Four or five years ago, you could find a pickin' and grinnin' Jimmie Dale Gilmore fronting an energetic country-swing band, the Continental Drifters, in the lobby of the historic Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas. Gilmore was in his ponytail phase back then, his long locks pulled back tight to emphasize his gaunt cheeks and weathered features; courtly but with a never-quite-hidden goofy shyness, he led the band through its paces as his high, sometimes piercing yodel of a voice filled the room with songs from his first' solo album, Fair and Square.
Gilmore is entranced by sudden moments of self-awareness; his career, by contrast, is absurdly long and strung out. He grew up near Lubbock, Texas, spawning ground of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison and later a weird amalgam of modern Texas songwriters, from Butch Hancock and Joe Ely to Marty Brown and Townes Van Zandt. I don't think it's possible to appreciate Gilmore's particular zen without knowing that his first solo record came at the age of 43; he'd been hanging with Ely since the late 60s, with Hancock since junior high school, in the late 50s. The three went to Nashville to do an album together, Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders, in 1971; distantly recorded, with an eerie musical saw as one of its main instruments, the record sounded as if it had been made in the previous century. The band's label responded with asperity. Legend has it that it only came out on eight-track, but Gilmore says they actually pressed about a hundred LPs as well. (A selection of 12 songs from those sessions came out as More a Legend Than a Band on Rounder three years ago.)
Despite the antique sound, the band toyed with subversiveness. On "Rose From the Mountain," Gilmore sang the pointed tale of a backwoods picker: "I thought I'd travel out, makin' records in LA / But a lot of them boys make a lot more music than I can....Think I'll take her home." Ely, of course, grew up and out, into a laconic brand of earnest rock 'n' roll. Hancock became an artist, architect, and master songwriter who specialized in offbeat lyricism. It remained for Gilmore and his captivating voice to carry on the band's archaic sound. He spent the rest of the 70s in Denver studying meditation, a practice that still influences him ("It's not a religion, or even a philosophy," he says. "It's more like a yoga practice, a technique of introspection"), and then came back to Austin to restart his career in the 80s. After a couple of solo albums and regular exposure at the South by Southwest music festival, he was picked up as one of five artists on the Nonesuch American Explorer Series. The resulting "After Awhile" left behind the hokey countryisms of his previous two solo albums for a luminous air of romantic authority and a patina of cowboy mysticism. Old songs like "Tonight I'm Gonna Go Downtown" were transformed into transcendental statements of individuality and solitariness; new ones like "'After Awhile'" seemed timeless and enveloping.
At a show at Schubas last year, Gilmore seemed ages away from that eager country-swing band. His mane of hair fell on his shoulders, and while he acted shy and spoke modestly, he exuded an air of authority and grace. Similar shows across the country gave him the chance to record an album for Elektra, Nonesuch's parent company. The result, Spinning Around the Sun, which will be released next month, matches "After Awhile" grace note for grace note; the record begins with a burnished, echoing slide guitar that sidles into the opening groove of the burning West Texas workout "Where You Going." What follows is mostly covers. "I decided," he says, "that the first album of mine that would get wide distribution should reflect both the evolution of my writing and the whole spectrum of my taste and influences. You've got Elvis on there, Hank Williams, an old folk ballad, and a lot of stuff from my friends." Gilmore does a rapturous take on Elvis's "I Was the One" (the fabulous B-side to "Heart break Hotel") and an over-the-top reading of Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." The old folk ballad is the rolling, mysterious "Mobile Line (France Blues)," and the friends are Al Strehli (whose songs appear on the Flatlanders sessions), Jo Carol Pierce ("Reunion," a duet with Lucinda Williams), and of course Hancock, who contributes a submission or two. The album ends with a trilogy of soul-shaking love songs penned by Gilmore.
Despite the explicit support of Elektra chairman Bob Krasnow, Gilmore has about three strikes against him: (a) he's old, (b) he's rural, and (c) he plays not only country, but precisely the sort of virulent fuck-you old-form country that modern country radio refuses to play. But his new record is, among other things, a showcase for one of the greatest traditional vocal stylists currently alive in America. Gilmore's not prehistoric, exactly, and he's no Rip Van Winkle, either. But whereas these days an artist who puts off doing beer commercials for six months is considered a temple of integrity, Jimmie Dale Gilmore has spent decades steeping his soul in music and in notions that have almost no meaning in modern American life. It's not that he doesn't care about the rest of the world: it's that he doesn't seem to have noticed it. At 48, given his first chance to spread his music wide, he told the story of his life. The insular, dramatic Spinning Around the Sun is the result.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pam Springsteen.