Cover to Cover

Taking to the tracks with Jimmie Dale Gilmore

Jun 21, 2000 at 4:00 am
They're all good. Jimmie Dale Gilmore's voice guarantees that. He is the owner of a magnificent set of vocal cords placed in a perfectly resonating chamber-mouth. Few singers are more instantly identifiable: Words slide smoothly, notes stretch and quaver around the harmonics, and the sound is timeless. The man could be the distillation of all country & western singers of the 20th century.

Gilmore's career started some 30 years ago, when he, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock were in the Flatlanders, a brilliant country band whose single album was released only on eight-track tape (it's now in print on Rounder Records under the title More a Legend than a Band). Whereas Ely and Hancock put out solo records later in the '70s, Gilmore didn't release anything until the late '80s, when he signed to the Hightone label. By '91, he had jumped to Elektra, where he recorded the brilliant After Awhile and the fine Spinning Around the Sun.

Gilmore writes his own songs sometimes, but he has great taste in material from other sources. His albums are practically samplers of some of the best country-based songs of the last 15 years. All his recordings are at least good, but most fans agree that his last album, 1996's Braver Newer World, was the weakest. Too many songs suffered from attempts to smother the unique quality of Gilmore's voice and to highlight an experimental approach to rhythm and instrumental background.

As a result, fans may have tempered their expectations for Gilmore's new release, One Endless Night, on his Windcharger Music label in conjunction with Rounder Records. But freed from a major label, Gilmore may have come up with the single finest album of his career.

"If there's an underlying theme to this record," Gilmore explains, "it's that these are all songs I've loved for years and always wanted to record." One Endless Night takes the listener on a journey back and forth in time, capturing love in moments of loss and discovery. The sequence is extremely effective, sliding effortlessly among moods, rhythms and styles. Gilmore and co-producer Buddy Miller create indelible arrangements, bringing in guest musicians and backing vocalists as needed.

Gilmore comments on each song from the record:

"One Endless Night": "That was written with my friend David Hammond. I think maybe it's my favorite thing on there right now. The ironic thing about that song is, we wrote it about a week before we went to Nashville to start recording. Buddy and I had already agreed on a long list of songs, and David and I just made a decision to try to write a song together that would be good enough to go on it. What I like about it is that it kind of touches on the dreamlike quality that a relationship has, and yet it's simultaneously almost explicit."

"Down by the Banks of the Guadalupe": "That's one of Butch Hancock's songs that I've really loved for a long time. I performed that song with Butch for a really long time, and I always just loved it. It has that wonderful dreamlike quality.

"I love what Buddy Miller plays on it, that blend of the folky kind of finger-picking guitar with that electric textural thing. Buddy likes the traditional sweet melodic stuff, but he also really likes, as do I, the intensity of rock & roll and the harsh sounds and the discords and the other end of that spectrum of emotion, the chaotic. When I realized that, it occurred to me that I was describing my own taste."

"No Lonesome Tune": "Townes Van Zandt, who wrote it, taught me that song a very, very long time ago. I make the joke at gigs that I do that one because it was the closest thing that he ever did to a happy song. The song just suits my taste, and there is the personal connection with Townes. And I love the treatment of it, the way it came out with almost a little rock feel to it and a little touch of Cajun in it."

"Goodbye Old Missoula": "I've been doing that song for close to 30 years now. That one record Willis Alan Ramsey made -- he was young, and everything on that record was a minor masterpiece."

"Georgia Rose": "Walter Hyatt was a very good friend of mine. Walter was killed in the ValuJet crash a couple years ago. He had lived in Austin for a long, long time. He was one of the real unsung heroes of the whole thing down there. He was a truly great creative force, an extremely inventive songwriter. I deeply love this song. It just touched me somehow."

"Your Love Is My Rest": "This was actually the exception to the rest of the covers on this album, because I hadn't known it for years and years. I think that's on Walk On, which is one John Hiatt album I didn't happen to have. The first time they played that song for me, I just loved it. I was knocked out by it. I love most of what John Hiatt does, but most of what he does I would never even consider singing. It doesn't fit me."

"Blue Shadows": "That was a lucky break that the group Cry Cry Cry (Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams) could sing on that. I wrote that with Hal Ketchum. He and I were close friends before he went to Nashville. We had a very close association, but then, living that far apart -- and he became sort of a mainstream country star -- we didn't have much contact with each other for several years there. Finally, I went out on a little Texas tour with him. He said he had an idea for a song; he had the opening line of it, and we just sat down and it poured out. We wrote that song in about two hours, which is kind of mind-boggling to me. It sounds like a Roy Orbison song."

"Defying Gravity": "I love what Jim Lauderdale does on this with me. His singing is so interesting to me. He throws in this weird lilt in the harmony that never would have occurred to me, but once it's there, it sounds necessary.

"I've done that song for years. I don't know why Jesse Winchester was never more famous, because he came out before I did and was always so good."

"Ripple": "I've been a Grateful Dead fan for always. I used to go see them in San Francisco in the late '60s. But, oddly, of all the weird things, I think that song is on American Beauty. By the time I heard that album, that record had been out for a very long time, but I just missed it. Actually, a friend in Austin said there was this Dead song he thought I should do. I didn't think any of their music applied to me as a performer. But when he played that song for me, I thought I could have written it. When I showed it to the guys, all the band members were Grateful Dead fans and excited to play it."

"Ramblin' Man": "That's another Butch Hancock song I've been doing for 30 years. I'm pretty sure I have this straight, that this is the one. Butch tells these funny stories about some of his songs he got from dreams. In his dream, he dreamed that I was singing this song. So it feels like it's mine. The first time he played it for me, I just said, 'Golly, how does he think of that stuff?'"

"Darcy Farrow": "I learned that song from an Ian and Sylvia record. It was written by Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell, who I met years after they wrote it. They were in a folklore class, or a musicology kind of class in college, and the professor had made some kind of comment that a folk song has to filter down through millions of generations to have any power. And they said, 'We think we can write a romantic folk song.' So they wrote this, and it actually sounds like a folk song. I've been doing it with my band for about three years."

"Mack the Knife": "I was a fan of Bobby Darin, and I loved that song. When I was young, I never paid attention to those lyrics. Then Dave Van Ronk recorded it in the late '60s. My version is really inspired by his version. The lyrics became predominant, rather than the loungy feel that was in nearly every version before. And there's something so hypnotic about that melody, in every form it comes in."

"DFW" (the bonus track): "That's the name on our Web site, but it doesn't actually have an official name, I don't think. I meant to allude to the airport. Since I've been playing it in the live shows, everybody calls it 'Fort Worth and Dallas,' because that's the line that's easy to remember. At first I really liked it, then had second thoughts and decided it didn't fit with the record or something. Then, at the very last minute, after all the artwork had been turned in, I called up Mike Crowley, my manager and partner in the record company. I said, 'Mike, you know what, I really want it on there.' He thought about it and said, 'Well, you know, it's our record company, we can do what we want to,' so we stuck it on."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore plays Blueberry Hill's Duck Room on Saturday, June 24.