The Flatlanders

Wheels of Fortune (New West)

The saga of the Flatlanders is peppered with irony. A genuine supergroup if ever there was one, this West Texas trio released a debut album in 1972 and then waited a full 30 years for a followup. Blame it on lack of motivation; their debut disc was virtually ignored the first time around, deemed too unorthodox for the country crowd, too country for everyone else. Obviously ahead of their time, they failed to find a niche.

Such is the stuff from which legends are born. After all, Flatlanders' front-line talents -- Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock -- went on to practically invent Americana, the kind of country crossover that eschews the polish and glitz of Nashville's movers and shakers (read Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, and the various other cowboy-hat types who have littered the charts in the last two decades or so). As solo artists, they're among the best in the biz, having carved out individual careers to a chorus of critical acclaim.

When Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock regrouped in 2002 for the Now Again album, they meshed as effortlessly as ever. While each man brings a distinctive element to the collective -- Ely, the rocker; Gilmore, the mournful balladeer; Hancock, the more traditional troubadour -- each clearly complements the others. Working in tandem and apparently unimpeded by ego -- unlike the usual star-studded collaboration, these songwriters hand their songs off to one another to sing -- they've returned with an album that's got classic etched all over it.

Classic indeed. There's no mistaking Wheels of Fortune's timeless feel, from the south-of-the-border sway of "Wishin' For You" to the rugged folk narratives "Eggs of Your Chickens," "Neon of Nashville," "Indian Cowboy," and "See the Way." Many of the songs are of a traditional bent, with confessional tears-in-your-beer country ballads (the title tune, "Once Followed by the Wind") cohabitating with jaunty, down-home rockers ("Whistle Blues," "You've Got to Go to Sleep Alone," and "Back to My Old Molehill"). Gilmore's yearning, plaintive vocals emphasize the heartbreak of the sadder songs, while the use of a saw throughout (which produces a sound similar to a wobbly pedal steel guitar) helps provide the group with a singular style.

If Wheels of Fortune seems less innovative than the Flatlanders' past efforts, it's only because they've continued to do what they've done all along. That's the ultimate irony: This time around, the world has finally caught up and caught on. Three decades later, though, these guys still set the standard.

 
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