Deckle edge

Jimmie Dale Gilmore
by Chris Flisher © 1994 /
(first published May 1994 Worcester Phoenix)

Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Jimmie Dale Gilmore speaks with the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed child. His trademark drawl, born of the Texas plains, rises and falls as he reels off stories of his new-found fans, unusual recording sessions and a record company that cares. His ebullience is contagious and belies his long climb. For the better part of his performing career, Gilmore's success was measured only in terms of Texas. Now with a multi-album deal on a major label, the attention and praise of the national press, and a legion of rock's rising stars singing his praises (and songs), Gilmore basks in a spotlight that has finally turned his way.

"I suppose I am a little bit spoiled," offers Gilmore in an interview before a gig in Texas. "I have been established in Austin (Texas) for quite a long time. You know, as a local star. But to get national attention, finally. . . ," his voice trails off as he continues, "Austin is a tough place to get heard. There is so much music down here. I have felt myself to be a success for a long time, but this is much different. My life is hectic now, and I love it. Like my agent says, I have the kinds of problems artists dream about."

Jimmie Dale is an unlikely star; an iconoclast in a music industry that thrives on formula. His distinctly stylized delivery floats on a sharp twang, confined to a relatively narrow range. "I have no option when it comes to my voice," he concedes. "I think it may have put people off at one time, but I don't worry about it anymore. My songs and the ones I cover have my own individual style on them and I can't sing them any other way," admits Gilmore. "I have tried to be honest with my music and that may have held me back in the past. But I just kept on. I can't imagine doing anything else. I feel like I was fated to do be a singer-songwriter."

A natural country performer, Gilmore has many of the same characteristics as Willie Nelson or George Jones—artists who have successfully parlayed rough-hewn vocals into chart-topping country hits. Singing with heartfelt honesty, Jimmie Dale walks a tenuous, albeit necessary, line between tough and tender, and crystallizes some of the most appealing qualities of a country singer. Never flashy or contrived, his vocals are genuinely raw, tremulous and strikingly original. "Now that [country] music is so homogenized, it is good to be a little bit different and I think my voice is my strongest trademark," he reflects. " Of course, I am getting out in front of more people because the record company is really pushing me, not just hyping me" he admits, continuing, "and that makes a huge difference because so much of this business is marketing."

The son of a guitar player in a country band, Jimmie Dale grew up in Lubbock, Texas (home of Buddy Holly) listening to Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Jimmie Rodgers, and other country artists of the 1950s. However, he finds, Elvis, the blues, Woody Guthrie, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, The Beatles and other artists of the '60s equally inspiring. "I was genuinely in love with all the folk and rock stuff that came out of the '60s on the radio and I have never seen myself as strictly a genre singer-songwriter," he recalls. "I can remember riding around with my friends listening to the rock stations on the radio and then going home and hearing country."

He got his start singing covers of Ray Price and Willie Nelson songs in small coffeehouses and bootleg joints in and around Lubbock, Texas. Experimenting with several instruments including, fiddle, trombone, and violin, he finally settled on acoustic guitar. In 1971, he formed a band called The Flatlanders with fellow Texas songwriters, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely. The short-lived group were among a handful of a cutting-edge bands that experimented by fusing elements of rock, folk and country together. Since then, Gilmore's songs have been covered by a variety of Texas/country singer-songwriters, most notably Nanci Griffith who covered "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown."

However, it was Natalie Merchant, lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs who "discovered" Gilmore in Texas and brought him to a major label. Elektra introduced Jimmie Dale on their American Explorer series, which focuses on lesser-known, albeit genuine musicians. Finally, at 48, his career has taken off.

Highly regarded as a songwriter, Gilmore's creative process is methodical. "I am a slow writer and I have never been as prolific as Butch [Hancock] or Townes [Van Zandt]," he admits, referring to two of his influences. "I never write as much as I'd like to. Touring and playing takes a lot of time, but I do eventually get them written." When he does write, the songs are simple vignettes, colored by his perspective. "I want my songs to be a part of me, but not so blatant that I alienate people from my point of view. There has to be something in every song that people can grab onto and call their own. That is the secret."

Ideas for his songs often come from nothing more than simple observations of life. "I have no real method for writing and sometimes things just come to me usually as a phrase that floats into my head and triggers a song. It is almost as if the phrase and line of melody come together." One of his best known songs came while hovering in an airplane. "The words to 'Dallas' just came to me, almost all at once," he remembers singing the opening lines to one of his first and best known songs, "'...Did you ever see Dallas from a DC9 at night...' There really is no pattern to my writing, but my favorite songs have always been like that," he continues. "It is hard for me to have an idea, just a concept, and then go and write a song. I can't do that, but what I do is start out with a phrase and then I'll go back later and write the bridge. It is slow, but I noodle around with songs on the guitar everyday."

To help with the song writing process he also brings computers into his creative domain. Although high technology seems oddly out of place, given his home-spun, back-porch delivery, he nonetheless admits their value. "I find the computer to be really helpful when writing," he says. "I don't play keyboards but the computer allows me to do that with MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) software. I can write and quickly change it if I want to. I'll pick out a melody on the computer and then play it on the guitar. I wrote the last two songs on the last album with the computer," he laughs.

The latest album, Spinning Around The Sun departs from his own material and focuses primarily on the songs of his favorite songwriters. "I really wanted to do an album that showed where I came from," he says. "Since I signed a multi-album deal, I knew I'd have plenty of chances to sing my own songs on other albums, so I wanted to do an album that was a collection of my influences."

A smooth, polished sound, sustained by crisp arrangements and tasteful production distinguishes the album as his most commercial recording to date. "I owe a lot to Emory Gordy Jr. (Whose credits include, George Jones, Patty Loveless, Steve Earle, and Bill Monroe) for producing the album. I believe he heard what I was doing with my music and I doubt if anybody could have done a better job," offers Gilmore.

A cover of Hank Williams', "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is the first single and finds Gilmore milking the lyrics for nuance, epitomizing a lonely, heart-broken singer. Although he is confident of his own material he also realizes he is relatively unknown. "The record company wasn't sure how to market me so they went for the most familiar country song on the album," says Gilmore. "It is a good idea, that way people can get to know me through a familiar song." Also included is an obscure Elvis Presley song ("I Was The One"), where he faintly recalls Roy Orbison and Elvis in both arrangement and vocal style. He also covers some lesser known influences, including friends and fellow Texans, Butch Hancock, Jo Carol Pierce, and childhood pal A.B. Strehli. The remainder of the songs are Gilmore's.

So how does a singer-songwriter with an unusual delivery, appealing to a niche audience succeed? Word of mouth. His broad blend of influences and unique style appeal to a wide spectrum of fans, bringing him beyond the limits of Nashville, Austin or other country strong-holds. Listeners from groups as diverse as his own follow Gilmore, allowing him to survive as a cult figure within several genres.

Recently he was approached by the Seattle grunge-band Mudhoney who are part of a growing legion of younger fans. "We had a mutual friend at the Elektra office who suggested we record together. So, the band joined us on my tour bus and we rode together until we got to Seattle and then went into the studio and recorded a single in about three hours."

The result is a cover of a Townes Van Zandt tune, "Buck Skin Stallion" with Mudhoney backing Gilmore and the flip side is Mudhoney covering Jimmie Dale's trademark song, "Tonight, I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown." When the single hit the stores, Gilmore was introduced to a whole new generation of fans. "It was incredible. When the song finally hit, there were all these college and high school students coming up to me."

Shortly after he was approached by Willie Nelson to record for the Red, Hot and Country compilation, an AIDS awareness project. Together they recorded a duet version of Nelson's classic, "Crazy." "It is one of the best things that I have ever done," says Gilmore. "Our voices are similar but, when you hear them together you can really see the difference. Willie comes off more as a jazz singer and I come off more as a folkie. We did it as a full band, with subtle piano, upright bass, brushes on the drums, and laid-back guitar. It is really incredible."

Admittedly there is a wide gulf between 10,000 Maniacs, Mudhoney and Willie Nelson, but none of these associations come as a surprise to Gilmore. "To me, a feature of my music is being open. There is no doubt I am a country singer, but I am not one of those guys who rejected other kinds of music. I stayed current all the way back to the blues and beyond. I came out of a country background, but I was genuinely in love with the whole rock and roll thing," he proudly admits. "I wasn't one of the country people who rejected all rock and I wasn't one of the rock people who rejected all of the country stuff."

Gilmore hasn't changed so much as the times have. Instead of trying to meet the trends, it appears as if the trends have changed to meet him. "It seems as if the times are changing to like it was back in the 60s when people were more into roots music like the blues, folk, and country," reflects Gilmore. "A very similar process is happening right now. It's a sort of open-mindedness, and a willingness to put a little of everything into the music and that's were my songs fit in."

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge