Quick, who is the most important influence on the genre known as 'alt-country'? Gram Parsons, you say? That would be the stock answer for many, including a majority around the Tiny Mix Tapes office. Call me sacrilegious, but ol' Gram's music doesn't really do much for me. Sure, he has one of those great rock and roll biographies, hippie-cowboy-OD'd-in-the-desert and all -- but yeah, not really feeling it. So whenever somebody starts waxing poetic about Gram, I just calmly say, "I like The Flatlanders better."
Coming straight outta Lubbock with hardly a whimper in 1972, The Flatlanders put out an album (on 8-track, no less) that could pretty much only be found at truck stops in the deep South, where nobody noticed them. The members went their separate ways by the end of the year, and three of them went on to become some of the most revered singer-songwriters this side of Townes Van Zandt in the Texas underground: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock.
The songs on this compilation resemble what it must be like to stew your creative juices in the windswept isolation of the West Texas panhandle. There is the high, lonesome sound of classic country with the faint impression of a fiddle swing band on a celebratory Friday night, dancing with your sweetheart at an edge-of-town roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. But there's also the sweet smell of reefer hanging in the air. It's a mixture of conservative cowboy hats in Chevy trucks and pie-eyed freaks in a DayGlo microbus. And the best part: some dude plays a saw!
The music coming out of Nashville in the early '70s was glossy and slick. The outlaw movement led by Willie, Waylon, and the rest had yet to give a swift kick to the nethers of the behemoths dictating the era's country music scene. I have to imagine that these offbeat songs induced looks of disgust on the faces of pop-country listeners back then -- the few that heard them, anyway. Too old-timey, too weird. There is even a Hindu devotional song, for crying out loud, and that just isn't something a good, God-fearing, patriotic American listens to. That is the territory of those addle-minded heathens out in San Francisco who burn flags with Hanoi Jane. And did I mention that some dude plays a saw?
The Flatlanders were coming up with lyrics inspired by Townes Van Zandt that just weren't heard in country music back then. They had more in common lyrically with the singer-songwriters from the FM dial, yet their sound was very much rooted in traditional country. Rock bands such as The Byrds, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead had incorporated country influences in their music for the urban hipsters already, but that was music coming from city slickers. The Flatlanders were reared in the land of country, giving them more authenticity in my opinion than some urbanite wannabe with a pedal steel, and thus are one of the pioneers of a genuine alternative in country music. And some dude plays a saw!