Leaving the Country

Newsflash -- singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore is a bona fide legend. I know he is, because he fits all the definitions in my handiest dictionary. Consider:

1) a: A story coming down from the past; esp: one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable. Plenty of folks have wondered, but, in fact, no one to this day knows, just what forces were at work in the midcentury Lubbock township that spawned Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, Jo Carol Pierce and Gilmore. And, yet, it is historical fact that this grouping accounts for an outsized chunk of Texas' most lauded songwriting of the last 20 years. You want a story coming down from the past? Try the Flatlanders, the one-shot pairing of Gilmore, Ely and Hancock that recorded an instantly out-of-print 1972 record, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders, hoarded for years after by critics and fans.

b: A body of such stories. Add superficially titillating reports of Gilmore's "interest in philosophy and mysticism" (his press release's words, and the reason offered for a long post-Flatlanders hiatus from music) and years' worth of songs written, interpreted and sung, and you do indeed have a broad body of stories wrapped up in one man's work.

Well and fine and what's to complain? After reaching a certain age, "legend" is a nice little trophy for the resume, and besides, a legend who demurs when referred to as such usually comes across as desperate or dishonest or both. But Gilmore does have a legend-problem pending, and it appears with definition c: A popular myth of recent origin.

Gilmore does indeed embody a popular myth -- one that's developed largely since he returned to the music business in the early 1980s in Austin, and even more specifically since 1988, when he released Fair and Square on Hightone Records. The recently originated popular myth is this: Jimmie Dale Gilmore is a "country" artist. The problem is, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to Jimmie Dale Gilmore's mind, isn't exactly a country artist. It may seem like a small issue to quibble over in this post-categorization age, but it's nonetheless safe to assume that if you have to be legendary, you at least want to be legendary for the right reasons.

The confusion over whether Gilmore is a country artist or not is an excusable one. Fair and Square, 1989's Jimmie Dale Gilmore and 1991's After Awhile all lent credence to the idea, since the CDs prominently featured what has come to be known -- accurately, if over-often -- as Gilmore's high, lonesome wail. There are rivers of metaphoric purity and windy acres of range in his voice, all of which contribute to a rural orientation, and the simple fact of the matter is that Gilmore's pipes are the answer to the question: what would Hank Williams sound like as an angel?

Gilmore knotted his country lifeline on his popular breakthrough, 1993's Spinning Around the Sun, with a warbling cover of Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Spinning Around the Sun went on to earn a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, of all things, but Rolling Stone continued its habit of naming Gilmore Country Artist of the Year in its annual critics poll.

And now Gilmore wants out from under the country saddle.
"I love my country roots very, very much," he says with the unapologetic earnestness for which he's known. (He's says "golly," too.) "But I have so much other stuff going on that influenced me and that I love. For somebody to refer to me as a country singer to somebody who had never heard of me is really misleading. Not because it's not accurate, but because it's not totally accurate.

"I really intentionally wanted to do something that would steer off that thing of my having been so blanketly categorized as a country singer. This time I wanted to do something that really, explicitly showed that my taste has ranged further than that."

What Gilmore did to that end was hire Texas producer T-Bone Burnett and a dozen-plus studio musicians to help him record Braver Newer World, an album that's not only not particularly country -- in either the Nashville-pap or puritan-traditionalist senses -- but that crosses so many stylistic borders that it ought to come packaged with its own passport.

If it did, Braver Newer World's country of origin would be someplace in the wide-open expanses of West Texas. The seemingly endless roads connecting Balmorhea, Presidio, Lajitas and Terlingua all bring the disc to mind, and vice versa, based on a common metaphor of space, a metaphor that Gilmore -- who helped re-open Terlingua's Starlight Theater seven years ago and is a regular patron of Far Flung Adventures' Rio Grande rafting tours -- acknowledges without getting too specific.

"It's hard to say, because I don't really consciously think in terms of much of the visual imagery, or the geographical imagery. But on the other hand, it's very true that that area has just exerted a magical hold on me from the very first time I went out there. Definitely in [Braver Newer World's] 'Borderland,' that's obviously the starting point for the metaphor. It's not anything really literal about that, but it's very definitely inspired by it."

Gilmore uses that wide-open space metaphor the way Roy Orbison used it -- space being something that allows you to stretch out, that necessitates a creative inflation to fill the void -- and this, too, was Gilmore's intentional aim with the new CD.

"We went into it with the intention of experimenting," he says. "I felt like I came more from the tradition of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison than from some of the other places that I've sort of been lumped with. I'm a country singer in the same sense that they both were, but that's not how they're categorized, and it had to do with the way they approached their recording, with a little more open-endedness. That was the idea going into this. Not to make a record like them, but to make a record of my own that was ... you know, let's go play around with it and mess with it and see what happens."

The result is an almost incomprehensibly eclectic collection that holds itself together by the sheer, inimitable force that is Gilmore's voice, starting with a title track that floats like a cloud on a bed of horns and Jon Brion's edgy, ethereal guitar work, with Gilmore informing the listener that "It's a braver, newer world you've found." The "you" Gilmore addresses is never identified -- "part of the mystery of the song," he says -- but it might as well be anyone who stumbles onto this disc in the "Country" section of a CD store.

What follows roams the map. "Where Is Love Now" is a tune that Sam Phillips penned for Gilmore, and with the almost trip-hop beat provided by session skin-whiz Jim Keltner, it's the CD's happiest incongruity. Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Black Snake Moan" is treated to a minimalist reading that Gilmore says was played as a studio break and recorded while he wasn't looking, and it has the loose rocking feel to back the story.

There's also the expected complement of songs by Gilmore buddies Joe Ely ("Because of the Wind") and Al Strehli Jr. ("Come Fly Away," "Sally"), but the disc's experimentation happened not so much in the song selection, says Gilmore, as in the song preparation. "A lot of [what's on the CD] was actually early takes of songs," he says. "The experimentation would be in setting it up, using weird amplifiers and weird combinations of microphones, and some of those real strange old keyboard things, the old Opticon and the Chamberlain -- these sort of pre-synthesizer things that kind of did what synthesizers do. Tape loops and stuff like that. Once we found an interesting sound, then the song would get played that way."

The sessions produced some distinctly un-country sonics filled with horns and manipulated guitars and pre-synthesizer synthesizer sounds. They also produced a new Gilmore original, "Outside the Lines," the only one of the CD's tracks that was written in the studio during recording. It's a song that closes the album with the kind of pure rock and roll rave usually reserved for leadoff tracks. It's also the song that Gilmore says best reflects his fresh discoveries in the studio, and is "probably an indication of a direction I'm going to take a lot more in the future." Finally, it's "Outside the Lines" that serves as a primer for the album as a whole and, Gilmore hopes, as catalyst for the reworking of a legend. As he sings it, "I'd painted myself into a corner / but footprints are just about to become part of my design / now that I've found myself over the line."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore plays at 8 and 11 p.m. Friday, August 30, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $29, $24 and $14. For info, call 869-8427.

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Brad Tyer