AIN'T HE SWEET : Cosmic Cowboy Is Finally Headed for Big-Label Exposure--and It Couldn't Happen to a Nicer Guy

Richard Cromelin is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to the Calendar section of The Times

Jimmie Dale Gilmore is walking toward the exit of the NBC-TV studio in Burbank following his appearance on "The Tonight Show" when he runs into Kevin Eubanks, the guitarist in the show's house band. Eubanks praises the singer's performance, saying that the resident musicians always enjoy listening to a guest who does "the real thing."

Gilmore, loaded down with his travel bag and a fruit-and-snack basket from his dressing room, thanks the guitarist, and before you know it the small, African-American pop-jazz musician and the tall, long-haired Irish-Cherokee Texan are standing in the corridor chatting like longtime neighbors.

It's been like that all afternoon. From show personnel to relatives of his band members, everyone seems to develop an instant bond with Gilmore as soon as they enter his vicinity.

"He really is a true sweetheart--I don't think that I've ever heard Jimmie say anything bad about anybody," says Jo Carol Pierce, who was married to Gilmore for three years in the late '60s.

"I think some of it is the Indian heritage," adds Pierce, now an Austin, Tex.-based songwriter with a rising profile. "I noticed that (our) daughter has it too. It's a real lovely thing. When something bothers Jimmie or my daughter, they get absolutely still for a while. And they don't ever lash out at people. It's kind of a sweetness in the genes, I think."

Gilmore is apparently exactly what he appears to be: a true innocent. A friend remembers Gilmore's father likening his offspring to "a little baby duck--every morning he wakes up and it's a whole new world."

In a field populated by driven egos and insecure stars, Gilmore's sweetness seems almost supernatural--it's easy to understand the "cosmic cowboy" reputation that envelops the singer-songwriter, who might be better known for the free-form patterns of his meandering career than for his music itself, an idiosyncratic hybrid of country, folk and pop.

But Gilmore, 48, is about ready for that to change. At an age when many performers are put out to pasture, he's just released his first big-budget, major-label album, "Spinning Around the Sun," and Elektra Records is geared up to channel the accrued legend and his new music into a real career.

Indeed, in its six weeks in the stores, "Spinning Around the Sun" has already outsold its 1991 predecessor, "After Awhile," which logged about 40,000 for Elektra/Nonesuch's lower-profile American Explorer series. Elektra has produced a video for Gilmore's version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and the singer and his new band are on the road (he plays Tuesday at the the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and Wednesday at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel Ballroom).

Known more for his singing than for his less-than-prolific songwriting, Gilmore is a formidable vocalist who taps the deepest wells of old-time country music. His pure, plaintive twang can be a chilling instrument, but his mystique rests on more than just vocal cords. In the tradition of West Texas musicians from Buddy Holly to Lyle Lovett, Gilmore mixes things up, putting a foundation of roots-solid country music through a multitude of twists. He adds influences from blues to folk to singer-songwriter pop to rock 'n' roll and ties it together with a quirky individuality that's earned such descriptions as "Zen country."

"His music is just extremely sensitive and thought provoking," says former 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant, who joined Gilmore for his two songs on "The Tonight Show" and hopes to write with him in the near future.

"It's very pure, too. It sounds in many ways like country music sounded before synthesizers. I think we have the same motivators as far as why we make music," she adds. "Just wanting to write something that is honestly moving to us."

Named after country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, Gilmore grew up in Lubbock, where he was inspired first by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Holly and later by beat poets and Indian religious teachers.

"I grew up with country music as just an absolute given 'cause of my family," he says in his North Hollywood hotel room. Wearing round eyeglasses, he looks like an eternal graduate student, and he speaks rapidly in a soft Texas drawl.

"My dad was a musician, and country music was just an ever-present thing in our house and our cars, and I loved it. But when Elvis came along and Little Richard and Chuck Berry, I just adopted that stuff along with it. I didn't stop liking the country music, which a lot of my friends did. I just absorbed that in too.

"That seems to be a feature that's common to a lot of the Lubbock musicians. In a sense, Buddy Holly was the prototype for that. He blended his elements, and there may have been some calculation in it, but there still was a feel of a spontaneous outburst of a style and a love of certain forms of music that were blended in a new kind of way."

Gilmore's early childhood was happy, but things got difficult as he grew older.

"We were extremely poor, and my dad, my dad was an alcoholic. He got sober over 30 years ago, but the last days of my life at home were unhappy. I left home the same month that my dad quit drinkin'. It's really kind of strange. It's almost like the world I lived in as a child ceased to exist, and another, much better one took its place there. . . . "

Gilmore and Pierce began their tumultuous three-year marriage after high school--part of it spent in Los Angeles, where he worked "weird jobs" and played his music at local clubs. When they split up, Gilmore became a hippie vagabond, traveling frequently around the Southwest and to the Bay Area, where Pierce and their daughter, Elyse, lived. (Following a brief second marriage, Gilmore married his current wife, Janet, seven years ago.)

Back in Lubbock, he was drawn to the bohemian community that included such friends as artist Terry Allen and musicians Lucinda Williams, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely. Combining their varied enthusiasms without inhibition, Gilmore, Ely and Hancock led a group called the Flatlanders that had a major impact on the region's music.

In 1972 they went to Nashville and recorded "Jimmie Dale & the Flatlanders," an album whose legend was enhanced by its inaccessibility. Never properly released in the United States, it was finally issued by Rounder Records in 1990 under the title "More a Legend Than a Band."

Says Gilmore: "In those days, we weren't even attempting to have a big, crash-bang giant music career. We were just playing the music that we loved, and occasionally we got gigs and got paid for it."

Still, Gilmore's disappointment over the album's fate contributed to his next move.

While the folk-ish Hancock and the rock-leaning Ely moved to Austin and became pillars of Texas music, Gilmore dropped out to spend much of the '70s in Denver as a disciple of the Indian teacher Guru Maharaj Ji.

"Even before the Flatlanders started I had already been pursuing an interest in studying a lot of the philosophical stuff that is still to this day one of my main interests," Gilmore says.

"I was going through lots of turmoil in my life. I was a young '60s radical, my marriage split up . . . and I was just, like, searching. I made up my mind that I wanted to go and pursue this thing. . . . these techniques of self-knowledge.

"I never did truly leave the music. Sometimes it's been portrayed that I just blew off music entirely, but the thing is, I just wasn't pursuing a career. . . . The music was always a part of it."

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At the end of the decade, Gilmore was ready to move on. He considered studying acupuncture and Chinese medicine but decided instead to return to Texas and see if he could make music a career. He did finally record an album--seven years later.

"Jimmie's always had a way of being kind of self-defeating in a lot of ways," says journalist Russ Parsons, a longtime friend who met Gilmore when Parsons was covering music for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

"There's a certain thing about great artists where they're really driven, and they're really focused on what they want to do," Parsons continues. "But Jimmie . . . gets distracted all the time. Distracted by good things. Something else will become more interesting to him."

Says Gilmore: "I think partly because of the way I am, I didn't ever look toward the future very much. Plus, when I started studying all the Oriental philosophy and everything, well, they approve of that! It's like, yeah !"

If Gilmore's lack of drive slowed his career, his eclecticism didn't help--and it's still one of the main challenges Elektra faces in selling the sagebrush poet.

"This is a classic example of a very hard-to-target audience, because there's bits and pieces from all over the place," says David Bither, the label's senior vice president and general manager. "At his shows I have seen people ranging from the Mudhoney crowd to the George Jones crowd. . . . We hope to find them by touring, press, word of mouth. It is happening slowly but surely."

Gilmore's old partner Ely produced the first of his two albums for the independent Hightone label, released in 1988. The second was an all-out country effort recorded in Nashville, Tenn., and the 1991 American Explorer release emphasized Gilmore's original compositions. All the while, Gilmore was playing regularly in Austin and spreading the word with low-budget tours.

Why is Gilmore finally ready to put things into high gear after all those laid-back years?

His old friend Parsons, now managing editor of The Times' food section, cites a marked increase in self-confidence in the past couple of years.

"The respect that he gets from his peers is a real big part of it," Parsons says. "He has people he thinks a lot of, and their opinions matter a lot to him. He'll go someplace and he'll say, 'You know, they heard my music and they really liked it.' And it still really means a lot to him."

Gilmore is also encouraged by the recent progress of Lovett and other eclectic artists.

"I think that public taste has moved, both in the country music world and the pop world, so there's more room for experimentation than five or 10 years ago. . . . So it's beginning to look like now that being between the cracks is not only not an obstacle, but that it's an actual selling point for me."

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Who

Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

When

Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 8 p.m. With Jann Browne and Joe Henry.

Where

The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts

Take the San Diego (5) Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

Wherewithal

$13.50.

Where to call

(714) 496-8930.

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