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A lot of "insurgent" honky-tonk acts draw their vocal cues from punk--it's easier to sing and often doesn't appear to have to be in any particular key. Gilmore--despite his eclecticism--is much more directly tied to the history of country, retaining the traditions of the Louvin Brothers and Jimmie Rodgers. He's not at odds with the genre's young turks, though:Lately he's been collaborating with the Old 97's after the band ran into him in Halden, Norway.
"We had so much fun," Gilmore recalls. "I was gone so much, I never heard them play. The first time I saw 'em they just blew my mind. They did this really beautiful version of 'Dallas'...The melody's the same, but it's very slow and bluesy," he says. "They really remind me in this odd way of a '90s version of Buddy Holly."
That same acceptance and flexibility tends to keep Gilmore a cult hero; the industry can't figure out what he is or how to market him, so it leaves him alone. That's OK, though; Gilmore says he understands but pretty much rejects the whole idea behind the confusion.
"Formats--to me--are meaningless," he says. "The whole idea of categorization is a red herring. For certain practical reasons you have to boil it down a little bit, but it's artificial. That's what created this [marketing] problem for me--those boundaries go against my whole approach."
He continues. "Personally, I obviously grew up with country music, but I was so involved with early rock 'n' roll [his dad once took him to see Elvis open for Johnny Cash] and folk and blues that to me all those things are completely blended together...in my taste if not necessarily in my style." This mixture--not quite miscible--often separates out into new and surprising songs: the romantic crooner of Spinning's Elvis cover "I Was the One," and two gems off of Braver Newer World: a version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Black Snake Moan" that's positively Beck street, and his own "Outside the Lines," a stomping surprise that sounds like a collision between Gilmore, the Shirelles, and Grand Funk Railroad.
Gilmore's lyrics are word pictures that always seem to be facing at least one mirror, and there is always a tension--best expressed in the funny but trenchant "My Mind's Got a Mind of Its Own"--between conflicting reflections: Gilmore builds a house, then tears it down, or contemplates committing suicide "in self-defense." Often the lyrics are like countrified Zen koans, full of clever wordplay and opaque--but significant--meanings. One of the best examples of this is "Just a Wave," in which what is essentially a put-down--"You're just a wave, you're not the water"--is so full of elegantly layered implications that you almost wish you could be dumped by somebody who expresses themselves like that. Other times Gilmore is odd to the point of isolation, yet stating his case so simply that the weirdness hardly registers, as in "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown." The narrator of "Downtown" tries to excuse himself from a situation with his love by claiming that "this world's just not real to me," certainly a unique defense.
Of course, there are many worlds, and Gilmore seems determined to check them all out. "I've had a lifelong interest in...what you would call mysticism," he says. "I think that's better than spirituality, and definitely [better than] religion. Early on I was interested in the whole Hindu thing and was pretty consumed with reading all the Vedanta [holy ancient Hindu] stuff, plus a lot of English authors--Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, and Alan Watts."
This is where Gilmore really gets rolling, animatedly talking about Vedic texts and Huxley's concept of "perennial philosophies"--basic tenets that appear in almost every culture, the roots of our spiritual instruction. "If you say Hindu or Buddhist," Gilmore argues, "it automatically puts a spin on things that isn't there...Huxley's saying that these common philosophies show up all over the world, in many cultures. It's like philosophy's unified field theory, really."
It's also what Gilmore is looking for in music: the essentials, the basic texts that link everything he loves--dirty blues, country, rock, and folk. "You should have respect for all of it," he advises, pointing out that music is a perennial philosophy all its own. "The connectedness is more important than the difference."
Jimmy Dale Gilmore, the Old 97's, and Dale Watson play Deep Ellum Live August 31.