Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Alien Cowboy

Figuring out the state of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's music.

By Chris Herrington

JUNE 26, 2000:  A product of the incredibly fertile Lubbock, Texas, music scene, Zen cowboy Jimmie Dale Gilmore boasts one of the most distinctive singing voices in all of American music. With roots in both classic country and Eastern philosophy, Gilmore has spent his admittedly erratic, going-on-30-year career exploring an unexpected and novel musical juxtaposition. Conveyed through a warbling, nasal tenor that could well be the whippoorwill that Hank Williams hears on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Gilmore's music manages to be both evocative of rural America and positively ethereal. The only sonic antecedents for this sound are the Roy Orbison of "Blue Bayou" and the Sun session Elvis of "Tomorrow Night" and "Blue Moon"-- though some of Willie Nelson's weirder moments come close.

Gilmore emerged -- along with Lubbock comrades Joe Ely and Butch Hancock -- in the early Seventies as the primary voice of the Flatlanders, a short-lived country band that managed to be both behind and ahead of the times. The band's one and only album -- recorded in countrypolitan Nashville in 1972 and released only on eight-track -- disappeared as soon as it materialized. Each of the Flatlanders went on to establish solo careers, and the group's record could sometimes be found as an import. But it wasn't officially released again until 1990, when Rounder put it out under the not-at-all-overstated title More a Legend Than a Band. Finally available for mass consumption, the record might accurately be described as one of the few legitimate obscure masterpieces of American music.

With the Flatlanders, Gilmore and company took their then-contemporary Gram Parsons' notion of a Cosmic American Music to regions Parsons never dreamed of: The record is otherworldly -- old-timey music wandering the astral plains. And it was hard to say what sounded more alien: the musical saw that floats through the record or Gilmore's own extraterrestrial high and lonesome.

Among the songs on that album is what has become Gilmore's standard, "Tonight I'm Gonna Go Downtown." The song could be a more decisively desperate musical interpretation of Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," and contains the quintessential Gilmore refrain, "My love could never see/That this world's just not real to me."

After officially reuniting the band for a tour earlier this year, Gilmore is back out on the road with his own band, supporting his recent solo album, One Endless Night. Gilmore is playing the Hi-Tone Cafe this Sunday with honky-tonk hero Dale Watson -- a double bill of the cosmic and concrete that might be roughly equivalent to another pair of similarly dissimilar Texas icons, Orbison and Waylon Jennings.

Despite penning a few truly terrific songs, Gilmore has always been regarded more as singer than songwriter -- especially as an interpreter of friend and fellow Flatlander Hancock. And One Endless Night -- comprised almost entirely of covers -- certainly makes a case for Gilmore the interpretive singer.

The record is a big improvement over Gilmore's previous album, 1996's Zen testament Braver New World, but it doesn't seem to have the commercial legs (relatively speaking, of course) of 1993's Spinning Around the Sun, and it can't approach the casual grace of his 1991 breakthrough After Awhile. Musically, it's Gilmore's standard West Texas mix of country, rock, and folk, with at least a dollop of his interest in Eastern philosophy: On the title track, one of only two self-penned songs on the album, Gilmore drops country-rock koans like "The silence fades away, to find the song" and "This too shall pass -- we two and everything."

Ultimately, One Endless Night becomes a kind of unconscious celebration of the musical subculture Gilmore has been at the center of for nearly 30 years -- an Austin-based but nationwide community of independent-minded roots-rockers. Artists like Buddy Miller (who co-produced the record), Emmylou Harris, Victoria Williams, and Jim Lauderdale make appearances. The songwriting credits include the names Hancock, Jesse Winchester, and the late Townes Van Zandt. Gilmore embodies this movable nation of anti-Nashville country musicians as well as anyone.

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