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Gilmore Tries Pride of Label Ownership

May 14, 2000|JOHN ROOS GILMORE, JIMMIE DALE..BD: SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

High on pretty much anyone's list of "Songs You'd Least Expect to Hear" from Texas troubadour Jimmie Dale Gilmore would be "Mack the Knife."

But sure enough, there at the end of his latest album, "One Endless Night," is the Brecht-Weill classic.

Of course, the man who wrote such ethereally beautiful ballads as "Dallas," "If You Were a Bluebird" and "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night," all of which his fellow Texan and former bandmate Joe Ely recorded to great effect, doesn't follow the standard swing treatment of "Mack" that Bobby Darin popularized by lifting Louis Armstrong's arrangement.

"As a kid, I loved the Bobby Darin version," Gilmore said recently from a Portland, Ore., hotel. "But when I heard this recording by [acoustic bluesman] Dave Van Ronk several years ago, it was the one that demonstrated that this song was a literary work. His liner notes told me about the song's history, and that put a whole different light on it for me."

Actually, it may have been responsible for dousing the light in Gilmore's version, in which the song becomes a sludgy, sinister tale of foreboding, his fluttering, idiosyncratic voice, Phil Madeira's spooky Hammond B3 organ and Darrel Scott's prickly steel guitar snaking together for an eerily unsettling rethinking of the tune.

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Gilmore puts as much original thought into the album's other covers of songs by Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt, John Hiatt, Willis Alan Ramsey and Walter Hyatt, which makes the album's focus less Gilmore the songwriter--he used just two of his songs--than Gilmore the song stylist.

Any common thread to be found in the material, he says, is a loose one.

"They just seamlessly combine my taste, in terms of style and material," he says. "It's funny, because I was just sitting there one day while Buddy [Miller, the album's co-producer] was adding these guitar parts, and I realized just how similar his background and approach is to mine.

"We both love old-time country music as well as the guitar sounds--that intensity--of rock 'n' roll. I guess that's why I love Stephen Foster, Robert Johnson and Elvis," Gilmore said. "So musically, this album has some beautiful, romantic, more traditional moments and others with the grating feel of rock . . . the raw emotional thing. I feel the closest to this album because of this shared aesthetic."

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After ending a long association with Elektra Records, Gilmore released "One Endless Night" on his new custom label, Windcharger Music, distributed by Rounder Records. Despite speculation to the contrary, he didn't start the new label because he was abandoned by Elektra.

"I just dropped myself. Elektra gave me total freedom while I recorded over there. . . . It was actually a very positive relationship, and there's still an open door there for me. The reality, though, is that I'm not accessible to a mainstream audience because a lot of people aren't disturbed by some of the questions I seek answers to."

In fact, before the "One Endless Night" sessions, Gilmore was troubled most when he turned his gaze inward. The man who spent much of the '70s in a Denver ashram suddenly found himself questioning his motives.

"I read this wonderful quote from Swami Vivekananda that affected me very deeply," Gilmore said. "He says, 'The political approach consists in trying to change others, while the spiritual attitude is about trying to change oneself.' When I read that, I knew I had become guilty of trying to change other people--the very thing that bothered me the most about politicians. I don't want to use my music for that purpose. I'd rather lean on the love and joy in it, instead of [using it] as a tool to manipulate. . . .

"Basically, I'm just a musician. I have a deep and abiding interest in the spiritual world, but I'm no sage and I'm not an accomplished yogi. I do have alternative ideals, but there's been this image of me as some kind of Zen cowboy, and I really don't like the idea of presenting myself, or being presented, as such."

His self-esteem was at least partially restored by starting his own label, and by the camaraderie he felt with Miller, his wife Julie Miller, Emmylou Harris, Victoria Williams, Jim Lauderdale and his other collaborators on "One Endless Night."

"Getting together with all these kindred spirits and creating something of worth that has the potential to touch other people's . . . lives, well, that was just a tremendous experience.

"In addition, he continued, "although I had freedom before, there is something empowering--even if it's just psychological or subtle--about the album genuinely being my own. I did get contract offers . . . but I wanted some kind of ownership. In a way, my whole career has been like a science experiment--and we're still waiting for the results to come in."

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Jimmie Dale Gilmore plays today at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. With Hired Guns and Mercy Miles. 8 p.m. $14.50-$16.50. (949) 496-8930.

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