When it came to summarizing the topography of the Lubbock terrain that became home for The Flatlanders, Joe Ely evoked a quote last night from another famed Lone Star songsmith, Terry Allen.
The latter claimed “if you look far enough, you can see the back of your head.”
Of course, such commentary was offered as explanation at the weekly taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre for how the all-star Texas trio of Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore earned their name. But whether intended or not, there was something more telling about Allen’s remark as its related to The Flatlanders as opposed to Lubbock itself. Judging by its WoodSongs set, which devoted seven of nine songs to music from the trio’s fine new Hills and Valleys album, The Flatlanders could see into your head but good.
The new material revealed an unavoidable restlessness and reckoning last night. It was fairly obvious in the modern day Dust Bowl imagery of the set-opening Homeland Refugee. “For everything this world is worth, we’re just migrants on this earth,” sang Ely in a voice of eery, almost dusty calm.
But during Gilmore’s lead on After the Storm, things really turned inward. Still armed with a voice full of plaintive, almost desolate reflection, he sang of love and loss. But that seemed almost requisite. The song centered on complete displacement, of a life emptied. “Still waiting for the help that never came,” Gilmore sang. What a line. What a delivery.
Hancock’s performances were more anecdotal, whether it was through the refreshingly unsentimental Thank God for the Road and its regal borderline charm or the way he replicated giddy Tex Mex accordion accents on harmonica under Gilmore’s vocals during No Way I’ll Never Need You.
Woody Guthrie’s Sowing on the Mountain balanced the folk reverence with a hint of Armageddon, although the way the three singers traded verses made the tune seem more like a back porch testimonial.
The evening concluded with a nod to the patron saint of progressive Texas Americana music, Townes Van Zandt. And, sure enough, his White Freightliner Blues abounded with images of escape (“I’m goin’ out on the highway; listen to them big trucks whine”). But the sense of modest abandonment surrounding The Flatlancders’ performance – which was nicely enhanced, as was the entire set, by Rob Gjersoe’s ultra tasteful guitarwork – pinpointed the celebratory roadhouse feel Van Zandt also packed into the tune.
In the end, something else seemed to ring true about the Allen quote. If you can indeed see all the way to the back of your head from the streets of Lubbock, then you can see clear around the globe, to boot. Last night, The Flatlanders may have employed the poetic devices of master Texas songwriters. But the wonderful songs they showcased couldn’t have been more worldly.
The Flatlanders perform again at 8 tonight at The Southgate House, 23 East Third St. in Newport. Jenny Scheinman will open. Tickets are $25. Call (859) 431-2201.