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Nashville Scene Without Borders

Jimmie Dale Gilmore's music is as vast and earthy as the Texas soil

By Michael McCall

MARCH 13, 2000:  Jimmie Dale Gilmore understands why people don't often hear him on the radio. At a time when the music industry likes to divide America into distinct subcultures, he brings musical worlds together rather than separating them. He's resisted a narrow definition of himself for as long as he can remember.

"When I was young, I was a country fan when none of my peers were," says the 54-year-old native of Texas, who was born in Amarillo and grew up in rural Tulia before moving on to Lubbock. "There was a time when it was strange to like country music, because rock 'n' roll had come along and most everyone my age was drawn to it. But I genuinely loved country music as much as I loved rock 'n' roll. I always have."

For most people, though, the emergence of rock drew a cultural line. To be young in Texas in the 1950s meant you either joined the hip rock movement or you stuck with tradition-bound country music. Even then, Gilmore wanted to exist in both worlds. "But the rock people I knew looked down on country music, and I didn't understand that. At the same time, the people I knew who loved country didn't like rock 'n' roll or folk music, and I never understood that, either. I've always related to both."

As a music-maker, Gilmore creates his best music when straddling musical idioms. He's made straight country music, including his 1988 debut, Fair and Square. He's also pushed deeply into rock 'n' roll, especially with 1996's psychedelic Braver New World, which he made with producer T Bone Burnett. But Gilmore's new album, One Endless Night, has more in common with his outstanding early '90s works, After Awhile and Spinning Around the Sun. It was on those collections that he forged a distinct musical style of his own, making the best of his ghostly tenor and his gently observant, richly evocative songwriting.

On One Endless Night, Gilmore's first collaboration with Nashville-based producer Buddy Miller, the Texan concentrates on cover songs rather than interpreting his own material. "That wasn't intentional, but at some point I realized that most of the songs I wanted to record were written by someone else," says Gilmore, who speaks softly and reflectively, but whose words tend to rush out as he gets going. "Now I think it's a good thing, because I've never thought of myself as a writer. I always perceived myself as more of a singer and a music lover and a collector of good songs."

That may sound strange from a man who has written songs as distinct and powerful as "Dallas," "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night," "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," and "These Blues." But he is a powerful and unique interpreter, and One Endless Night suggests he's the modern-day heir of such classic musical alchemists as Marty Robbins and Willie Nelson. As with those performers, Gilmore blends rock, country, folk, and blues into something of his own, and he gives this polyglot sound a flavor that draws on his Southwestern roots.

As with Robbins and Nelson, Gilmore's expressive voice owns a cosmic, wholly American tone that balances mysticism and earthiness in equal portions, and he loves melody, sweetly resonant guitar notes, and down-home rhythms. To extend the comparison even further, he's a fine songwriter, yet he also fearlessly embraces standards, obscure tunes, and new material. As One Endless Night proves, he interprets the songs of others with the same sense of individuality and integrity that he brings to his own compositions.

"At a certain point, it dawned on me that I was paying homage to a broad range of songwriters who affected me," Gilmore says of the album's song selection. The list includes a hefty dose of Texas prairie mystics, including Townes Van Zandt ("No Lonesome Tune"), Willis Alan Ramsey ("Goodbye Old Missoula"), Butch Hancock ("Ramblin' Man"), and Walter Hyatt ("Georgia Rose").

But the selection also ranges far afield too. Among the album's most memorable tunes is a stunningly spiritual take on the Grateful Dead's "Ripple," a song written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Gilmore is just as effective on the breezier but similarly worldly wise "Defying Gravity," written by Jesse Winchester. He also weighs in with a powerful version of John Hiatt's "Your Love Is My Rest." But the song likely to draw the most attention is his ethereal retooling of the Brecht-Weill standard "Mack the Knife," which Gilmore resurrects from its lounge-lizard history by slowing the song down and turning it into a moody piece of resigned, late-night revelry.

Gilmore credits Miller with creating the perfect collaborative vibe, which freed him to put his own mark on these songs. "Buddy honestly loves the same music I do," Gilmore says. "I really feel like I stumbled upon a jewel when I hooked up with Buddy."

As it turns out, Buddy and his wife Julie Miller were once next-door neighbors to Gilmore's longtime musical compadre, Butch Hancock, in Austin in the '70s. But Gilmore never met them then. He believes Steve Earle introduced him to Miller a couple of years ago at a folk festival. They later got to know each other better when Gilmore opened a few shows for Emmylou Harris, who was using Miller as her guitarist in the band Spyboy.

"That was when we actually had time to hang out," Gilmore says. "We really hit it off, and that got the ball rolling. Buddy is a genuine rock 'n' roller, and he genuinely loves country music--the real kind. Then on top of that, he's a great technician and engineer and producer. So we share all those interests."

Although Gilmore's album has an earthy, natural feel, he's quick to point out that it was recorded on a Macintosh computer. "I've been messing with computers since they first came out," he says. "Buddy is a beta tester for Pro Tools editing software. He's a real expert at it. That's one of the reasons we were able to get the sound we wanted on the album."

Gilmore realizes some people might be surprised that a musician like himself, whose work is so rooted in traditional sound, would readily embrace computerized recording technology. "Well, a microphone or an electric guitar or a speaker is high technology," he notes. "As soon as you use them, you're no longer creating a natural sound. I mean, a guitar string itself is a technical marvel. So I've never had any fear of technology. It's all about knowing how to use it and what you're using it for. There have always been good technicians and bad technicians. It's what you hear coming through the speaker that matters."

On those terms, One Endless Night is a triumph.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore Photo by Joann Savio

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