Ansel Adams & Roy Orbison: Chatting with the Flatlanders

Here’s a chat I had with the Flatlanders in 2004.

VH1: So I’ll throw out a few topics and you guys can kick ‘em around. What about…Ansel Adams?

Butch Hancock: He’s my man. The zone system applies to the whole universe, man. It’s a cool thing.

VH1: Synopsize it for us.

BH: It’s the idea that there’s less light in the shadows and more in the brightness and a little bit of change in the shadows makes a big difference and a little bit of change in bright light doesn’t make much difference at all.

Joe Ely: And that applies to honkytonks as well.

BH: Absolutely.

VH1: Have you found other places in your life where that applies?

JE: We’ve been in places in less light and places in more light. That’s how we’ve spent our lives.

VH1: Is one place more comfortable or productive than the other? 

JE: Productivity has nothing to do with light.

BH: That’s an inner light.

VH1: Is it more comfortable?

BH: Comfort’s a dangerous thing.

VH1: How so?

BH: Well, I mean, you can get comfortable [makes snoring noise] and the next thing you know you’re asleep. Although it’s a natural tendency to work out a little bit of comfort.

JE: Comfort is…

BH: Is over-rated!

JE: True, but it’s certainly more appealing now then it was when we were 18.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Actually, it’s a lot better than discomfort!

JE: And it’s directly proportional to creativity, too. When you’re growing up you always hear that myth that you have to be completely miserable so you can create great works of art. That might be true, but it’s not something to strive for! You don’t go out of your way to be miserable – although there were times that I did go out of it in order to find something…

BH: Yeah, but even that had its own creative side.

JDG: I never expected it. I put myself into a lot of discomfort that was my own fault, but I didn’t do it on purpose.

VH1: Next subject: Pool halls.

JE: Well, we’re all locked into one big pool hall here, bouncing around the bedsprings of the universe. Trying to stay out of the way of the eight ball or trying out from behind it. Pool halls are a close subject to me. They paid for my gee-tar habit, at a young age.

VH1: Guys, how good was he?

BH: He was baaad!

JDG: He still is.

JE: Over the years, I’ve gambled my whole till at the door with the club owner, double or nothing, after the gig.

JDG: The only time I ever beat Joe was when he was playing left-handed behind his back.

VH1: Do people still use bridges to play pool?

JE: You mean like those palm things? Yeah, they do, only there’s a whole new technology of them. Now they’re made out of foam rubber, so that you can push down on the table and they don’t slip.

VH1: Joe, you have a technological side. Does that kind of advancement please you?

JE: I love it. And they’ve got another thing now that’s like using half sticks to throw down on the cue ball to make it bounce over the ball.

BH: That came from low ceilings.

JDG: Joe gave me the only pool lesson I ever had. He’s a good teacher. He told me about the one important principle of the game, which is figuring the angle. You’re supposed to imagine the line through this play and figure the angle. Joe said none of that applies. He believes that the only thing that matters at all is when you hit the ball.

JE: Geometry does go out the window when you get into the deeper meaning of pool. There are all kinds of spin and gravity and everything that’s going on, you don’t even want to know about.

BH: Timing is everything, just like in theatre.

JE: You gotta know when to let loose of it, yeah. There are only two videos that I’ve aspired to make, and one is How to Play Nine-Ball. And the other is Cooking With Corn Nuts. And I haven’t done either of ‘em!

VH1: Do you guys play any other kind of sports?

BH: I love basketball. I don’t play any more, but I do a lot of rafting, river rafting, which is great fun. You can call that a sport.

VH1: How often do you land in the drink?

BH: I’ve been lucky. So far I have not bailed. I’ve had a people pop out of the boat and I’ve had to reach out and grab them.

VH1: Next subject: Roy Orbison.

JDG: He’s from out there, too – like Buddy Holly. Where did these guys – I mean, how did that happen out in the middle of nowhere? This magical voice and these magical melodies that Buddy Holly came up with – there’s no precedent for it.

JE: First thing I think of when I think of Roy Orbison is the back seat of old ’60s cars in the middle of a cotton field.

VH1: Did the grandiose elements of his voice sound strange when you first heard him sing?

JDG: There’s some kind of magic to it. I noticed that if you’re walking around in a European city, going into cafes, you won’t go a day where you don’t hear Roy Orbison playing on a radio or a jukebox. I think maybe I heard him like three or four times in the same day in Zurich once. There are some other people, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, that are played all the time, too. But Roy Orbison…it made me wonder if his voice might be the most ubiquitous music on the planet!

JE: In Italy, it’s a soundtrack – he’s operatic.

VH1: Name one Orbison song that’s close to your heart.

JE: “Only the Lonely.”

JDG: I love “Crying.

BH: “Pretty Woman.”

VH1: Okay, next up: bus trips.

JE: Whooo!

VH1: Glad they’re behind you?

BH: No. Sign me up! Sign me up!

JDG: We love buses. We love bus trips.

BH: I love Mexican bus trips and …

JDG: Oh, I’m separating bus trips. There are two different worlds of bus trip. The band bus is a totally different universe …

JE: There’s the Greyhound bus, yeah.

VH1: Mexican bus trips? When was the last time?

BH: Well, it was probably five years ago, six years ago. We went to Vera Cruz. We did some river rafting trips down there, so I would go down and come back. It’s a trip: playing these 1940s gaucho musicals on the TVs on the way back late at night. Hysterical.

JE: There’s that kind of trip, and then there’s the old Greyhound bus. I have memories of Christmas Day, going across Texas, and there was just the most miserable feeling inside that bus.

JDG: Stopping in at Fort Worth!

JE: Bus station. Taking a leak. There’s a guy in there that has the names of women all down his arm, and they’re all crossed out except for the one at the very bottom! [laughter] And you’re heading home and it’s miserable and cold, and you’ve been out on the road … that’s the opposite extreme.

VH1: Are buses a good place to think?

JDG: If you can call it thinking …

VH1: What is it about motion that gets our minds racing?

BH: It’s a rhythm, I think it just sets up a rhythm and you start responding to ‘em.

JE: I write in buses and I always start a new record by driving out in West Texas where you can see the horizon. That’s where I always begin. I can be in paradise and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and nothing comes to me. I go to West Texas where there’s zero on the horizon. I drive for eight hours and I’m pretty soon writing stuff on the steering wheel.

BH: It’s a blank canvas out there.

JDG: Yeah, I can’t remember about buses, but driving, I think most of our song ideas have happened driving in a car.

BH: That’s where I first started writing songs, was driving a tractor. That’s for real, you know.

JE: Well, buses, trains, cars, everything. Any of that motion makes something happen.

VH1: Okay, next subject: The Internet.

JDG: It’s our saving grace and our doomsday at the same time, especially for the music people. Is it a godsend or is it the end of the line?

BH: It’s solving certain problems, certain very odd problems, and it’s creating new problems that we can’t even envision.

VH1: Name a problem that you think it’s nipped in the bud.

JDG: The thing it solved is that people could discover music that they would never have found otherwise.

VH1: Have people told you they discovered you via the Internet?

JDG: My Web site has been kinda fallow for a while, but I get lots of emails saying that they discovered me via the Internet.

JE: People who use the phone will tend to call just the people that they know closely. People punch in a button to send an email that can go to somebody they’ve never met before, and things start to spread out. So it’s a brand new word of mouth that was kind of lost in the ’80s and right at the end of the line there, the Internet came and there was a brand new word of mouth.

JDG: Also, various [music] vendors will have sites that say, “People who liked this were also interested in this.” I think lots of people are getting turned on to music that they wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

VH1: Which of you is on the Internet every day?

JDG: Well, we’ve all been computer people since the beginning. I go through phases of just all day long doing computer stiff and then I just quit for a while, completely go away from it, and the emails pile up.

VH1: Do you email each other? 

JE: No. We’ll pick up the phone.

VH1: Next subject: Mr. George W. Bush. Your ex-governor, I believe.

JE: We’ve all met him and talked to him.

VH1: Did you straighten him out?

JE: Y’know, when I met him, I actually liked him. He was like a good ole boy from West Texas where we came from. But the thought of him being president I just could not fathom. I just could not think that somebody like that… this good old boy… would have access to the button.

BH: I played for his Christmas party at the governor’s mansion there right before he had announced it and we kinda got off back in a side room. He chews on a cigar when he’s smoking. He’d step out every once in a while and kinda chewed on his cigar. He got to talking to me about the death penalty and said to me, “Well, somebody’s got to draw the line.” I was like, “Weeeell, … I’d rather they just keep on going.” And that’s about as deep as I got into it with him.

JE: Now he must be stopped!

BH: I think this is a desperate time and we need, as they say, a change of regime.

JDG: I think he is a nice, pleasant, polite guy, but I think he pretty much represents and exemplifies a very deep, tragic ignorance of our whole culture, which is disastrous. I don’t think he’s a bad guy at all, but I think he’s part of a force of a depth of horrific ignorance. I think there’s lots of evil being committed by this whole process of what America has become that the people that are committing don’t even know what they’re doing.

JE: I think all the voices behind him are telling him what to do. It’s the Cheneys and all those guys – which scares me.

VH1: Okay, enough Bush. New Orleans.

BH: Well, the first time I went to New Orleans was in a ‘52 Packard. It was like the best time I’ve ever been, in the French Quarter. I hadn’t been down there before. A bunch of us from Austin hopped in there and drove down there. I got a good song out of it, too. It was “Prisoner of the Moon,” I think.

JE: I was a prisoner in New Orleans. I got thrown in jail in New Orleans. I was a prisoner of the city.

VH1: What did you do wrong, Joe?

JE: I rented one of those motor scooters and rode up on a ship in the docks at the pier. We were riding around; it was a kind of a freighter or something. Me and three pals were riding as fast as we could around the top. The security guy would have let us go, but my friend smarted off to him, so we woke up in a New Orleans jail. Not very nice.

JDG: It seems to me that a disproportionate amount of the best music that ever happened came from New Orleans.

JE: How did that happen?

BH: It’s got the most voodoo.

VH1: New subject: Dusk – the end of the day.

BH: That’s the best. You know, out there in the desert – I’ve been out there about six years now and I’m outdoors quite a bit every day. I’ve been building a house. All through the day I’m trying to pay attention to the inner spirit, to remember things and then there comes this time, right at dusk. I don’t know if it’s the light quality or the chemicals changing in the atmosphere when the sun starts to disappear, but all of a sudden I go, “Wow! I thought I wasn’t here but …” There’s such a magic thing happening. I don’t know. I haven’t figured that one out.

JDG: I concur. All my life I’ve loved twilight. I like the morning twilight, too, but I don’t see it very often.

BH: That was one of the great things in Lubbock, growing up. A massive sky, and suddenly you’d see these incredible, sometimes a whole sheet of orange just lighting up the sky … and then a cobalt blue above that. Pretty inspiring.

JDG: In a way, it’s like the main natural feature of Lubbock. It lights up …

JE: Ninety-eight percent sky. All the buildings are one story tall, so that they don’t get in the way of the horizons. And it’s a grid, so everything is east and west, north and south.

BH: You can stand in the middle of any street – or at least you used to be able to stand in the middle of any street or any intersection and you could see all the way out of town.

VH1: Next up: Lucinda Williams.

JDG: Lucinda was a really close friend of ours way before she went out to L.A. She has this magical effect on me that I can’t explain. Butch played me the first recording of Lucinda I ever heard.

BH: I remember; it was in your old van. She sent me a tape of her first album. No, it was Happy Woman Blues, which was actually her second album. She sent me that and I got it the day before I went in to make that Diamond Hill album. And I stuck it on the little cassette player under my pillow so I won’t wake up anybody and played it several times. And I woke with the awfullest crick in my neck. But what a great sound! That voice just opened up a huge door of magic, right there.

VH1: What song sticks with you?

BH: “Sweet Old World.”

JDG: Two or three things … “Sharp Cutting Wings” – Butch recorded it, I think. But listening to this voice singing that song … several of her songs have had been so deeply imprinted. It’s the combination of her voice and the lyrics – very unusual. She’s an amazing writer.

VH1: Next: Handguns.

JE: Did you see, there was a story on the news the other day, how they had found cell phones in Europe that were actually four-shot pistols? They said, “Boy, this is something that we really have to be worried about.” And I thought, “how many billions of handguns are there and they’re worried about this one little cell phone, because it can be concealed…”

JDG: They should worry about guns that have digital cameras in them.

VH1: Last one: Bob Dylan.

JDG: He’s still the best.

BH: Arlo Guthrie says we’ve all been fishing downstream from him. He brokered the poetic world into music. Made it possible to say anything through music. We have stood on the shoulders of giants…

VH1: Do you keep up with him?

JDG: We barely keep up with each other!

JE: We don’t hardly keep up with each other! We keep up with as much as we can handle. I know that I try to, as much as I can handle. But I can’t handle very much.

BH: I don’t know if we’ve ever been collectors in that sense.

JE: I’ve never been a collector.

BH: We like to collect great songs, but that’s more of a feeding process.

JDG: All of us have gone through these phases of like completely falling in love with like, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ music. Or just one or another. Doc Watson or … we all used to, the three of us, we had three sources for each other, because all of us had those various loves and we’d turn each other onto them.

VH1: What’s a Dylan song you couldn’t live without?

BH: Well, this is where I take exception. I don’t think there’s any song that anybody needs to hear. I’m serious. There’s only one song anyhow. It’s all of life. I got interviewed by this guy over in Norway, supposedly the best music critic in all of Norway, and he started asking me all these idiotic questions. And he wouldn’t even let me finish answering them. He’d go, “Oh yes,” and make a checkmark or something and that was it. He finally asked me, “How many songs have you written?” I said, “What difference does it make!” He said, “Well, if you hadn’t written such-and-such, I think the world would be a poorer place.” I said, “How many songs do you think anyone needs to hear?” He thought and he said, “Oh, four or five hundred songs everyone needs to hear.” I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been studying this exact question and I know exactly how many songs. It’s 127, and I’ve got a list.” His eyes started getting bigger, and I finally just grinned.

VH1: Hancock’s Hot 127! 

BH: Yeah, and it cuts off right around 1974.



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