Jimmie Dale Gilmore: More a musician than a Buddhist
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 1, 2002) – Lubbock and its west Texas surroundings have been the breeding grounds for a veritable all-star team of country-influenced, American roots-rock – what marketers call “Americana.” Its most famous native sons include Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Waylon Jennings.
A younger trio of musicians from Lubbock, who played together in bands as teen-agers in the 1960s and who would eventually join forces in a legendary neo-traditional country group called the Flatlanders in 1972, included Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
What was it about Lubbock and its out of the way, West Texas environs that made it such fertile musical territory for the idiosyncratic, honky-tonk inflected talents?
“Lubbock was a place where the nineteenth and twentieth centuries collided,” said Jimmie Dale Gilmore -- who performs at Club Helsinki (528-3394) on Saturday night at 9 – in a recent phone interview.
“Nearly everyone here was just one generation off of a farm, either they or their parents,” said Gilmore, who is finishing up a year-long tour behind his album, One Endless Night (Windcharger/Rounder), before preparing to reunite with the Flatlanders and head out on a summer-long tour with his old bandmates – their first full-length tour ever.
“At the same time, we were exposed to radio as much as anyone in New York City. The media – mass-produced music and movies and books -- were just as pervasive in our lives as they were in anyone’s anywhere.
“So it was both out of the way and all those barriers were going away because of technology. And for some reason, there was a temperament among us that was both kind of respectful of the old traditions but open to new stuff, moreso than the generation before us.
“In a way, I think it’s almost the hallmark of what we’ve been about. We didn’t hate and despise the old stuff in the way that a lot of more urban people did, but we also didn’t just cling to the old stuff.”
It would have been hard for Gilmore and his pals to toss out “the old stuff” if they tried. Gilmore was named after the “Singing Brakeman” himself, Jimmie Rodgers, the father of modern country music, who first mixed black blues with white folk and hillbilly music.
The influence of Rodgers and other seminal country musicians like Hank Williams and the Carter Family is felt throughout the work of the Lubbock musicians, and in Gilmore in particular, who sings with a rootsy, nasal, warbly tenor -- one part Williams, one part Orbison.
One Endless Night pays tribute to the Texas tradition through the songs of fellow Texas songwriters including Townes Van Zant, Willis Alan Ramsey and Butch Hancock. The album also includes songs by John Hiatt, Jesse Winchester, Kurt Weill, the Grateful Dead and Steve Gillette of nearby North Bennington, Vt..
One Endless Night, which was produced by Buddy Miller and includes guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, Victoria Williams, Julie Miller, Jim Lauderdale and Cry Cry Cry, wasn’t originally conceived as a tribute to his favorite songwriters, but in the end it turned out that way.
“I always regarded myself more as a stylist than a songwriter, even though I’ve written a handful of good songs,” he said. “I do regard myself as a songwriter, but I also prefer a really good song that someone else wrote to a mediocre one that I wrote.”
Modesty aside, several of Gilmore’s original compositions, including “Dallas” and “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” -- both of which appeared on the Flatlanders’ first album, which was re-released in 1990 as “More a Legend Than a Band” by Rounder – are considered modern classics, and have been covered by artists as various as David Byrne, 10,000 Maniacs and Nanci Griffith.
Gilmore said that what makes him want to sing a song that someone else has written is emotional depth.
“It’s got to have some emotional depth to it, or it doesn’t interest me,” he said. “It’s also got to have -- and it’s hard to put your finger on it -- a feeling of newness, of creativity.
“But I think the passion is the main thing. Some of the old blues guys basically did one song over and over and over, yet it was such a good song, they got away with it, because of the passion in it, the depth of feeling.”
When Gilmore finishes up his current tour, on which guitarist Rob Gjersoe accompanies him, he will rejoin Hancock and Ely in preparation for their summer tour. “Now Again,” the Flatlanders long-awaited follow-up to their first album, is scheduled for release on May 21.
“It has one song by Hancock, one by Utah Phillips, and all the rest by all three of us,” said Gilmore. “It’s a real Flatlanders album.”
Gilmore is sometimes called the “Buddhist Cowboy,” a reference to his longstanding, deep-seated spiritual pursuits. After the Flatlanders debut album bombed – the record company released it only on 8-track tape – he spent the better part of a decade in a Denver ashram.
Spirituality continues to matter greatly to Gilmore, although he has mixed feelings talking about it. “All the words have become so overused,” he said. “A lot of those conversations have become meaningless, with all the stereotypes used in that area of discourse.”
Yet Gilmore doesn’t shy away from emphasizing how important his spiritual pursuits are to him. “It’s a little bit like asking how does oxygen affect your life,” he said. “It’s invisible and I’ve never noticed it, but I’d be dead without it.
“It’s just an interest I’ve had all along, so everything I’ve done has all been in the context of that, being part and parcel of it. The friends I hang out with generally share some of those interests. It’s still the type of stuff we like to talk about. It seems like our circle of musical friends have been less specifically focused on music alone than just about any group of musicians I’ve known.
“I very much feel an affinity with Buddhism. At this point in my life it seems what I’m getting the most inspiration and nourishment from. It would be inaccurate to say that I was especially any ‘-ist,’ but as a description I’d say Buddhist is most accurate -- at least according to my understanding of what it means.
“I don’t perceive myself as being spiritually advanced, but I’m a curious person, and that’s just sort of one of the paths, one of the turns that my path has taken.
“In reality, I think I am much more of a musician than I am a Buddhist.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 1, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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