which let dryland farmers tap the vast underground Ogallala Aquifer, as well as the opening of cattle trails, and later the railroads leading to markets in the north and east, made them profitable. The little towns, with their names so evocative of the strange, hard country―Levelland, Plainview, Sundown, Needmore, Brownfield, Grassland, Shallowater, Earth―began to take hold.
And at the center of the South Plains sat Lubbock.