Flatlanders one-up Land of Lincoln

Getting door after door slammed in your face would never be described by any aspiring singer/songwriter as an ideal introduction to the music business.

But in 1972, that's exactly how The Flatlanders, an eclectic country group of three 20-something nobodies from Texas, got their start. Carrying an album's worth of recorded material with them to Nashville, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock were told they were nothing special by nearly every record executive in the city.

Thankfully, none of them listened.

With The Flatlanders' hopes shelved, the three friends went their separate ways, each forging successful careers as solo artists.

As each rose in prominence, fan interest in the threesome's past, the subsequent release of the original Flatlanders' album in 1980 and their still strong friendship pushed them together again.

In 2002, The Flatlanders released their critically acclaimed follow-up, Now Again, then hit the studio almost immediately to record their latest release, Wheels of Fortune.

The once legendary super-group that again finds itself a reality comes together in a near-seamless fashion on this release, combining its members' years of experience and diverse styles to record one of the better alt. country albums of the last few years. With the exception of "Indian Cowboy," a goofy accordion-heavy song featuring a heroic circus sideshow who ends up pancaked beneath a spooked elephant, each of the album's 14 tracks work surprisingly well off of one another.

Gilmore, the Flatlander with the silky-smooth country croon, takes the lead on five Wheels of Fortune numbers and proves himself to be the most flexible performer of the bunch.

He most notably lends his lilting vocals to the pleasant "Wishin' For You," then switches gears completely three tracks later to take helm on the chugging, Ely-penned rocker "Back To My Old Molehill."

Rock 'n' roller at heart Ely and folkie Hancock also give ample evidence as to why they've been successful for over 30 years.

On the honky-tonk tune "I'm Gonna Strangle You Shorty," Ely spins the comedic tale of a southerner who leaves a trail of jilted, frying pan-toting women in his wake, and he gives Wheels of Fortune's most impassioned vocal performance on the gritty blues-rocker "Midnight Train."

Meanwhile, Hancock's notable contributions include solid vocals on upbeat album opener "Baby Do You Love Me Still?" and clever lyrical insights into a man who's stayed too long in one place on "Eggs of Your Chickens."

Despite all three artists being worthy of numerous individual kudos, Wheels of Fortune really is a band album — not one where three stars with conflicting egos come together with ordinary results.

Taking turns with the lead vocal on all tracks except album closer "See The Way," where all three rotate those duties, Gilmore, Ely and Hancock seem to feed off each other and sound like they are having a blast in the process.

That's good news for all fans of this veteran outfit who hope it keeps releasing CDs at a quicker than once-every-20-years pace.

And if those same Nashville recording industry fat cats who told The Flatlanders to go scratch back in '72 didn't already beat themselves up as Gilmore, Ely and Hancock rose to solo stardom, now is as good a time as any.

Grade: AB