by Michael Goldberg
Monday, July 15, 2002
The Flatlanders Deliver A 'Classic'
Or, can a new country recording be 'authentic'?
I was talking to a friend about Solomon Burke's new album, Don't Give Up on Me, which finds the legendary soul man singing previously unrecorded songs by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson and others. So far, with the exception of the Elvis Costello-penned "The Judgement," the album is good, but it doesn't totally knock me out. "The first song sounds like an Otis Redding ballad," I said. "I've already got albums with Otis singing Otis Redding ballads. Why do I want to hear Solomon Burke sing one?"
My friend, who likes the album, replied, "But he's the last original soul man still around. It's cool to hear someone doing that stuff right now." (Actually, those aren't my friend's exact words; we were just talking and I wasn't taking notes. But that's what he meant.)
OK, I kinda get it. If I wanted to hear a real soul singer and Solomon Burke happened to be in my town performing, I could catch his set. And even if it wasn't as strong a performance as Otis live in '68, it would still be really cool. But why listen to this new album when I could listen to the classic soul recordings of Redding and Sam & Dave and James Brown and Wilson Pickett and Aretha (to name a few)? And if I get in the mood for some Solomon Burke, I'm sure there are some of his classic recordings from the '60s that I'd probably dig more than this new one.
I don't mean to harp on Don't Give Up on Me, 'cause for all I know, it will grow on me if I play it a couple more times. Still, sometimes the best-laid plans don't produce classic recordings. And while all the folks who are trying to revive Burke's career could have the best of intentions, it ultimately gets down to the music. I think back to Roy Orbison's last album, which included some help from Bono and others, and a solo Roger McGuinn album that Elvis Costello and Tom Petty helped out on. Both have their moments, but when I want to hear Orbison or McGuinn, those aren't the albums I reach for.
It gets down to what we want from particular artists. From a Johnny Cash or a Solomon Burke I want recordings as good as or better than the classic work that made us care in the first place. I want music that feels authentic. I don't want something that sounds like an attempt at the real thing. I want the real thing.
I'd begun thinking about authenticity when I recently listened to a wonderful album by The Flatlanders titled Now Again, released a couple of months ago.
The Flatlanders are a kind of not-quite-supergroup of country rock, comprising Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. The group, which first came together in Lubbock, Texas in 1970, recorded one previous album in 1972. For reasons not really that interesting, the album wasn't released in the U.S. until 1990, when it came out with the title More a Legend Than a Band. By then all three singer/songwriters had successful solo careers. Occasionally, in recent years, they've performed as The Flatlanders, and now there's a new album, produced by Ely at studios in Austin.
Now the thing about Now Again is that it sounds authentic, the way Gillian Welch sounds authentic. It could have been recorded in the '50s. The singing is rough yet soulful. The electric guitar work will remind you of old Merle Haggard and Buck Owens records. There are country ballads, honky-tonk rockers and some rockabilly blowouts. Usually one of the guys handles the lead vocals while the others provide harmony, sometimes in the style of the male vocals on '50s rhythm & blues recordings.
At times Now Again reminds me of the first two albums Lost in the Ozone Again and Hot Licks, Cold Steel and Trucker's Favourites released by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen at the end of the '60s ("Hot Rod Lincoln," off Hot Licks.... was the novelty hit, but not at all representative of the excellent country and rockabilly music that filled those albums).
Now the Cody band were hippies who dug country music. They were based in the San Francisco Bay Area and they performed at rock shows in the midst of the psychedelic rock scene. They were doing their best to create music in the spirit of the original (authentic) country records they loved. And The Flatlanders, in 2002, are also making music from another time. Music that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? audience will love if they hear it. (I should know, I'm a proud member of that audience.)
Now I can listen to Now Again or I can pull out some of my old country CDs and listen to Merle or Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. I could put on some hillbilly recordings that were made many decades ago. That stuff is surely authentic.
That's not what I'm doing. I've been listening to Now Again a lot. It's a great album. A number of the songs sound like they might pass the test of time.
So I'm going to give that Solomon Burke album another chance, and if it still sounds like it's trying too hard, so be it. With Now Again The Flatlanders prove that in 2002 you can still record an "authentic" country record. Now how cool is that?