I figured that the ideal place to find out about the unjustly least-known member of the classic country-rock combo the Flatlanders (which also includes Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, all old friends) was a nice Italian meal just as he was going to do a show. It turns out this had been the first time the band had toured nationally since they formed and broke up in the early '70's. It also turns out that the meal itself would become a focal point of the discussion of his career as he decided that a glass of water was more important than anything that either of us had said.
Not exactly what you're call a 'careerist,' Butch has been heard many times but mainly through the mouthes of others: his songs are found all over records by Jimmie, Joe, Texas Tornados, Emmylou Harris and others, always sparkling up the proceedings. The fact that Butch is not a 'careerist' per se but just follows the pathes that he finds means that he isn't as much as a household name as his songs themselves are. It may also be because besides being a singer/songsmith, he is a photographer, architect, record label head, TV producer, rafter and probably a dozen other things that I don't know about yet.
Since I loved the existenial longing and freewheeling fun of Butch's songs so much and hadn't seen a lot of ink on him (other than in Texas where they nicely honor his work), I wanted to find out more about a man whose work I'd rate with Doc Pomus, Otis Blackwell, Willie Dixon and other great songsmithes. Luckily, Butch himself has helped his cause by reissuing most of his solo work from the late '70's and '80's on his own Rainlight label. Great starting points for Butch's work are also his last two records on Sugar Hill: Eats Away The Night (1995) and Own the Way Over Here (1993).
Q: What are your thoughts on Austin itself as a town that nurtured your work?
Actually, I just moved away from it three years ago. I was there for about twenty years I guess. It was a great. It went from a small town to a kind of a over-grandizing Silicon Valley without any much respect for the environment, at least from a city government angle. It kind of got taken over by too many cars and not enough places to put 'em.
Q: Is that why you left the area?
Yeah, pretty much. But it wasn't like I was trying to get away from all of that. I still enjoyed it but I mainly love the Big Bend area.
Q: Was there anything in particular about that area that motivated you?
(There were) just a lot of good people that liked to go listen to music. It's a little bit of a hard town to concentrate in. You really had to create your own isolation there to get any work done. Kind of the land of constant interruptions.
Q: Lots of distractions?
Oh yeah. Sometimes I'd need to get out of town for a little while and get some work done. (laughs) Usually, I'd go out on the road to relax! Do a lot of touring and relaxing.
Q: That's interesting 'cause usually it's the other way around.
I don't know if that's truly the case or everybody's idea about it. I know a lot of musicians that love being out on the road- you could make it a miserable experience or it could be a good, relaxing space too. If you tap into Spinal Tap, you're in trouble but...
Q: It hasn't gotten to that point for you, has it?
Q: You had also spent a while in Lubbock too.
I was born there and grew up around the farms there.
Q: How much different was that from Austin?
Quite a bit. It's flat and Austin's right on the edge of hill country. The climate's quite a bit different. If Lubbock had any woods, it would be a back-woods kind of town but it's out there on the high, dry plains. It's a farming community, cotton is a big crop there. Texas Tech is probably the major industry out there now. Austin of course is the capitol and has the University of Texas. It's kind of party town- lots of bars and a lots of places to play.
But Lubbock had a great music scene. It was just smaller and not as big an audience for it out there except cowboy honky-tonks and that kind of thing.
Q: When you growing up there, what made you want to be part of that?
Nothing. I was born in the 20th century when almost everybody and their dogs picked up a guitar and a camera and few other things. Those became my main tools.
Q: So it was just something in the air that you were a part of?
That's about a good explanation as I've ever heard. There have been a lot of different theories advanced about it. Lubbock is a funny little place. It was considerably isolated. You had to drive hundreds of miles to get anywhere else. You had the uncharitable skies and the horizon that goes all around you. You could see the whole horizon. I call it a different kind of 'hang time'- you get an idea, you can hang with the idea for a while. In the cities and the mountains, things are constantly changing and you're confronted with a lot of different impressions. But when you're out there on the track in West Texas, you can sit there and contemplate about bugs crawling around and that and this without interruptions.
Q: You had studied architecture before. Did you find that had any bearing on your music?
I think so. A lot of times people will ask me what my influences are. I'll reel off a few architects' names and some philosophers rather than musicians because musically, we're effected by EVERYTHING we hear. Positively or negatively. So when I try to enumerate influences, it's kind of a joke. Although some people take it extremely seriously.
Q: You were talking about having a lot of time to contemplate when you were in Lubbock. You had been working on a tractor for a while there. During that time, did you find that this work gave you time to think about what you wanted to do otherwise?
I guess so. Sitting out a tractor, I would highly recommend it for everybody. Six or eight months of tractor driving would be good for anybody no matter what their attitude.
Q: What would it do for people?
I have no idea. I think it would be different for everybody.
Q: Before the Flatlanders started up, were you playing otherwise?
Just little folk bands and stuff like that. Duos and trios around Lubbock.
Q: When was this about?
Flatlanders happened around '71, '72. I was starting playing banjo and guitar in high school. Jimmie (Gilmore) and I were good friends at school from the 7th grade on. We practically lived in the same neighborhoods and we had different guys that we hung out with. It was several years before we found out that each other were musicians. We had no idea 'cause we were just doing school stuff. So we were in high school when we found out that each other played guitars and it was real surprising. We just got to be better friends throughout the years.
Q: What kind of rapport did the two of you have?
I think we all got crowded into the same... outside-of-the-fence-looking-in or vice-versa. In Lubbock, we didn't quite fit in with the so-called 'normal' crowd exactly. I kind of did or I appeared to but more on an interior level, I really didn't fit in. So all of us musicians wound up showing up at the same goat roasts and back-porch guitar playing.
Q: What was the 'normal' crowd there at the time?
Just growing up and going to college and getting a job. So we were kind of the alternative culture in Lubbock which was pretty wide-ranging. (laughs) There was everything from architectural ideas to all the music we were getting into. Just the fact that we were getting into music and playing guitars was pretty odd for Lubbock. We had long hair and that was even more curious then. We were not quite the clean-cut kids that most of our neighbors were at the time. A few years later, all the drugstore cowboys with their diesel pick-ups starting having full-beards and long hair.
Q: So you guys were trend setters.
I don't know. I think trends come from different places than trend setters. It's like society is more ready for a movement of sorts rather than someone with a big bright idea saying "Hey, I know what we're gonna do!" Although Rolling Stone and the rest of Madison Avenue at least THINK that they have it all figured out. Maybe they've got lots of it figured out about how to punch everybody's buttons. Maybe we were trying to summon the first gang of kids in our generation that didn't respond to those button-pushings in the expected fashion.
Q: The time period you're talking about is roughly the late '60's?
Yeah, that's right. The early '70's too though.
Q: So when all of you decided to form the Flatlanders, what kind of group were you looking to have?
It just a bunch of friends living together, hanging out together and thinking together. We started doing a few gigs and wound up doing the Flatlander recording. We played a few gigs down in Austin and crashed a folk festival there. When the album never came out, we all just split up and headed our separate ways again and remained great friends. I'd see Jimmie up in Denver where he went. Joe (Ely) hung out in Lubbock after he took off for the circus for a little while. I was in upstate Texas and then finally down to Austin. I was the first one of us to move there. Jimmie and Joe had spent a lot of time down in Austin before where they played music and had bands.
Q: You were talking about how you knew Jimmie but how did Joe come into the picture?
He'd been in Lubbock all that time. In fact, he and I lived two blocks from each other when we were little kids. But we were on opposite sides of a busy street and I was a couple of years ahead of him so we really didn't know each other.
But we were all in the same little business with music so we ended up in the same places in Lubbock. We got to realizing that we all knew some of the same songs and we all liked a certain kind of a character of music that wasn't flashy, show-off stuff and that wasn't Nashville junk. It was a lot of the old guys and a lot of the writers that were really creating a kind of poetry and depth to it.
Q: Do you have anyone in particular you have in mind when you say that?
We all loved the old Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, some of the early pioneers of great songwriting. And all the old blues guys- a dozen or so of those guys that would just knock our socks off. We first heard some of Willie Nelson's stuff, the old Tom T. Hall and Roger Miller and those guys. Then a lot of other country guys that were cranking out great stuff. Anybody and everybody from the Beatles to Cliff Carlisle. You can't really innumerate them 'cause one day it was somebody nobody ever heard of that totally blew up away. The next day, it was somebody everybody's heard of.
Q: When the Flatlanders record didn't come out, did that sour you about the music industry?
No, I don't think we were really disappointed. We would have been pleasantly surprised if everything happened. Who knows how it would have come out? It might have been a disaster. I don't think we had any ill feelings about any of it except "Oh, that stupid music industry." If you call that disappointment, then yeah, that's it. But it was just our introduction to the real world.
Q: What were you doing after the Flatlanders broke up?
I went up to a little town (Clarendon) and worked on some projects with some folks, doing a lot of studying. Kind of interior, inner work on the self. Jimmie went off to a guru thing in Denver. Joe was off leading the llamas around the circus. (laughs)
Q: Did you find that this time you spent had a profound impact on you?
So far, I haven't been able to tell if there's ever been a time that hasn't a profound impact on me. Every time, every fucking day. Every locale and every endeavor I've gotten into had different effects. There's no end to that. Of if there is, then that's the end of that! (laughs)
Q: Well maybe I'm just asking what kind of effect did that time right after the Flatlanders have on you?
I think that would reach way outside the scope of an interview. Briefly... Everything effects everything. Everything we do effects us whether it appears to effect us or not. If it appears to have no effect, my God... You don't think that's an effect? Jesus, man...
One thing I should probably mention is I hate to bring up the idea of being a historian, especially about myself. I just think it might be entertaining to some folks but I don't serves any real purpose.
Q: When someone appreciates an artists' work, they may also be curious to see where it all came from or how it came about. That's why they'd be curious to know about the artist.
But how do they do that?
Q: Well, it can't be linear. You're talking about a human life. You could say "this thing happened and then this is how that came about." It's like what you were saying before about cause-and-effect. Somebody who likes your songs might think "I like Butch's work. I wonder where all of his work came from?"
There could be at a minimum of hundreds of stories about any one day in anybody's life. And it'll all be 'true.' And yet none of them or even all of them together would paint the picture.
Q: Certain things can stand out though. Or at least you think they might.
Well, in that case, it's the people who knew someone that you should be interviewing.
Q: Well, maybe you're right!
(laughs) Yeah! When you ask for my preferences for those things, that's not what I like to think about.
Q: OK, fair enough. When Joe started on his solo career, he used a number of your songs for his records. What did you think of his interpretations?
I always enjoyed Joe and Jimmie singing my tunes. That's why we all got together in the first place. To share each other's music. Whatever rubs off on each other, it's part of that continuing effect. I think both of them have done wonderful jobs of singing my tunes. I hope I've done them some justice on my renditions of theirs.
Q: Are there any particular songs that stand out from the ones they covered?
Not really. You're asking me questions like I sit around thinking about that and I don't. My mind is not on those things because if it was, I wouldn't be writing how I write. I think Joe and Jimmie have a similar street. It's like we're every bit fascinated by the reflections in a glass of water here as by any song we've ever written. It may be even more useful.
I'm serious. But what do you care about that? You can't put that in your magazine. That's probably where the answers to most of these questions lie, right in that glass of water. The visual aspect of it could be right there. Just drink it down!
Q: I could take a picture of that and use it instead.
Sure. But before you drop that idea about examining it in depth, I would say that it's more serious than I'm letting on.
Q: How so?
I can't explain it to you. It's something you got to do. It's like a lot of our humor has been throughout the years. A lot of people just don't get some of our humor, which is fine. Seriously though, we could dwell on this glass of water all night long. It would become a focal point around which a lot of ideas that imbue our music and our writing revolves. But it could be anything else. So, shoot! What's next?
Q: OK, to continue... You put out recordings on your own label, Rain Water, for a while. Why did you decide to go along independently on your own and not approach an established label?
Just woke up one morning and realized I could. I realized it would cut out a lot of bullshit. Plus, it was just so interesting to try it. I've always loved the idea of being a guinea pig, especially in something that I might be able to initiate. It was amazing to find out "Hey, you can actually put out your own record!" A lot of people have done that before like church groups and this and that. I think I was about the first guy in Austin to actually put out his own album. Within a few years, a lot of people started doing that. Probably would have happened anyway. Bob Livingston used to pick with Jerry Jeff (Walker) a lot said "Butch, I think you're staring something! You're starting a trend!"
All I was doing just occurred to me one morning. I had been wanting to make an album and I just thought I could do it myself. In the process of doing that, I was introduced to a lot of the basics of business in the world as well as the music industry itself. Although it was on a miniscule scale, it was at a scale where I could understand everything about it. If I had been doing it for a big record company, instantly you've lost touch with what goes on. When you drive up to the record plant and pick up 40 boxes of your new pressing, you drive up to the driveway and pull up to the first stop sign, you turn around and you're very proud. But then you say "Oh shit... Now what do I do?" (laughs) I had not a clue about what I was going to do!
So that was kind of a horrifying awakening. "Oh... now you gotta sell the damn things?" I went around Dallas and drove around and finally found some record shop that would be a likely place to sell one of my records. It was a little head shop, you know. 'Course nobody in Dallas had ever heard of me and I'd go in with a box under each arm. "Hi, I'm Butch Hancock. Yeah, Butch, Hancock... I live down in Austin." So they'd go into this spiel like "We'll take three records on consignment." So I figured that I better figure out another approach than going around to the record shops myself. But I got some good leads from down in Austin and some good reviews here and there. I got on a pretty good little pathway with it. Just kept doing it.
Q: What did you learn from that kind of experience?
I think mainly just that there are lessons to learn whether you do it yourself or whether you do it with a bunch of folks helping you out. I don't have any recommendations to people one way or another. Some people are real clear from the start that they don't want to do any of that stuff themselves- they just want to be a performer and let everyone else worry about the other stuff. For me, it was just part of trying to understand the effect that one guy sitting on a tractor writing a song... where is it going to go next? If it suddenly went out and sold millions of records and you had no concept of what's happening with it, you've instantly lost touch with something.
That's what I loved about starting small in little clubs. You try the songs out and they fly or they don't fly. You get kind of a one-on-one feedback. I'm sure you're missing a lot of the subtleties of what's going on in peoples' heads but you get a kind of physical relation to it. Then you can proceed into a little bigger scales and bigger scales and keep a little bit of semblance of... complete objectivity or at least your attention can be watching for things like that. I think it helps you discern some of the illusions that exist along the way.
Q: Such as...?
That what you think is landing on people is not at all what's really going on. For the first year we played in Austin, we played about once a week at a place called the Split Rail. Everybody started getting these ideas like "Ah, people are looking up to the performing artist." Now, there's so many different viewpoints that people had about that. I finally realized "Wait a minute- I've got the best seat in the house, right up here on stage." Once I realized that, I started saying "Hey, I'm not really the show here. Just look at all these crazy lives being lived out here in the honky tonks."
It was incredible. You start watching and observing the whole world, even if you're a part of it. But you have a distinct advantage or vantage point that's really unique. Everyone takes it for granted and thinks "here's the show." But when you realize it's not... One week, everybody's loud and talking and screaming and dancing and falling over the stage- you think "God, who gives a shit about this music!" The next week, it might just be deadly quiet and everybody's just listening to every word. I could never figure out what caused that. I don't think it was anything different that I was doing. It would just come and go. I would watch the rhythm of it happening, like the moon.
So I think that was one of the more valuable things I learned with starting slow and easy and working up to it rather than... A lot of kids these days, they get together a band, they put the publicity together first and then they got the whole nine yards figured out before they have a decent song to sing. The tail wags the dog in a lot of cases.
Q: Why did you eventually work with Sugar Hill Records and not keep doing records on your own?
I don't know. My manager put me up to that. We got some kind of deal to do a compilation album (Own & Own) with those guys and then another one. They're real nice folks. But it's kind of a trade-off when you're doing your own record company. Since I've never been on a big label, I've never had any kind of advantage of that. There's kind of a massive advertising thing that happens whether they're behind you or not, doing a good job at it or not. Just the association with the name creates a thing in peoples' mind. I was glad that I didn't do that just for that reason. It's kept me on more of a... It's taught me to be able to walk in, play my songs in a place where nobody had ever heard of me and they're (saying) "who the hell are you?" Well, I am who I am. Rather than "Hi, I'm Sony recording artist..." (They own everything now, don't they?) "Oh, Sony recording artist! Yes!" and the stars are in their eyes.
It's kind of like presidents. I'm not even amused by them. But Joe and Jimmie have both been through big record deals and all that stuff. They've experienced whatever they've experienced doing that and come out fine. It's not like I disrespect the big companies, it's just that they're big companies, that's all. Most of the people that are in the big companies one-on-one are wonderful, nice people. But they're caught up in the business- they could be here and gone tomorrow. It's a different beast right there and I don't feel like it's a big dragon I have to slay. There's more important dragons in my life.
Q: What do you mean?
I mean, inside. I think the dragon of thinking that those big record companies might be just what I need. That's a pretty good one to try and walk away from or extinguish the fire of it.
Q: Are you still active with your photography?
Not so much in the last few years. I haven't been doing as much photos. I hopefully expect to get a bunch of books done.
Q: You're less interested in that aspect of your work now?
No, I've just been busy raising a little kid. I haven't been travelling as much- that's when I do a lot of photography stuff. I just kind of like songwriting. But I don't really care if I write another song. I never have. I suspect I will though. But if I don't, I have no disappointments whatsoever. (laughs) I've done a fair amount of songwriting and this and that but I don't want to depend on that for my minute-by-minute feelings about myself.
Q: Do you think that your photography work is related to your songwriting in any way?
Yeah, it's all one big ball of wax. Probably the way I go about photography is pretty similar to my songwriting. I'm not a studio photographer. It's more just out on the street, observing. Which is kind of where my songwriting comes from. You observe stuff, take it in and develop it. Let it hang on the walls of the back of your mind for a while and see what comes out of that.
Q: So you see a photographer's eye as being similar to a songwriter's eye?
Could be. I think one of our jobs in life is to see and all that that can mean. But we don't have to learn how to write. That's a whole other different thing. But we do need to learn to see 'cause within that comes the initial creative experience of putting things together and tapping into the intuitive understandings. Then if you choose to try to describe that in whatever form, songwriting or architecture or photography or sculpture or painting or digging a ditch or writing an article or serving spaghetti, that's how it all comes out.
Q: What motivated you to start up your Lubbock Or Leave It gallery?
It just seemed like a good idea at the time. (laughs) I didn't have any business really doing that, it was just kind of an experiment.
Q: Was it successful or fulfilling in any way?
What happened was that I actually wound up touring a lot and being away from it a lot. So I wasn't really able to set it up in a way that I could really take good advantage of. Barbara Roseman watched over the place for me while I was gone. But I learned everything I needed to learn from that.
Q: Could you talk about the television show you've been producing?
George Howard and I put together a little video production where we taped about 160 shows over a three year period with live shows. It was a kind of like a minuture Austin City Limits that was more Austin than Austin City Limits eventually became. They expanded and became national. It was kind of on the same scale that I was describing my songwriting in our approach to the music industry itself. It was fun that you could actually get your hands on this- I was actually one of the cameramen myself. It was just a great time for a lot of people. We put a bunch of people there to work out in a good atmosphere. A lot of it was voluntary labor. Another money-losing proposition! We might see some more results of it, maybe digitalize all of the tapes. There's some great slices of a time in Austin where we taped everyone from Townes Van Zandt to Lonnie Mack to Marcia Ball. Just some great folks.
That was great, great fun for me, getting to be on the other side of the camera. I learned that booking agents earn their money! That's one of the hardest things to do.
Q: That probably gave you a different perspective on the whole process.
Yeah it did. The fun of living in Austin was that there a lot of this music happening everywhere but there could be people you've known for years but you haven't gone out and heard them play. So here was a situation where people were coming into our club and playing. We had a studio set up like a lounge in a live club. We used all hand-held cameras to get away from the tripod things. We did some really incredible camera work, great editing. It got played on a lot of the cable stations all around Texas. We went out and did about 200-300 commercials just for people around Austin, for mom-and-pop shops with 20 second commercials with music. Most of the music was like instrument portions of stuff that had been on the programs. It all had an interesting continuity to it. That was pretty neat.
That was another thing of learning a lot about a whole other industry. It was all in a small enough, hands-on scale that you touch into the large scale things without being eaten up by it.
Q: And it gives you more control over what you do.
I don't think that's the point. Control is part of the illusion. It's how you deal with the changes that come about. I defy anyone to know the source of all those changes.
Q: Could you talk about the "30-days Song Project" (1993) that you did?
(laughs) It's kind of embarrassing. I came up with the idea of doing 30 dates in February and extend over to March. I think my manager talked me into it- "You need kind of a cause or something we can a handle for the reviewers we get a hold of." It was a lot of fun but I never got into it. I think what happened was that I went off for tours right after that and I didn't have time to really sit down and work out the details.
Q: Do you find it hard to balance being a songwriter, artist, photographer, producer?
No, it's just that every once in a while, you have to back off and do one thing at a time. They all kind of feed each other. There's times where one obviously takes more precedence than another one, has more of a vibe to it so you follow that for a while. In the down-times, it's good to have some other things to be working on in a creative way while you're doing a re-charge on another activity.
Q: I heard about the Far-Flung rafting trips that you've been doing. How do you like that experience of being out there on the river with a group of people and then having them for an audience in the evenings?
I love it. It's the best gig on the planet. You boat in the day-time through incredible country. You have the challenge of the river, which is a whole other story. Then sitting around, playing music around the campfire, which is the best place to play music, under the stars. Can't beat it. Even in a thunderstorm. Whatever nature brings your way.
Q: You've been described as a "reluctant music careerist." Would you agree?
I don't know. You'll have to ask whoever described me. I really don't try to image that for people. Some folks like to- they're like "Oh yes, I do this and that!" I'd rather go out and dig a whole in the ground than to do that. I actually enjoy digging wholes in the ground! (laughs)
Q: What kind of projects do you have planned for the future?
I'm going to be working on a house out in the desert. I've literally been digging a whole out there. We just bought some land. If you think any of my songs are slightly off the beaten path, wait 'til you see the buildings I build. They're going to be different things.
Q: Are there any of your own songs or records that have special meaning for you or are personal favorites?
Probably my last one, You Coulda Walked Around The World. It's a lot of songs that I've written when I was out in the desert.
See some of Butch's favorite music
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