THOUGH HE'S a prolific talker, Jimmie Dale Gilmore claims to be less than articulate when getting his musical ideas across to collaborators. "I have to be able to do a record with people I can communicate with almost nonverbally," the 54-year-old singer says over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas, where he's rehearsing for the tour behind his superb new album, One Endless Night (Windcharger/Rounder). "There's kind of a feeling that I always go for that I can't necessarily put into words, but when it's missing, it's very definitely missing for me."
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
King Cat Theater, Saturday, May 6
Fortunately for Gilmore, he clicked in the studio with his friend and coproducer, acclaimed guitarist Buddy Miller. "Buddy has a real sense of how to translate a vague notion of what I would want from a song—maybe something I didn't even expect, but was hoping for," Gilmore explains, adding that he felt the connection while watching Miller overdub guitar parts. "It suddenly dawned on me that he loved the very same music that I do, which made me kind of think about it a little more objectively. He really likes romantic, sweet, traditional, grounded music but also truly likes innovative, strange sounds and loud guitars, and blending those things together."
Gilmore has been building this conceptual bridge since the early '70s, when he formed the Flatlanders with Lubbock buddies Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. Their take on country music planted one foot in Appalachian soil and left the other dangling in outer space, on the strength of starry-eyed lyrical imagery accented with Gilmore's keening tenor and Steve Wesson's musical saw. The Flatlanders recorded one album, which briefly saw the light of day as an 8-track, then went their separate ways. Ely and Hancock started fruitful solo careers; Gilmore began studying Eastern philosophy in Denver under the Guru Maharaji, ignoring the music industry until the '80s, when he moved to Austin and began gigging. His first solo record, Fair and Square, finally appeared in 1988.
Rounder reissued the Flatlanders album in 1990 (appropriately titled More a Legend Than a Band) and, a year later, Gilmore advanced his reputation with a fine, mostly self-composed debut on Elektra, After Awhile. By contrast, 1993's Spinning Around the Sun concentrated on other songwriters' compositions. "I've always seen myself as an interpreter," says Gilmore, citing his time on Austin's folk circuit. "I mean, I'm a songwriter, too, but if I like someone else's song better than one of my own, there's no reason not to do that one instead."
Gilmore's interpretive chops are especially evident on One Endless Night, only three of whose 13 songs were penned by the singer. He chose wisely, too; the album is full of stellar material by Jesse Winchester, Townes Van Zandt, John Hiatt, and Hancock, all writers he has covered before. Even more noteworthy are a pair of well-known touchstones: a straightforward reading of Garcia-Hunter's "Ripple" and a gorgeous, slo-mo run through Brecht-Weill's "Mack the Knife."
"I was a Bobby Darin fan, and that version was very present in my mind," says Gilmore of "Mack." "But it was Dave Van Ronk's version that caused me to hear it as more than a ditty. I've been doing that song for 30 years. Some people loved it and some people were bugged by it because it was so different from the way they were used to hearing it."
Similarly, fans and critics may be stunned by Gilmore's cover of the Grateful Dead chestnut. But given how close the Dead's twin affinities for American folklore and sonic experimentation are to his, the only surprise about Gilmore covering "Ripple" is that anyone could be surprised by it. "That's what I thought, too!" Gilmore exclaims. "I've always loved the Dead, and there's a lot in common there—that combination of the traditional and the weird just appealed to my taste."
HE'S ALSO ACQUIRED a taste for the Dead's steadfast independence: After 1996's synth-heavy Braver Newer World, Gilmore decided to release his next album himself. "I had a very good relationship with Elektra. I have a giant debt of gratitude to them. It was unusual for an unknown in the recording industry to get a good recording contract, especially someone in their forties."
Besides a new album and label, Gilmore has returned to working with a couple of friends he should have no problem communicating with—Ely and Hancock, who earlier this year joined him for Flatlanders shows on the East Coast and in the Midwest. "We were asked to do some songs for [the movie] The Horse Whisperer two years ago," says Gilmore, who has acted himself in films like The Big Lebowski, "and it kind of settled in the back of our minds to try and follow up on that. So last summer we made up our minds to really do it. The new songs are multidimensional. I do think that Butch and Joe and I are good songwriters, but these songs . . . they're real different from what any one of us would do, but you can still hear all of us in them."
Will the Flatlanders ever play Seattle? "It could be this year, or next year for sure," he says. "We're just trying to keep it fun and not get ahead of ourselves."