“Are you going to San Francisco?”
The refrain popularized in Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” still resonates all these years later but in a different context. If it’s October, it’s time for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the free three-day festival in Golden Gate Park that is celebrated over the first weekend of the month. It’s a gift from the late venture capitalist and banjo enthusiast Warren Hellman who began the festival as Strictly Bluegrass before widening it to other genres.
And one year after Hellman’s passing, the festival began streaming its sets in 2012, you could experience the three stages without actually being there. This year’s lineup is all captured in the festival’s generous archive. Some of the featured artists who appeared this year include Jeff Tweedy, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss, I’m With Her, Ani DiFranco, Justin Townes Earle, Emmylou Harris and the Red Dirt Boys and Buddy Miller’s Cavalcade of Stars.
“It’s good to be in San Francisco….again,” said Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who along with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock is one-third of the trio and lifelong friends who occasionally get together as the Flatlanders.
The group’s name is a reference to the West Texas terrain where the onetime Lubbockers hail. When asked about Lubbock where she grew up, Texas Playboy alumnus Amanda Shires often defaults to directly quoting Butch Hancock: “On a clear day in Lubbock you can see the back of your head.”
On the Friday that kicked off the festival, Jimmie Dale Gilmore traced his own life history in a set with Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones. The duo appeared as part of their year-long tour in support of the album from Lubbock To Downey.
“I’m an old gray flatlander from the great high plains,” Gilmore declared. The next day Gilmore donned his acoustic guitar and stood at center stage with Ely to his right and Hancock to his left.
As the breeze emanated from the Pacific Ocean and cut through the Park, Gilmore’s silver hair blew back like in a metaphysical charge. The late afternoon sun reflected off of the trio’s sunglasses, giving the three acoustic guitarists a youthful vigor that belied there more than seventy years of age.
Alongside Alvin, Gilmore sang “Dallas,” the song he wrote for the band’s legendary debut album from 1972. With the Flatlanders, he prefaced it as a Joe Ely song and the three traded verses of the allure of the city as if it was a character in a novel. Today the Flatlanders are Austin transplants. I am reminded of Steve Earle’s great quote he espoused one night a long time ago playing in the state’s capital. “Last night we played in Dallas. It sure is great to be back in Texas.”
Before singing “Cold Black Hammer,” Ely recalled his memories of growing up in West Texas, listening to disc jockey Wolfman Jack all night while he and his friends rode the jack hammers.
In the late Sixties, Ely, Hancock and Gilmore were just coming of age when Ely met songwriter Townes Van Zandt passing through Lubbock. As Ely tells the story, you never saw anybody walking through Lubbock with a guitar and a backpack. As lore has it, Van Zandt had hitchhiked through the Mojave desert without many clothes but a backpack full of records. Ely said that the only person in Lubbock he knew who had a turntable was Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s daddy. He, Gilmore and their new friend Butch Hancock listened to it for months until they literally wore a hole in it.
The mystical music of Van Zandt’s Our Mother The Mountain left quite an impression. Several years later the fledgling band had recorded their debut All American Music in Nashville.
Which brings us back to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass archives. One of the true joys of HSBG is being able to see past performances at the click of a mouse. For the Flatlanders, they are less of taped performances than a family album that marks joyous moments in the continuum of time.
In 2014, the Flatlanders played their debut album in its entirety from “top to bottom” but with a twist. This time the group did it in reverse. In Ely’s words bottom up instead of top down–but only song wise, not word wise, Hancock clarified.
All of this not to be confused with backwards masking because the album never was released on vinyl. In fact it only saw the light of day on eight-track tape before being reissued years later.
“I don’t think they knew what to do with us in Nashville,” Gilmore told the audience before launching into the album’s closing track.
“They still don’t,” Hancock shot back.
That’s certainly changed over the years. This year the Country Music Hall of Fame launched a three-year exhibition this past summer called Outlaws and Armadillos, bridging the music of Texas and Nashville and the golden era of the Seventies.
Within the exhibit is a glass display of Ely’s guitar that graces his solo album Honky Tonk Masquerade. The museum is also featuring his handwritten lyrics and the overalls he wore when he was a circus worker.
Ely found himself backstage at the exhibit’s opening with Billy Joe Shaver, Bobby Bare and Kimmie Rhodes. The four were reminiscing with museum historian Peter Cooper when Ely recalled how the overalls made it to Nashville. Ely had been watching Ringling Brothers put up a tent by Texas Tech University in Lubbock. All of a sudden someone came over and handed him “a big old jack sledgehammer.”
“Go over and help these guys,” he was told.
Ely was soon enlisted and had the job of working in Ring Stock shoveling elephant shit.
“I took the lamas and led the smallest horses in the parade,” he reminisced.
Somehow the overalls he was issued survived closets over the years. Ely thought they would be good to represent his early days.
This year also finds Ely back in time to the year he recorded his earliest demos.
They’ve come back as The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle. The songs sound remarkably complete and still contemporary. They’re played through a down home western lens, with lots of twang and pedal steel, drawing inspiration from the vast Texas landscape in “Windmills and Water Tanks” and “Because of The Wind.”
More than four decades after he laid down the demo on “I Had My Hopes Up High,” Ely found himself singing the signature song again. This time it was on a beautiful fall afternoon in San Francisco as he kicked things off with Gilmore and Hancock, bringing it all back home.
There he stood onstage in his “Beto For Senate” t-shirt marking the upcoming national Senate election in Texas.
Ely introduced “Borderless Love,” a song that the three recorded nearly ten years ago. But the words seemed like they were just written to describe current times.
Down at the border by the one-sided wall
Down at the border, facing that wall
Racking my brain for the cause of it all
And then it just jumps out.
In one line the Flatlanders tell you all you need to know about living in 2018. It’s one that surely will be heard when they take the stage with Ryan Bingham, Stephen Stills and others for a rally for O’Rourke in Irving at the end of this month.
It’s the fearless who love and the loveless who fear
Think on that line for a while.