More than 30 years after the Flatlanders met in Lubbock, Texas, they’re still best known for their irresistible backstory: the album Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock recorded in 1972 ended up in wastebaskets all over Nashville, not to receive a proper stateside release until Rounder put it out as More a Legend Than a Band in 1990. The music’s laid-back twang, complemented by Gilmore’s sober tenor–like Roy Orbison’s without the theatrics–sets it apart from antiseptic chart-topping country, and Gilmore’s lyrics on tunes like “Tonight I’m Gonna Go Downtown” and “Dallas” have cemented his reputation as country’s Zen poet. The secret weapon on that first record, though, is Steve Wesson’s woozy musical saw, which draws out the recurring theme of feeling young but unsteady on one’s feet. Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock stayed friends after the debacle in ’72, covering one another’s songs as they built their own careers, and the inevitable reunion album, Now Again (2002), is packed with decades of pent-up ideas. On the new Wheels of Fortune (New West), however, the band seems to be relaxing a bit: the music often stays within a single genre (Dylan-esque folk, Tex-Mex, blues), and the lyrics sometimes merely rehash familiar laments or shaggy-dog stories. Gilmore in particular is taking it easy, singing lead on only 5 of the album’s 14 tracks (by contrast, he was out front for all but one tune on the first record). The Flatlanders also seem to love rock more than ever now, and though it’s certainly worth listening to these fellows when they’re doing something they love, this shift in tone means Wesson’s saw is often silenced–for better or for worse, nobody here is young and unsteady on his feet anymore. Reckless Kelly opens. 18+. Saturday, May 8, 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Swider.