Cosmic cowboy

Jimmie Dale Gilmore goes once more into the mystic

If you drive northwest on U.S. 84 long enough you'll hit the cap rock, an elevated expanse that sits several hundred feet above the land to the south. The lookout from the plateau is striking: the vastness below and the flat expanse behind, juxtaposed beneath a sky so huge that it seems a miracle anything thrown up into it ever falls back to earth. It's the meeting of two worlds, and it has a magic all its own.

Talk about your two worlds: Ask Jimmie Dale Gilmore the usual bullshit interview questions and he stammers and stumbles around the answers like a 15-year-old buying his first rubber. Get him talking about something that interests him, however--say, the philosophies of British author Aldous Huxley--and his delivery quickens, smoothing out like a professor's, except for a bright-eyed enthusiasm that very few lecture halls have ever seen.

Gilmore is a seeker, and his music is studded with souvenirs like the walls of some old seafarer's cabin, wood barely visible beneath exotic mementoes, shrunken heads, and mandalas. Gilmore's country roots peek out from behind decorations picked up along his way: mandolins that sound like Bill Monroe one minute and Russian balalaikas the next, violins that are part barn dance and part gypsy, and lyrics that often sound like they were written by a couple of Hare Krishnas stringing barbed wire fence right outside of Fort Davis.

Raised on a farm in Tulia, Texas, Gilmore moved to Lubbock in the first grade. As he grew up he collected a talented collection of hometown friends: Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Terry Allen, essayist Michael Ventura, and more. If you talk to Gilmore about the "Lubbock effect," however, you'll soon find out he doesn't put much trust in things definable by cartography, a too-rare refutation of the dumbass-lazy "how many y'all from Texas?!?" crutch that too many use. "I personally don't subscribe much to geographical theories," he says, choosing his words carefully. "I think it's just the people you're around. In all different times in history there have been art colonies, and I don't think it's ever had to do with the place so much as just the convergence of certain minds."

In 1972 a 26-year-old Gilmore--together with Hancock, Ely, and four others--went to Nashville and cut an album full of spare, lonely, and brilliant songs. Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders' One Road More had to wait a decade to be released (as an import); it would be 16 years before Gilmore bothered with an album again.

In the meantime, he embarked on an aimless hegira that took him to New Orleans and then Denver searching out answers and exploring Eastern philosophy. In Denver he studied the teachings of the Marahaj Ji, a teen-age Indian guru who was the object of much media scorn in America. While other Texans were discovering their inner cosmic cowboy, Gilmore was working as a janitor and playing little.

He moved to Austin in 1980, having realized that singing was what he was wanted to do and lured by the vitality of the scene. First regarded warily--the guru thing--he quickly won the town back over; after all, he had played the Armadillo World Headquarters' grand opening. Skinny with short hair and big, squarish glasses, he resembled a young, underfed Bill Gates more than a potential country-folk icon.

That fits, for Gilmore was one of the first people in town to own a computer. "I had really kept up with the Whole Earth Catalog and The CoEvolution Quarterly," he explains, "plus Gregory Bateson and Bucky Fuller; I got really involved in the idea of computers being available to the general public. It's real interesting to watch now, because it worked."

Gilmore went through various changes, making three OK albums for small labels, albums that seemed to lack a sense of center; Gilmore at one time described his music as "rhythm-and-blues-a-billy" for a promo sheet. He didn't really click until 1991, when After Awhile, his first major-label album, on Elektra/Nonesuch, came out. After Awhile was slick and accessible yet still true to its maker, and was the start of an amazing trio of recordings that continued with 1993's Spinning Around the Sun and now includes this year's T-Bone Burnett-produced Braver Newer World. Each album moves forward yet still is very much connected to its brothers by some undeniably bright threads.

The brightest of those may be his voice--similar to Sinead O'Connor's, with just the slightest hint of the unearthly--a rare gift that almost seems like another entity visiting the body. His singing is uncanny in its purity, approaching the crystalline quality of cold spring water, certain birds' songs, or crisp post-cold-front air. "I've listened to this record over and over," Gilmore says. "And I just have this feeling almost like I'm listening to somebody else. It's very odd. I feel somewhat--not exactly distant, because, I mean, I was there, but there's something about it that's almost like it was coming from somewhere else."

Purity and stasis are not the same thing, and Gilmore manipulates his voice fearlessly, almost courageously. On Spinning's respectful but successful remake of Hank Williams Sr.'s "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Gilmore introduces a vibrato into his longer notes that's almost a trill and sounds very much like the final note of a whippoorwill's--yes, lonely--call. He can push his voice through climbing yodels or draw a note out as sweet and fine--and strong--as sugared piano wire.

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.

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