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Mapping Gilmore

Still on His Own Path, the Philosopher-Singer Takes a New Direction to San Juan Capistrano

September 03, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everything's Zen around Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

With tapping feet firmly planted in a striated bedrock of folk, blues, traditional country music and rock 'n' roll, but with his mind floating toward the ethereal realm of spirit and symbol, the Texas roots-music hero, at 51, has followed a path distinctly his own.

He first came into public view--albeit barely--in 1972 when he cut an obscure record in Nashville with a band called the Flatlanders, made up of some of his hometown friends from Lubbock. While fellow Flatlander Joe Ely went on in the '70s to forge a critically lauded form of boundary-hopping country music, Gilmore retreated to an ashram in Denver, where he studied under a famous guru, Maharaj Ji, immersing himself in Eastern thought and spirituality.

After deciding to be a musician after all, Gilmore kicked around the Austin club scene without much luck until 1988, when he finally made his first album with the help of old buddy Ely.

A second release on the independent HighTone Records label followed. Then Gilmore got a break--a major-label deal with Elektra Records--which he made the most of by cutting two exquisite, widely praised albums, "After Awhile" (1991) and "Spinning Around the Sun" (1994).

They recruited a cult following for his songs, which tend toward elusive, philosophic parables delivered in a strange, serenely beautiful, high-fluttering voice that plants a Zen garden on the austere expanse of prairies, canyons and riverbeds that serve as his main source of imagery.

As he began work on his new album late last year in Los Angeles, however, Gilmore had plenty of reason to be thinking along the lines of the sour, hit refrain by the English modern-rock band Bush: "Everything's Zen, everything's Zen. I don't think so."

Several months earlier, Gilmore had given up on almost an entire album's worth of finished recordings, deciding they sounded too much like his previous release.

His aim was to move away from his established position to somewhere out past the warning track of country music's deep left-field and into a different ballpark entirely, where the label "country" would no longer apply.

So Gilmore shelved that piece of work, hired a new producer, T-Bone Burnett, whom he barely knew, and commenced new sessions. Burnett selected a crew of ace musicians, among them Fullerton-bred steel guitarist Greg Leisz, whom Gilmore knew even less or not at all.

The result is his latest album, "Braver Newer World."

As Leisz, tells it, the musicians--also including the accomplished, veteran rhythm section of drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Jerry Scheff and Beatlemaniac alternative-pop guitarist Jon Brion--literally didn't know what to do at first.

The agenda was open-ended: find a striking new way to play Jimmie Dale Gilmore songs. As the first day went on, that assignment proved to be out of reach.

"It was all kind of improvised around [Gilmore's] vocal," recalled Leisz, who is now one of the leading steel-guitar session players in the recording industry, specializing in progressive country (Dave Alvin, early k.d. lang) and crunchy pop-rock (Matthew Sweet). "We tried various approaches before we would stumble onto a way of playing the song."

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In such circumstances, with no clear plan and no good initial results, only somebody with a true understanding of Zen or some comparable philosophy would be able to maintain a stance of calm self-possession.

"I was really impressed with Jimmie," said Leisz, who had worked with Gilmore briefly on two previous occasions. "He was probably really nervous in a lot of ways, but the way that he handled it was incredibly serene.

"As soon as the tape started rolling, things were happening that he was very surprised to hear, and he had to adjust," he said. "It took a whole day of messing around" before the title track to "Braver Newer World" found its focus with a flowing, chiming guitar current from Leisz and distorted raga-style guitar from Brion.

"If Jimmie had a personality that was confrontational or sort of moody around people he didn't know, or temperamental, or any of that kind of stuff had come up, it would have totally derailed the situation," Leisz said. "Everybody had to discover [the right way to play the music] together, and Jimmie always lent a real positive energy to it."

Gilmore, speaking by phone from a tour-stop motel in Atlanta, recalled that "at the very beginning, I didn't think it was working. It scared me: 'This is too weird, too off-the-wall; it may be missing the point.' "

But, Gilmore reminded himself, "even a lot of my favorite music, I disliked it when I first heard it. A lot of the Beatles' stuff I outright didn't like, and then as it grew on me, some of that became my favorite music in the whole world."

Gilmore's new studio band started growing on him with the playbacks of that first day's work. Today, he says, he still listens to his new album repeatedly, more as a fan than as the artist who made it.

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