More a Man Than a Legend
The Return of Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Jimmie Dale Gilmore has often been called a Zen cowboy thanks to his being a follower of the guru Maharaji, the spiritual nature of the songs he writes and sings, and his country music roots. Unfortunately, the term is inaccurate. Zen is a type of Buddhism, and though the 54-year-old Gilmore has studied Eastern philosophy, he's not a Buddhist. In keeping with his unassuming nature, however, he lives with wife Janet in a weathered ranch-style home deep in the Hill Country outside of Austin on a one-lane dirt and gravel road. Inside, it's surprisingly spacious. Guitars hang on the walls, a couple of dogs roam the halls, and surprise, some of Butch Hancock's photography is on display. Though the primary subject at hand is his new album, One Endless Night, the conversation ranges from tofu turkey to Dan Rather to the Internet. Keeping him on track is an estimable, though enjoyable, chore, but it just may be that his brain works differently than other folks'. A smarter, more enlightened, and genuinely caring individual would be hard to find.
Currently, Gilmore is in the middle of two ongoing projects. First and foremost is One Endless Night, the debut release on his own Windcharger Music label. Second is a reunion of the Flatlanders, the Lubbock songwriting triumvirate (Gilmore, Hancock, and Joe Ely) whose one-off, almost 30-year-old debut says it all via its title, More a Legend Than a Band. Though a lengthy tour and a possible new recording will follow several performances the three longtime friends recently did in Austin, One Endless Night takes precedence in Gilmore's mind -- which of course has a mind of its own.
The sage for One Endless Night begins when Elektra released Gilmore's last release, Braver Newer World, in 1996. More of a rock effort than his previous releases, it received a lukewarm response from critics for Gilmore's willingness to take chances, but the public didn't agree and sales weren't up to the level of his previous work. After the Braver Newer World promotion cycle of touring, interviews, and other promotion had run its course, Gilmore stood back and took account of his career.
"By that time," he recalls, "Mike [Crowley, his manager] and I had started debating on what the best course for me was. We finally decided that it would make more sense to go to a smaller label. I had just run my legs off doing that game that goes with a big label. They were spending vast amounts of money on things that were irrelevant for me, buying space in retail stores where I was generally still unknown. In my case, it was just throwing money away.
"It should have been spent in better ways," he continues. "The money was stacking up against future royalties. I got to be really well-known in important circles, I got lots of critical acclaim, I got lots of visibility that just couldn't have happened if I was starting up my own little label. I have no regrets about any of that. There weren't any hard feelings in any of it. It was just a judgment call."
Around this time, Elektra decided that they wanted to pick up Gilmore's option. Despite Braver Newer World's less-than-anticipated sales, the label wanted another album out of him. Simultaneously, significant changes were shaking up major record labels, with companies merging and thousands of music industry layoffs. Amid all the insecurity and turmoil, and after wrangling with a couple of other labels and considering alternate offers, Crowley thought the best course of action was not to re-sign with Elektra.
"When Mike said that," explains Gilmore, "I said, 'I can't drop myself off Elektra.' But really quickly, I realized that he was right. I thought to myself, 'If it's not working--' I was really getting tired of the grind of touring so much and having great shows, sold-out shows, and doing really well at that level, and yet it was never going to break into mainstream radio."
At first, Gilmore and Crowley were close to working out a deal with Rykodisc, home of fellow Austinite Kelly Willis. Then they were approached by another imprint within the Warner Bros./Elektra/Atlantic (WEA) family of labels, Nonesuch, which had released Gilmore's major-label breakthrough, 1991's After Awhile. Bringing him to the attention of singer-songwriter fans world beyond Texas, After Awhile captured a pair of "Best Country Act" nods from Rolling Stone in the early Nineties, and put Gilmore squarely in major-label territory. The better part of a decade later, Gilmore remained friends with Nonesuch head David Bither, who, along with a big push from top-selling Elektra recording artist and Gilmore fan Natalie Merchant, was the reason he wound up on Elektra in the first place.
Initially, it looked like Gilmore was leaning toward Rykodisc, even going so far as beginning pre-production on a new album. But then Bither called requesting a meeting as a courtesy of their friendship, and Nonesuch came up with a better offer than Rykodisc that had Gilmore ready to return to the home of his previous commercial breakthrough. Before papers were signed, however, Crowley had a discussion with John Prine's manager, Al Bunetta, who had been very successful with their Oh Boy! label. Bunetta was interested in signing Gilmore, but the discussion led Crowley to decide that if Prine and Bunetta could run their own label, he and Gilmore could too.
"The hardest two phone calls I ever had to make: First, when I had to call Ryko and tell them I'd decided to work with Nonesuch," remembers Gilmore with a touch of pain in his voice. "The second was about a month and a half later, when I had to call David and tell him that we had decided to start our own label. In a way, it's odd, because all those people had a hand in the making of what turned out to be One Endless Night."
Crowley began the process of getting the business end of Windcharger Music together, inking a distribution deal with Rounder Records, the large folk/roots label that re-released the Flatlanders' LP in 1990. Meanwhile, Gilmore started enjoying himself a little bit more almost immediately.
"I was suddenly in the position of freedom that I didn't know was there," he says, the delight in his voice matched by the twinkle in his eyes. "I never had a bad experience with Elektra or Nonesuch, but all of a sudden I realized I could do whatever I wanted. I co-produced this record, I was the A&R person."
Having total artistic control of his record struck a chord, so to speak, with Gilmore.
"For me, it's still way more about the music," he says. "The love of the music is the only thing that keeps me involved with it. I never did get so discouraged to the point of thinking about blowing it off. It's true I don't like business. It's not fun for me. But the whole thing was a learning process that was lots of hard work. I still enjoy that work, but I want to do it judiciously now."
An artist running his own label can be a lot more time-consuming than letting a big corporation mind the P's and Q's, but there can be significant rewards. For one thing, the costs can be kept at reasonable levels; independents can be profitable without selling large quantities of records required by the massive overhead of larger companies. Moving 100,000 or 50,000 and yet still showing a profit seems a lot more sensible than needing to sell 500,000 to avoid losing money. Another way independent labels and musicians are able to keep costs down is the recent explosion of home-studio technology. One Endless Night was recorded on a Macintosh in co-producer Buddy Miller's living room.
"I don't believe there's anyone with the ears to tell you that this record wasn't made in some 64-track digital studio in L.A. or New York," remarks Gilmore confidently. "We used all the best microphones and all the best gear, but the rest of it couldn't have been done four years ago."
Tapping Miller to co-produce was an intriguing choice. After working in relative obscurity for many, many years, spending some of the Eighties in Austin, Miller has become well-known lately as both Emmylou Harris' and Steve Earle's touring guitarist. (Miller taped an Austin City Limits songwriters in the round episode just last weekend with Harris, Dave Matthews, and Patty Griffin.) His previous production work had been primarily on his wife Julie's albums and his own three critically acclaimed solo works. As a songwriting team, the Millers have had artists such as Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, and Brooks & Dunn record their work.
"Buddy has a genuine love for the exact range of music that I come from," explains Gilmore. "He's truly a country expert, and I've listened to it from childhood. I love rock & roll. I thought the blues was the motherlode and I love folk, the sweet traditional kind. I genuinely love traditional, romantic, heartfelt, down-to-the-basics kinds of music. I also love off-the-wall experimental stuff, and I love them equally. Buddy's got the same thing except that he's got the technical talent. Buddy brought things to this record that I'm still astounded by."
Per Crowley's suggestion, Miller agreed to produce the project, but only if they could fit recording into his busy schedule. He planned on being at home over a five-day span last fall, thus Gilmore and guitarist/friend Rob Gjersoe traveled to Nashville. Using Miller's friends bassist Byron House, string wizard Darrell Scott, and drummer Don Heffington, they cut 16 tracks, 13 of which wound up on the new album. Of equal note is the range and caliber of background vocalists on the record: Jim Lauderdale, Cry Cry Cry (Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell), Julie Miller, and Victoria Williams all provide interesting contrasts to Gilmore's warbling tenor.
Two songs on the album are Gilmore originals. The rest issue from songwriters he thinks deserve some attention, including his friends Hancock and the late Townes Van Zandt, as well as Willis Alan Ramsey, Jesse Winchester, and Walter Hyatt. Two tunes that will likely cause some raised eyebrows are a straightforward reading of the Grateful Dead's "Ripple," and decidedly untraditional take on "Mack the Knife" from Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill's highly satirical cabaret-era Three Penny Opera. Gilmore finds people approaching him with ideas for songs all the time.
"About 99% of the time, when people bring a song to me and say, 'You ought to do this song,' either it doesn't strike me at all or it strikes me and I can't do it," he explains. "I choose songs out of their meaning or the way they make me feel. Roger Allen and I worked together when I would perform at Threadgill's on a regular basis in the early Eighties. He was the one that suggested ["Ripple"] to me way back then. When he played it for me, I thought it sounded like a song I wrote; it's complex, it's got a strange chord progression, and it sounds so simple. It's one of the rare ones that someone suggested and I fell in love with."
As for "Mack the Knife," you probably wouldn't expect a swinging big-band number on the order of Bobby Darin's hit version, and you'd be correct. Gilmore's version is a quiet piece with his trademark country lilt, the singer taking his cue from legendary folk singer Dave Van Ronk's early-Sixties rendition. Gilmore says his reading is a tribute to Van Ronk, whom he cites as a major influence. Although unknown to most people, Van Ronk influenced Greenwich Village's nascent early-Sixties folk scene, including people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Phil Ochs.
Speaking of nascent folk, Gilmore is just as excited by the Flatlanders' reconvening as he is One Endless Night. For the first time since they originally self-released More a Legend Than a Band in 1972, Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock have embarked on an actual tour that will take them to Chicago, throughout the Midwest, and on to New York. Anyone who caught one of their recent warm-up shows around Texas can hear that the three revered songwriters are actively striving to make more of a band than a legend. It's not "first we do one of Butch's songs and then one of Joe's, etc., etc." They are playing, singing, and writing new songs together, and hearing them trade verses on Hancock's classic "If You Were a Bluebird" is a Texas music fan's dream made real. From Gilmore's perspective, it's a labor of love.
"We love playing with one another and we love hanging out with one another," he says. "We all write songs together. We just work together so well. The odd part is that we're more productive as a band now than when we were kids. We've written more songs together in the past six months than we ever have in our separate careers. Together we are still a creative force.
"We're applying what we've learned through our careers as solo artists and trying to maintain what was fun for us about the Flatlanders in the first place. I can't say what it'll be like when we do a bus tour together, but right now it's fun and exciting."
Rumblings of a label deal and a new record are just rumors right now, though there have been offers. As Gilmore points out, however, the three have too much experience to get involved in the wrong situation and for now are willing to wait and see what happens. A suggestion that they sign with Windcharger Music draws a big laugh.
"The Flatlanders have already had offers that Windcharger couldn't match," he says. "Unless I sell a million records in the next quarter, that's not going to happen. I've started thinking about this recently. I'm an extremely lucky and successful musician. Colonel Tom Parker always said there were three things that a successful musician had to have -- really hard work, real talent, and luck."
He goes on.
"I've had so many friends, truly wonderful musicians, that have been lost in the shuffle. For one reason or another, they just never got the audience they deserve. We didn't start the label to sign other artists, but we realize that the opportunity is there. If someone comes along that Mike and I both could get solidly behind, I'm sure we would do it. But for now it's not part of the plan."