Tao of the Tumbleweed

Money, power, UFOs: Jimmie Dale Gilmore

Cowboys don't get much more cosmic than Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a genuine new wrangler of the purple sage who matches gritty West Texas country and rock 'n' roll with folkie introspection, Eastern philosophical musings, and an insinuating voice that sounds like Roy Orbison channeling Zarathustra. You can hear why that creaky drawl has earned him a cult audience over the past dozen years: Like its owner, the quivering and apparently brittle thing has tremendous depth and sinewy character--the vocal equivalent of a Clint Eastwood stare--and it echoes the windswept expanse of his native West Texas plains.

Gilmore first emerged from obscurity as a songwriter, covered by longtime buddy Joe Ely in the Seventies. After a string of critically lauded albums of his own, including a brief major-label fling with Elektra, he went on a late-Nineties hiatus, then began the millennium with a flurry of activity. He helped resurrect the Flatlanders, the short-lived early-Seventies band that launched his and Ely's and Butch Hancock's career (see "Texas Three-Step," March 1). He released a solid, typically understated new solo album, One Endless Night, on his own Windcharger label. And now he's touring with his own band, which will play First Avenue on Wednesday.

For Gilmore, age 55, it's been the proverbial long, strange trip from the dusty streets of tiny Lubbock to his curious status as a sort of Zen-master of honky-tonk heaven. And while 10 of the 13 tracks on his new album are covers, they amount to a definitive statement of who he is and where he has been, reflecting his longtime spiritual quests, his deep romanticism, and especially his catholic musical tastes. Taking songs as well-known as the Grateful Dead's "Ripple," Gilmore makes them emphatically his own, aided by the eloquent guitar work of co-producer and Nashville vet Buddy Miller.

"See, I don't perceive songs as covers," Gilmore insists over the phone from San Francisco. "The thought process was, 'I'm doing songs I like.' Because I've always perceived myself more as an interpreter and collector rather than as a songwriter."

Gilmore allows that he has written some "pretty good" ones in the past, a monumental understatement considering his body of work. Consider the now classic Flatlanders tune "Dallas," where Gilmore warbles, "Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night?" before memorably comparing it to "a rich man with a death wish in his eyes."

"Every big city is interesting and exciting, and also terrible," Gilmore says of the lyric. "There are aspects of it that are demeaning to humans. That line was just a way of trying to convey the idea of somebody being successful in worldly things but blowing it in things that really matter."

Such paradoxes abound in Gilmore's songs. "I've seen crimson roses growing through a chain-link fence/I've seen crystal visions, sometimes they don't make sense," he sang in 1993 on "Where You Going." He says these incongruities spring from a surrealistic attitude toward art and music--an outgrowth, he figures, of experiencing the societal upheaval of the Fifties and Sixties in a place as isolated as Lubbock.

"We were one generation off of the farm," he says. "My dad was the very first person on either side of his family to get a college education. They were poor farm people, and then suddenly, one generation later, we're city kids. There's kind of a collision of cultures.

"In many ways [Lubbock was] just the most typical middle-class American town. [It] had a lot of extremes of the same factors that were happening all over the country. People had just moved in from the farm, but then suddenly their kids were listening to rock 'n' roll music and reading books by Jack Kerouac."

Gilmore read the beat writers, and many years later became friends with poet Allen Ginsberg. He studied philosophy in college, gravitated to Eastern ideas, practiced meditation, and spent much of the 1970s living in a commune organized around the teachings of an Indian guru. His songs still try to resolve philosophical and spiritual issues. "That's because a lot of my life is that," he says. "I don't perceive the music as a vehicle for promoting either my political or philosophical ideas. But it can't help but reflect my attitude, which has been influenced real strongly by those ideas."

On One Endless Night Gilmore riffs on the old yin and yang again, especially on the rockabilly romp "DFW": "You cannot stay but you cannot stay away." Not only does it swipe at the disparity between the glitz of Big D and the lingering cow-town ambiance of neighboring Fort Worth; it manages to encapsulate a dozen cultural debates in two lines: "That's what you get when you mix up money and art/One stole my mind and the other one stole my heart."

Clearly, Gilmore's heart was captured early on. In fact, his dad Brian Gilmore was one of the first electric guitarists in West Texas, specializing almost exclusively in honky-tonk. His mind, on the other hand, was hijacked by close encounters of some kind during his high school years.

One night, from his backyard, he spotted UFOs similar to an early Fifties phenomenon known as the Lubbock Lights. He saw delta shapes silently traveling at speeds impossible by earthly standards, then a solitary one turning at a sharp, 45 degree angle. He was deeply affected, although he didn't start building a mound of dirt in his living room or anything. "No, but maybe the psychological equivalent has gone on all my life," he says. "I know they were real because I saw it myself. This was before all the weirdness started up with the Sixties, so it wasn't common to be distrustful of the word of the authorities at the time. But that's the effect it had on me: Wait a minute, if these people are saying that anybody who says they saw a UFO is crazy, then it made me know that there was something wrong with them."

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