Jimmie Dale Gilmore Covers His Bases

Jimmie Dale Gilmore sings the songs of his heroes and reflects on the future of the Flatlanders

Over the course of his thirty-some-odd years as a musician, Jimmie Dale Gilmore has racked up no small amount of critical accolades. As the lead singer of the on-again, off-again accidental Texas supergroup the Flatlanders (alongside fellow Lubbock natives Joe Ely and Butch Hancock), he's considered a genuine legend in the Lone Star State and by discerning Americana cultists the world over. As a solo artist, he's been hailed as an heir to Willie Nelson and topped a Rolling Stone critic's poll as the "Best Country Artist." But shortly before the release of his latest album, One Endless Night, Gilmore received one mark of approval that trumped them all.

"My dad had one of the very early copies of the album, and he loved a couple of things on there immediately," says Gilmore, calling from Lubbock, where he's presently seeing to his ailing father's health. "But my mom told me that he was sitting there in his wheelchair the other day, and he said, 'Boy, this thing really grows on you, doesn't it?'"

He chuckles. "I thought that's about the greatest compliment I've ever gotten -- my own dad." Turns out he's a tougher critic than one might think. "He's an old time, serious country fan," explains Gilmore. "He likes a little bit of early rock & roll, but it got it too far out for him pretty quick; he didn't really like the Beatles, but I did. So he's always anxious for my stuff to go back to the olden sound."

Sometimes, Gilmore, Sr. has to be patient on that front. Although his son possesses perhaps the finest pure country voice by any man alive today -- high and lonesome in all the right places, but distinguished most of all by an indescribable, almost spooky fragility that gooses every word he sings -- his music has always been just as much informed by rock & roll. His last album, 1996's T-Bone Burnett-produced Braver New World, was downright weird, like a West Texan version of say, Dark Side of the Moon. "We asked [Burnett] to go out on a limb that I hadn't gone out on before, and he did," says Gilmore. "I love that record, but some of my fans were a little put off by it -- the people who are more into the traditional thing."

Those traditionalists blindsided by Braver New World can consider One Endless Night as Gilmore's peace offering. Recorded in Nashville with producer Buddy Miller -- axeman of choice for Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle -- the album finds Gilmore reigning in his more experimental side to focus his strengths on the songs at hand, with daring atmospherics shelved in favor of honest simplicity.

"With Buddy, one thing I noticed pretty early into it was that that he genuinely loved the exact same music that I do," says Gilmore, citing a shared love for "real old time country & western," the blues, rock & roll and "sweet, folky balladish stuff." The result is an uncommonly sublime singer-songwriter album, albeit one that only features three original songs by Gilmore (including the lead title track).

"I never have considered myself as a songwriter first and foremost," Gilmore explains. "I've always considered myself as kind of an interpreter and a collector, and I've always spent as much energy on learning other people's songs and old songs as my own songs. If there was a song that somebody else wrote that I like better than one of my own, I'd rather do the one I like better. People always ask, 'Why aren't you exercising your own creativity?' To me, my creativity has a lot to do with just the love of the music, and interpretation ... I almost look at it as an accident that I've written some good songs."

Gilmore says that the songs picked for the album were written by some of his biggest influences, most of whom he regards as unsung heroes. Townes Van Zandt, Willis Alan Ramsey and Jesse Winchester are all proudly represented, as are John Hiatt and Jerry Garcia (via a back porch-worthy rendition of the Grateful Dead's "Ripple.") But not surprisingly, it's Gilmore's Flatlanders partner and life-long friend Butch Hancock who has the honor of being covered twice on the album ("Down by the Banks of the Guadalupe" and "Ramblin' Man"). "I didn't have any Butch songs on Braver New World, and a lot of people gave me flak for that," laughs Gilmore. "I used to always tell people that Butch Hancock has ruined my songwriting career, because he was always coming out with so many songs that I spent so much energy learning that I didn't have any left to write my own."

Gilmore's been singing a great many Hancock songs lately, though, along with Ely's and his own, as the Flatlanders have embarked on their first ever national tour. It's been nearly three decades since the group recorded its lone album together, but it was only in the last couple of years that the three of them got around to writing new songs together (including "The South Wind of Summer," which appeared on the 1998 soundtrack to The Horse Whisperer). Whether or not a new album will result remains to be seen, but Gilmore doesn't exactly count it out.

"The three of us have written some songs together that are very weird, and they're very interesting, and at some point they'll have to surface," he admits. And though he remains committed to his solo work -- he'll continue to tour on his own after the Flatlanders tour ends, and even do a few solo dates between Flatlanders stops -- Gilmore seems to maintain an open mind in regards to the future of the group. "The Flatlanders are going to be forever in my life, and that's not a bad thing."