Jimmie Dale Gilmore talks with S&H about his unusual career and his own personal journey.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, owner of the world’s most lonesome tenor, has had a backwards sort of career.
In the early 1970s he recorded an album with a group of his friends. They called themselves The Flatlanders. The album was a mix of country and folk music, beautiful but also strange and eerie sounding, with lyrics that were sometimes pure Country & Western and sometimes decidedly not. (One song is called “Bhagavan Decreed.”) The Flatlanders were a hard band to pin down or define, and they never connected with a record company. The group disbanded.
Gilmore was also hard to pin down or define. His influences included the honkytonk music he grew up listening to in Lubbock, Texas; plenty of science fiction (“Science fiction wasn’t that common back then. I came to a point where I had read most of the science fiction that had been published up through the ’60s.”); the satire of Mad magazine, which poked holes in conventional approaches to life (“Some of the Mad writers were doing it intentionally and some were just accidentally good at it. No sacred cow was safe.”); and the serious study of both Western and Eastern philosophy.
A couple years after The Flatlanders recorded their failed album, Gilmore was living in Denver as part of a spiritual community dedicated to the teachings of Prem Rawat, a young Hindu guru. “There were probably 2,000 of us. From about ’74 through ’79 I lived in Denver. I was an all-in participant in the community, satsang meetings every night, and I played a lot of music for those things. I was diligently pursuing my meditation and everything else.”
Facing a personal crisis, he left the community and returned to music. In the interim, two of his Flatlander friends, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, had become established performers. Gilmore was soon performing and recording, too. The lost Flatlanders album took on almost mythic status among fans of literate, complex country and folk music.
The Flatlanders album, recorded in 1972, finally was released in 1990 with the title More a Legend Than a Band. It’s a standout, a must-listen for anyone interested in folk, country, alternative country, outlaw country, Americana, singer-songwriters, or good music of any sort. The Flatlanders have gone on to record several other albums, with 2002’s Now Again a particular success.
Gilmore’s solo output now spans four decades. Braver New World from 1996 is the most accessible, with producer T Bone Burnett creating a soundscape that is as much U2 as Hank Williams. Braver New World is reminiscent of Wrecking Ball, the Emmylou Harris album that won a Grammy in 1995.
His current spiritual life includes regular participation in a Buddhist sangha. As for music, he’s developed a simple philosophy:
Music is a super efficient and attractive kind of communication, and communication is community, and community is love.
“If you just state it like that it’s a platitude, if you just state it bare bones. But with a real deep contemplation of what all those are, that’s the ground I stand on now, the groundless ground.”
Gilmore’s most recent release is Downey to Lubbock, a 2018 collaboration with Dave Alvin. In the title song Gilmore sings,
Well I took a lot of detours
Cul-de-sacs and dead ends.
But I made a lot of music
And I made a lot of friends.
I took a lot of turns
Maybe some were not that good.
If I had to do it over
Well I surely, mostly would.