The First Alt-Country Record? Flatlanders Rediscover The Odessa Tapes

courtesy of New West Records
L-R: The Flatlanders in Odessa: Steve Wesson, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Pearson, Joe Ely
A lot of stellar music came out of that flat land known as West Texas. Bob Wills, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Terry Allen, Guy Clark, and the Sparkles are just a few artists who found something in the wind, the dust, the heat, the cactus, the mesquite, the sandstorms, the blizzards, the endless horizon, the solitude and isolation that translated into great music.

In January 1972, almost 20 years before Uncle Tupelo recorded No Depression and the media began to use the term "alternative country," a carload of Lubbock guys drove down to Tommy Allsup's recording studio in Odessa to record a glorified demo.

The purpose was to convince Shelby Singleton, the new owner of Sun Records, to sign the group and release an album. The resulting Odessa Tapes, recently released by New West Records, is considered by many to be the first alt-country recording.

Recorded on what for the time was state-of-the-art equipment, the tape impressed Singleton enough to cut an album of the same material later in 1972 in Nashville. But when the promotional single "Dallas" failed to go anywhere, Singleton scaled back his plans for the album, releasing only a small quantity on eight-track tape as All American Music to meet his contractual obligations.

In spite of winning the first-ever Best New Folk award at the Kerrville Folk Festival, by 1973 the Flatlanders -- Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Steve Wesson, Tony Pearson, Syl Rice and Tommy Hancock -- were done as a band. They all forgot about the tapes from the sessions in Odessa until they were rediscovered a few years ago.

According to the story, Ely held them for a few years until he finally located someone in Los Angeles who could work with the brittle tapes, restore them, and get them into a medium where they could be played again. Once they had the tapes in a listenable form, they all agreed they liked the Odessa tapes better than the formal album recorded in Nashville with, as Michael Ventura describes in his extensive liner notes, its "self-conscious, Bob Wills-style asides." (That album was re-released on Rounder in 1991 as More a Legend Than a Band.)

Lonesome, Onry and Mean grew up in Odessa and worked in radio there 1972-73 before migrating to Austin where the progressive country/cosmic cowboy musical revolution was gaining force. 1972 Odessa was dusty, windy, bleak as hell, and one of the roughest oilfield towns ever deposited on this planet, meaner than a pit bull bitten by a rattlesnake.

Yet because there was money and because there was fuck-all to do, music played a big part in life, especially in the bigger West Texas towns like Odessa, Midland, Abilene, San Angelo, Lubbock, and Amarillo. And where there are paying gigs, there are musicians to fill them.

LOM thinks it is safe to say that within those towns and their huge agricultural/oilfield hinterland that had tossed up guys like Bob Wills, Hoyle Nix and LaMesa native Don Walser (the "Pavarotti of the Plains"), there were probably as many professional musicians per capita as anywhere on the planet.

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Creg Lovett
Creg Lovett

That was badass. Everything he writes is so comprehensive. It's like a history class in tasteful music.

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