Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Vision Thing

Jimmie Dale Gilmore takes country music out of the mainstream and into the mystic

Jimmie Dale Gilmore Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

JIMMIE DALE GILMORE'S train of thought makes all the stops. During one memorable conversation two years ago at an espresso bar in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, Gilmore described how he wrote one of his best-known songs, "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown." The story itself wasn't much; he'd hit an impasse on the tune halfway through, and a guitarist friend, John Reed, helped him finish it. But the winding detours Gilmore took in telling the story were something else. For the better part of an hour, he waxed large on obscure Texas rock history (Gilmore was in the house band at Austin's old psychedelic ballroom the Vulcan Gas Company); deep academia (he once studied logic and linguistic analysis with a guy who had studied under Bertrand Russell); Mark Twain ("He could say the most dark, true things in the world and still make it funny"); and the lack of comedy in his own songwriting ("My standards are too high"). There were also passing mentions of Aldous Huxley and the Indian mystic Swami Divachananda ("My favorite overall writer"). Obviously, for Gilmore, music wasn't just a matter of notes and rhymes, it was an act of spiritual and intellectual passage.

"In my music, what's going on is a recognition and appreciation of the ineffable," Gilmore noted. "With my voice, I will never be categorized outside of country. But the things I'm most interested in are the least common themes in country music."

Gilmore has since changed his tune – slightly. In conversation, he still rides the zigzag express, hugging the rails in a breathless drawl that echoes the high, lonesome shiver of his singing voice. Over lunch recently in Los Angeles, talking about his major-label debut on Elektra, Spinning Around the Sun, Gilmore tries to describe his unique brand of country music via offramp chats about old Delta blues ("Young country fans don't know how much the music derives from these old black guys"), radical '60s politics ("I was a big fan of Paul Krassner – still am") and punk rock ("I went with my son to see the Cramps, and it blew my mind!").

But Gilmore has discovered that the restless intellect and resistance to easy packaging that once kept him out of the country mainstream is now leading to a bigger payday. "Because of the separation from most country music, people are shocked by the rest of my interests, and that becomes fun for everyone to talk and write about," he says. "It used to seem like the kind of thing that would destroy my career. Instead, it seems to be making my career as an American musician."

The proof is in the impact. Gilmore, 48, was recently voted Best Country Artist in the Rolling Stone Critics Poll for the third straight year, and Spinning Around the Sun – the follow-up to Gilmore's 1991 LP After Awhile (which was part of the Elektra Nonesuch/American Explorer series) – has received a Grammy nomination this year for Best Folk Album. Gilmore has appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno as well as the Nashville Network, has shared stages with acts as diverse as Bob Dylan and Dwight Yoakam and is about to release a one-off single on Sub Pop – honest! – that he recorded last year with Mudhoney.

Gilmore's growing success has everything to do with his definition of country music, which is as broad as the West Texas plains where he was born and raised. In concert, he'll cover Boz Scaggs' "Up to You" as Bill Monroe gone roadhouse and jam on Elmore James' "Goodbye Baby" with ZZ Top mettle. Then he'll sing Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" as if to the manner born, his operatic coyote tenor capturing the whine of Williams' midnight train with a rare, vivid dignity.

As a songwriter, Gilmore cites major debts to Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac while noting tangential sources like M.C. Escher's surrealist puzzle art and the teachings of the Indian guru Maharaj Ji. Yet the lanky Amarillo-born Texan's best songs are incisive meditations on the everyday, like "Dallas," a reflective ode on the city's nightscape as seen from a DC-9, and "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night," which speaks volumes of pain and hope just in the title.

"This isn't being coy or anything," Gilmore says, "but I believe that because I'm not a good enough musician, I could never have copied a style. That's not where my talent lies. It's as if I'm an expressive actor, and the songs are my lines. To me, it doesn't matter if I wrote the song or not." In fact, Spinning Around the Sun, a richly rendered document of Gilmore's myriad influences and musical interests, features only four new original songs.

"I made a decision," Gilmore says, "to present a portrait of myself through the stuff that shaped me." That means not only the music of Williams and Elvis Presley (a cover of the King's great '56 B side "I Was the One") but traditional Americana ("Mobile Line [France Blues]") and the songs of Gilmore's close friend and longtime maverick/country associate Butch Hancock (including the elegant lament "Just a Wave"). "I've written some pretty good songs," Gilmore says unabashedly, "but if Butch writes a song that I like better than my new song, I'll do his. That's just the way I've always operated."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore's linchpin place in Texas music is well known. In the '60s, when Bob Dylan, the Beatles and psychedelia dropped a collective bomb on Lone Star youth, the fallout was particularly deep in Lubbock, where Gilmore was part of a gang of hip young aesthetes – aspiring seers and serenaders with rock & roll blood – that included Hancock, Joe Ely, Terry Allen and David Halley. "In a sense we were similar to the Parisian expatriates – Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein," says Gilmore. "It was like a West Texas salon that spilled over into the honky-tonks.

"The big thing about us was we were never political activists in the literal sense," Gilmore adds. "We were anarchists with love, with good feelings rather than hatred. Which is what brought us, strangely enough, into conflict with the California and New York people, who were similar to us but had an anger thing happening. We went into the '60s thing with a cheery kind of attitude. I'll have to admit there were times when I lost my optimism. But we were sort of congenital gnostics."

More like congenial gnostics, actually, given the literate, barroom-friendly spirituality that became the hallmark of the art-roots music made by the Lubbock gang. "We had this quality control going on in this little circle of friends," Gilmore recalls fondly. "We were so mutually encouraged by each other at a time when we had hardly any outside contact musically. We gave each other permission, in a sense, to keep on with what we were doing."

In 1971, Gilmore, Hancock and Ely formed the Flatlanders, a twang & roll band famous now partly for its prescient fusion of rock, country and Dylanesque lyricism and partly for making a jewel of an album that wasn't properly released until 1990, 18 years after the group broke up. (The LP was titled, rather aptly, More a Legend Than a Band.) Ely went on to early solo success, Hancock issued a series of his own fine, home-grown solo LPs, and Gilmore, after years of woodshedding, returned to recording in the late '80s with two critically acclaimed independent albums on the Hightone label.

What is less known about Gilmore is the tortuous path that brought him to greater fame. Born in 1945 and named after his father's favorite singer, Jimmie Rodgers, Gilmore was already an avid student of Hindu philosophy when, during the Flatlanders' waning days, he was invited to hear a disciple of Maharaj Ji speak in Austin. Gilmore quickly became a convert of the notorious, then-teen-age guru.

"One friend of mine thinks I was so devastated by the Flatlanders thing that I turned to this," Gilmore notes. "The thing was, I was just searching around. I didn't give up on music. I gave up on the business."

For much of the '70s, Gilmore lived in Denver, where the Maharaj Ji had his world headquarters. Gilmore studied macrobiotics and acupuncture and worked as a janitor in a synagogue. Then, on New Year's Day 1980, he went back to Austin to resume a career in music. He roomed with Hancock, who was living and gigging there, and took on Ely (also back in the neighborhood) as his temporary manager.

"The commitment I had to make to all that studying forced me to choose between that and music," Gilmore says. "And I realized I didn't want to do anything but music. The connection with all the meditation stuff is that I began to feel that music was a calling rather than just a livelihood. It was tied up in something else.

"My manager Mike [Crowley] thinks this kind of talk is charming," he adds, laughing. "Then again, he worked with Col. Tom Parker as Elvis' road manager!"

Ironically, Gilmore actually has Indian blood in him – American Indian, that is, mixed with a good dose of Irish. All four of his grandparents were part Cherokee, and you can see it in his hawkish, weather beaten features. He looks and acts a lot like the songs he writes and sings – proud, earthy, unaffected, vigorously idealistic. Gilmore can flood a room with howdy-good-to-know-you sunshine, then pensively expound on the impact W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge has had on his life and music. He has been down on the drag (there was an early '80s bout with alcoholism) and has been through the music-biz grind. Yet Gilmore, who became a grandfather two years ago, carries himself through the hoopla of the fast-lane life with a childlike openness and serenity.

"Being calm and accepting, maintaining a perspective through stressful situations, I attribute that to the Hindu in me," Gilmore claims. "I always thought that odd, though. I have these two Indian things happening in the body of an Irishman."

Which helps explain the potent duality of Gilmore's songwriting. On the surface, "I'm Gonna Love You" and "Thinking About You," from Spinning Around the Sun, are straightforward songs of romance. But they are love songs, Gilmore points out, "in the old Sufi tradition, the love poems directed toward God or the infinite. It's like the old line: 'A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou' – a romantic metaphor for the infinite love.

"When I focus on what I've learned in my personal life, my spiritual quest," he says thoughtfully, "it puts all the rest of it – the music business, the success – in perspective. I understand that life is a great and amazing miracle. And even if life is a total illusion and a dream, I'm still here living the dream. And very lucky to be in it."