Lone Star Satori
By Kevin Berger
The last time I saw Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the most poetic and lovely country singer in America, he was playing on a little wooden stage hammered up on the perimeter of the walkway to the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Just around the corner from Gilmore, 8,000 people were listening to Confederate Railroad, an indistinguishable group of guys in tight jeans with long shag haircuts, singing their current hit, "Simple Man," a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Well, I thought, here is American culture crystallized under the summer sun. The rare, original artist, enchanting a handful of fans with his heartbreaking, tender voice, is being drowned out by a bad '70s cover song at a "Summer Country Festival" sponsored by Seagram's.
"It was a little
odd," says Gilmore in a soft, slow Texas drawl when reminded
of that moment. "But I've been playing for such a very long
time that I have an extremely thick skin about all of that. I'm
just so aware of how the music business works. There's a small
core of intense music lovers who seek out something special,
but most people are happy to go along with the crowd."
But then, it would
be out of character for the 51-year-old singer, whose marvelous
fifth album, "Braver Newer World," has just been released
on Elektra, to criticize anyone. Jo Carol Pierce, the first of
Gilmore's three wives and an idiosyncratic -- not to mention
outright randy -- Texas singer and songwriter in her own right,
has said that Gilmore "really is a true sweetheart. I don't
think that I've ever heard Jimmie say anything bad about anybody.
. . . It's a kind of sweetness in the genes, I think."
That essential sweetness is transformed into tranquility, a cycle of yearning and acceptance, in Gilmore's music. With a precise intelligence, he uses the perfect blend of Americana to bring his songs to life: melodies from country and western, rhythms from swing and rock 'n' roll, fills from folk and bluegrass. Gilmore's voice, an eerie, plaintive, lyrical warble, can turn a single prosaic line like, "Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night?" into a celebration of the city's splendors and a lament for its discontents.
one false step in Gilmore's career was the single that was supposed
to be his breakthrough: his recording of Hank Williams' "I'm
So Lonesome I Could Cry," from the 1993 album "Spinning
Around the Sun." The only contemporary singer capable of
lowering listeners into the grave of Williams' loneliness, Gilmore
sounds stylized covering his mentor -- precisely the opposite
of how he sounds when he sings his own compositions or those
by Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, friends from his native Lubbock,
twang, for some reason, has remained off country radio and on
the margins of commercial success. "There are a lot of program
directors at country stations who are fans of mine," he
says. "And they have outright told me, right to my face,
'I love your music, but we can't play it because it's just too
different from what our audience is used to.' It's kind of a
silly way for them to go about it, but it's something I have
to live with.
With his new album,
"Braver Newer World," Gilmore wanders even further
afield. "I made a real deliberate decision to become a lot
more experimental and get unshackled from the 'country music'
label," he says. "There are a lot of people who would
like my music, but are turned off by the whole idea of country
music. This time around, I wanted to show that I came from a
more diverse background. I've always had every bit as much a
love for rock and roll and blues, for Elvis, Chuck Berry and
Robert Johnson, as I had for country."
World," which was produced by T-Bone Burnett and recorded
in Los Angeles with such fine musicians as drummer Jim Keltner,
is not a total departure from Gilmore's previous work, however.
The rockabilly may be a little more pronounced than the folk
music, but the legendary artists who Gilmore has evoked since
he formed his first band in Lubbock in the '60s -- Buddy Holly,
Hank Snow, Roy Orbison -- are still wandering through his rhythms
Some of the album's
lyrics, particularly in "Borderland" and "Outside
the Lines," seem to acknowledge Gilmore's position outside
the mainstream. For example, when he sings "I painted myself
into a corner/But footprints/Are just about to become part of
my design," he seems to be making peace with his place on
the margins. "I guess that's true," he says. "But
my attitude, and I've had this attitude for a really long time,
is I am a type of rebel, but I've never been an angry rebel.
I've just gone my own way.
"See, I feel
there's a common humanity among everybody. But if your criticism
of society is that it's unfeeling and unresponsive and unpleasant,
well, then, it's sort of absurd to turn around and fight it with
those very same approaches. I think being judgmental is about
the worst thing anybody can be.
to "integrate my spiritual life and life in music,"
Gilmore returned to Texas. Although his personal turmoil wasn't
entirely behind him, he began to get his career on course, playing
in clubs and bars in and around Austin, where he now lives. His
first two albums, "Fair and Square" and "Jimmie
Dale Gilmore," recorded in 1988 and 1989 for Oakland's Hightone
label, cast him as a staunchly traditional country singer. His
next two albums, "After Awhile" and "Spinning
Around the Sun," recorded for Elektra, are fleshed out with
a wider range of instrumentation, yet one which grants them an
of his spiritual background, Gilmore's work is often labeled
"Zen country music." "I thought it was hilarious
the first time I heard it," he says. "But now it's
become a regular attachment. Technically, I'm not a Buddhist,
but I've got so many friends who are, and I've been associated
with it for so long, that people always call me that... I'm not
ashamed of it, but it's slightly inaccurate."
Gilmore has been
an avid reader since he was a teenager, when Somerset Maugham's
"A Razor's Edge" was his favorite book. He is particularly
drawn to science and comparative religion; after working his
way through Einstein and immersing himself in Vedanta philosophy,
he strives these days to keep up with the cosmologists who link
quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy.
Kevin Berger is a San Francisco author and editor.