Deep in the Heart of Texan : Gilmore, Who Plays in O.C. Tonight, Reaches Beyond Material World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

East is East, and West is West, but the twain do meet--in the person of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a mystically inclined country singer from Texas who studied Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell on the radio and Hindu philosophy in an ashram.

On his current album "After Awhile," which turned up frequently on critics' best-of-1991 lists, the Austin-based Gilmore is equally at home with the earthiness of honky-tonk, the sweetness of folk and the bite of rock. But if his musical feet are firmly on the barroom floorboards, his mind tends to reach beyond the material world in songs about questing after values and spiritual understanding.

Gilmore's rich, haunting voice, with its reedy echoes of Willie Nelson, has a timeless, almost disembodied cast that makes it a perfect instrument for addressing questions of eternity without sounding pompous.

"The subject of questing is a real good basis for a song," Gilmore, 46, said over the phone recently from Nashville, where he was rehearsing for a tour with Marty Brown (see accompanying story) that brings them to the Coach House tonight.

"I don't like the idea of getting preachy, but I do like the idea of having all (my philosophy) in there," Gilmore said. "That's what the interest of life is: what you learn from it, what you get out of it. My whole deal, the goal of my art, is to blend that with a simplicity of expression."

Running through Gilmore's lyrics along with the theme of questing after knowledge and new experience is a realization that the quester must bear a cost--such as leaving a lover behind.

As he puts it in his song "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night," "You've got to give up something when you try out anything new." But in the end, the searching is worthwhile, as Gilmore's spiritual seekers come back with a sense of self-awareness and inner peace.

Where such country as icons Williams and George Jones typically focus their songs on a single, searing experience, Gilmore takes a longer, philosophic view, reflecting on processes that unwind like spools over the course of a lifetime. The classic country singers love to probe depths of pain, recreating the worst, most agonizing moments of loneliness, rejection or self-revulsion. Gilmore acknowledges pain but looks at it in retrospect, through the eyes of a narrator who has come through bad times and found something better. It's a glowing, hopeful vision that Gilmore presents in "These Blues:"

Well I don't know where I'm going, but I know where I've been,

And there ain't no need to ever go back again.

And my very worst days are so much better

Than the best I knew back then.

And I thank the Lord that a loser can sometimes win.

In keeping with the best country tradition, the path that Gilmore traces in his songs is one he has walked himself.

He grew up in Lubbock, Tex., the home of Buddy Holly, surrounded by country and rock 'n' roll influences. He spent his earliest years on a dairy farm outside the city until his father, Brian, moved the family to Lubbock. Gilmore's father was a dairy industry bacteriologist at Texas Tech, but on the side he played electric guitar in a country band.

"Somehow the electric guitar wasn't my thing," Gilmore recalled in his gentle twang, "and there never was an acoustic guitar around the house. My uncle gave me my first acoustic" when Gilmore was 16. "I fell in love with it, and my dad showed me the chords."

After enrolling at Texas Tech, Gilmore "kept drifting into the night life of playing music. Alcohol was still illegal (in Lubbock). Any joint you played in that had alcohol was automatically an outlaw joint."

Perhaps that had something to do with Gilmore and a circle of Lubbock buddies that included Joe Ely and Butch Hancock developing a strain of country music that defied convention. Dubbing themselves the Flatlanders, they went to Nashville in 1972 to record an album of acoustic string-band songs that had little to do with the lush production style that dominated the country market then.

The album, issued only on eight-track cassettes, didn't make a commercial ripple (Rounder Records reissued it on CD in 1990, under the Gilmore-coined title "More a Legend Than a Band"). The Flatlanders broke up in 1973. Gilmore, who had been the lead singer, put his career as a professional musician on hold for the next seven years.

"A lot of people (assume) that I must have been so disillusioned that I just went off in despair, but that wasn't the case at all," he said. Instead, he decided to pursue an interest in Eastern philosophy, "something I was already into before the Flatlanders happened." With several other friends from Lubbock, he went to Denver to study under the Guru Maharaj Ji.

During his years of spiritual study, Gilmore kept singing and writing songs, but not professionally. "I did weird odd jobs," he said. "I was a janitor in a synagogue for a long period. I worked in a health food store. And I just lived off friends. I always had a tendency to be a drifter."

In 1980, he moved to Austin, ready to resume his musical career. However, he got sidetracked.

"After I had been immersed in the spiritual discipline and surroundings, I came back into the music business and went hog wild to the other end of the pendulum. Over a period of years I just became completely crazed and drunk all the time. I backslid past the worst place I was before.

"The process going on was finding the leveling place" between absolute discipline and absolute abandonment. "Moderation in everything had to become a guiding principle. The coming out of a hard time and into a positive view (that is reflected in songs like "These Blues"), that was really the case. I reconnected with my spiritual discipline. I sort of was given a second chance."

He sobered up in 1982, and in 1983 he began making progress on his musical career with the help of his old friend Ely, who had become a respected roots-rocker with a solid cult following.

In 1984, they recorded a single together, putting Gilmore's lighthearted rocker "All Grown Up" on one side and Ely's hangdog "Honky Tonk Masquerade" on the other. In 1985, Gilmore began to tour in Europe, where fans knew him from his songwriting credits on albums by Ely and Hancock.

"I was playing constantly, but not making enough to support a family," said Gilmore, who credits his wife, Janet, with providing firm financial footing with her career as a computer systems analyst. Gilmore has three children, ages 11 to 26, from two previous marriages, and he recently became a grandfather.

He resumed his recording career with two critically well-received albums on the independent Hightone label, "Fair & Square" (1988) and "Jimmy Dale Gilmore" (1989). "After Awhile," his major label debut (Elektra Records), was supposed to be a one-shot deal, part of the label's "American Explorer" series designed to give exposure to such overlooked roots-oriented talents as Gilmore, Zydeco bandleader Boozoo Chavis and Chuck Berry's great piano sideman, Johnnie Johnson. Gilmore's album was no commercial smash, but Elektra has signed him to continue recording for the label.

"I don't think ("After Awhile") penetrated the country mainstream at all," said David Bither, the Elektra executive whose interest in signing Gilmore was sparked after an impromptu performance in a trailer at a folk festival in England. "We've sold about 30,000 records, which is certainly a long way from Garth Brooks. But it's been the most critically lauded country record of the year. I think he will at some point be very commercially successful, but it's going to be through some strange (development) we can't predict."

Gilmore thinks his tradition-steeped sound can appeal to mainstream country fans, although he's not so sure country radio will go for lyrics that often substitute abstract concepts for the concrete scenarios of mainstream country music. "Maybe it is too weird, so weird it's disturbing" to radio programmers, he said.

Lately, he has been playing outside a strictly country orbit, opening shows for Bob Dylan and John Prine and playing such alternative rock venues as CBGB in New York.

Even if the country establishment doesn't embrace him (which would put Gilmore in good company with such worthies as Dave Alvin, Nanci Griffith, Jerry Jeff Walker and his friends Ely and Hancock), he intends to stay true to his roots.

"The old country music form is something I'll never lose," he said. "It's a matter of taking the form, which I love deeply, and putting a really different twist on it, because my life and experiences have brought me in contact with some really different ideas."

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