Ely wanted to record one of Gilmore's songs, "You've Got to Go to Sleep Alone," while Gilmore expressed a desire to do Hancock's "Wishin' For You," a song that Ely had covered in 1980 after hearing Gilmore play it in one of his solo sets and, ironically, without ever having heard Hancock perform it. Once the trio started thinking about it, it was hard to pare down the selections to an album's worth of songs.
"There's three of mine (on "Wheels of Fortune") that have never been on a record, and there's two or three of Butch's that he's never recorded, but there's nothing that we wrote for this record," says Ely of the material. "We just have such an immense catalog of songs. I've actually got more things that I've written that have not been recorded than I have on tape. And I'm sure Butch has three times more that he's written and has never recorded. Our whole writing thing is that we don't write for albums. We write for ourselves, and things just happen to find a place on a record. Nothing was written for this record, everything was written for ourselves just as the course of what we do, making an ongoing journal of our lives."
Some of the songwriters' recollections went back to the earliest days of their relationship together and represented longstanding hopes among the friends for specific covers by each of them. A couple of those special suggestions made it onto "Wheels of Fortune."
"Jimmie had always wanted me to do his 'Midnight Train,'" says Ely. "When he first wrote it, he wanted me to do it, and this was the first time I was able to do it. The other one was a song I wrote in 1973, right after we recorded The Flatlanders' debut. I had joined the Ringling Brothers Circus, and I wrote this song called 'Indian Cowboy' that I had never recorded, but Butch has been playing it for years, so I suggested that we put it on there. I love how Butch tells the story, and his voice tells the story better than I do."
The process of making "Wheels of Fortune" might be charitably described as comfortably grueling, as the relaxed manner in which The Flatlanders compiled their material gave way to the compressed time and energy required by the band to learn and play the songs.
The sessions lasted day and night, and outside breaks and distractions were eliminated by having food brought into the studio. The results clearly speak for themselves, but Ely doesn't have any qualms about testifying.
"It was such a treat to sit down with all that energy from the last album and just put all that energy down on tape," he says with a grin. "I'm really thrilled with the way it came about. We don't plan on doing any more records. We didn't even plan on doing this one."
Even if The Flatlanders choose not to record again, there will be at least one more album released, and its existence will serve as further proof of the band's miraculous unlikelihood.
Back in 1972 when The Flatlanders sporadically played their Texas environs, a man named Jerry Oliver, owner of a dive Austin club called the One Night and a recording hobbyist, routinely ran reel-to-reel tape of the artists that played at the One Night. Several months ago, Oliver contacted Ely and told him he had a live tape of The Flatlanders from the early '70s.
Ely was dumbfounded to say the least, naturally believing that the band's shows had been so scarce that there couldn't possibly be any tapes of any of them. Oliver produced the tape and offered to sell it to the band; he was trying to raise enough money for an operation to save his failing eyesight. The band eagerly bought the tape, and the mastered results will be available early this year, possibly around the late January release of "Wheels of Fortune."
The 1972 live Flatlanders recording is just another improbable chapter in the life of a band that has defied convention from the outset. Obviously, though, The Flatlanders were no savvy collection of musical manipulators looking to be different for the sake of fashion. Ely says the band began as a group of friends, and that is exactly how it has remained for over 30 years.
"There's a kind of a triangle there," says Ely. "We recognized it when we first met each other. We recognized something in us that made us complete. It had a base and two sides. Each of us was amazed with the others. Butch and Jimmie had never been in the rock and roll world, and I had never met anybody like Butch, who was this great songwriter, or anybody like Jimmie, who was this encyclopedia of country music and who could sing the phone book and make it sound good. We all just hit it off immediately and here it is 35 years later, and we're still making music. Who would have ever thought that?"
The friendship between Ely, Gilmore and Hancock is the constant element in The Flatlanders equation, the reason for the band's longevity and the quality that has attracted so many fans to their camp over the years.
With the joyful archivism of "Wheels of Fortune," a glorious live document of the band in their youthful prime, and another imminent tour (which they may record for a contemporary live album) to promote "Wheels," The Flatlanders, as busy as they may be, are obviously working for the love of their craft. This is one band that won't be punching time clocks anytime soon.
"I know a lot of guys who recorded 30 years ago and went out and don't even talk to each other anymore," says Ely with a laugh. "I went out with the Everly Brothers once, and they travel in different buses. But we've been fortunate to remain friends. When we started on this whole recording project, we made a pact that we were doing this purely as a friendship thing, and if the business ever got in the way or if it got to be work, we would just completely drop it. We don't want to approach it like it's something we have to work at. If it ever turns into a job, we'll do something else."