New Age Journal • September/October 1997 • by Jeff Wagenheim
The car full of friends drove out of Lubbock bound for glory. It was March 1972, a few weeks after Nashville had heard word of a traditional string band leg by a singer whose tangy twang evoked the high, lonesome plains of West Texas.
A record deal had been struck, so Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his band mates loaded up guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin - even a musical saw - and headed off to the city where country music and country music stars are made. As their old-timey sound transformed Singleton Sounds Studio into a windswept back porch hosting a get-together of guitar-picking neighbors, an observer remarked, "It's funny that a bunch of flatlanders has to come to the hills of Tennessee to show us how to play country music." It was decided that Jimmie Dale and The Flatlanders would be the name of the album.
Disappointed and disillusioned, The Flatlanders dispersed, their trio of front men remaining good friends but heading in different directions. Joe Ely formed a rocking band and by the end of the '70s was touring Europe, opening for The Clash. Butch Hancock slowly became recognized as a Texas-sized songwriting talent.
But Jimmie Dale Gilmore did not record another album for 16 years. He moved away from Texas, away from the music business. He worked as a gas station attendant in New Orleans and a janitor in a Denver synagogue while living in spiritual communities devoted to the teenage guru Maharaji. "People in the music business and even some friends figured that I'd just freaked out over the record not being released and over life in general - that I was running away from it all - but they could see only what had been happening in my life publicly, not what was happening internally," says Gilmore, now 52 and living in Austin, Texas. "My close circle of friends knew that I had already been on the path."
Gilmore had been studying Vedanta long before The Flatlanders' fiasco. He had read Alan Watts and Gurdjieff and had gone to hear a lot of spiritual teachers speak, including Swami Satchidananda and, of course, Maharaji. "But I came to a point when I decided that I had to do more than just read about all these ideas," says Gilmore. "I think it's a Sufi saying: 'Dig one 100-foot well instead of 10 wells of 10 feet apiece.'"
Not used to hearing a country singer talk about Sufis and swamis, Gurdjieff and gurus? Jimmie Dale Gilmore is as much a mystic as a musician. Whereas country superstar Garth Brooks studies marketing in college and went on to sell as many records as the Beatles, Gilmore is a former philosophy student whose resuscitated music career has brought him rewards that money can't buy, such as gushing fan mail from the now-deceased Allen Ginsberg. From his childhood interest in science fiction ("there's a lot of strange metaphysics in the early stuff") to his years in Maharaji's Divine Light Mission to his songwriting workshops the past two summers at a holistic retreat center ("I was as much of a student as anyone else"), Gilmore has always been a seeker. This is detectable in his songs, though you have to listen closely; he's too gentle a soul to bludgeon the listener, even with wisdom. Also discernible in the songs: His journey has not always been a joy ride. He's on his third marriage, and his return to record-making a decade ago followed a spell of hard living. Gilmore comes across not as a guy with all the answers but as a man who is continually asking questions.
The trade show floor at the South by Southwest Music Conference is not exactly bustling. Most of the real business at this annual talent showcase and schmoozefest is conducted over drinks at hotel bars near the convention center or over slabs of ribs at the barbecue joints all over Austin. But a crowd has gathered in front of the stage in a back corner of the cavernous space as a lanky man with long, straight, gray-streaked hair steps up to the microphone. As his first guitar notes drift out into the rows and rows of display booths, a few heads turn in the direction of the concert area. Then Jimmie Dale Gilmore begins to sing. A lot more heads turn. Some of these heads are balding, with gray on the side. Others have every color but gray streaked through their untamed hairdos. These people might never set foot in the same honky tongs and hipster clubs during this week of music, but this afternoon they're shoulder to shoulder because of, well, that voice.
Gilmore is wailing his way through a rendition of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" that would bring tears to the eyes of Hank Williams. There's a hint of old Hank's unabashedness, of Willie Nelson's tenderness, of Roy Orbison's elegance. With a quavering voice that sends chills through the listener and a subtle mysticism that stretches the formulaic boundaries of country music, Gilmore has build a broad following among those who favor songs addressing something more soulful than an achey breaky heart.
Much acclaim has come Gilmore's way from outside the country mainstream. Rolling Stone named him Country Artist of the Year three straight times in the early '90s, and in a 1995 profile, The New York Times Magazine lauded him as "Austin's cosmic crooner." His last two albums have garnered Grammy Award nominations - not in the country music category, but for best contemporary folk album. "I think I've finally got that figured out," Gilmore says to the convention center audience between songs. "If you write and play songs that are derived from your roots, yeah, that's folk music." He then launches into "There She Goes," his up-tempo love song that calls forth the rhythm of someone with whom he shares hometown roots, the late rock 'n' roll legend Buddy Holly.
"Jimmie Dale Gilmore synthesizes so many different forms of music," says Nicholas Dawidoff, author of "In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music" (Pantheon), which devotes a full chapter to The Flatlanders. "He has taken the traditional country music he grew up with, Hank Williams and Bob Wills, and made it more modern. He's very interested in the blues, he's interested in rock 'n' roll and rockabilly, and I guess to some degree he's also interested in Eastern music. And by incorporating these apparently disparate forms of music, you get his brand of country music."
You might say that country music was Gilmore's birthright. His father played electric guitar in dance hall bands on the Texas Panhandle before family responsibilities took center stage; he named his first-born not after himself but after the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers. Brian Gilmore took little Jimmie Dale to see Johnny Cash, with the opening act a relative unknown named Elvis Presley. "I more than liked it; it set the course of my life," Gilmore told The New York Times Magazine. "It was such a joyous sound." From youth through adulthood, says Gilmore, "music has always been a source of connection between me and my dad."
So has an iconoclastic sense of spirituality. Gilmore's father was raised a fundamentalist Baptist, and although the elder Gilmore agreed with much of the theology, he did not like the rigidity of the church. Jimmie Dale recalls, "He told me he made a promise to himself that if he grew up and had kids, he wasn't going to subject them to that. So we didn't go to church on Sundays. But my dad did his best to teach us right." Gilmore pauses, measures his words. "We learned values as opposed to doctrine."
Gilmore grew up a voracious reader with a curious mind, his eclectic tastes ranging from Aldous Huxley to Colin Wilson, W. Somerset Maugham, and Ezra Pound. When he enrolled at Texas Tech in the mid-'60s, he majored in philosophy, focusing on linguistic analysis and logic. "I learned to be an incisive skeptic," he says. "This seemed to run contrary to my more mystical temperament." It took Gilmore years to understand how these two sides of himself could coexist.
Gilmore's musical and mystical passions have always coexisted, however. He was never a lone seeker among his circle of songwriting friends. "The glue that had brought us together was a similar taste in older music, but it wasn't long before we recognized that we'd all been studying Eastern religions," says Butch Hancock, who has known Gilmore since junior high school. "Exploring the spiritual and philosophical realms became a large part of what we did together. The extra bonus was being able to pick music with these kindred spirits."
Explains Gilmore, "This is what people don't understand about the Flatlanders. The band grew out of a group of friends that still remains a group of friends. It never had the kind of feeling that a lot of people presumed it did: that here was our big chance and it didn't happen."
Hancock adds, "That whole time had a pure energy about it, pure in the sense of not being wagged by the tail of commercialism. We were sort of our own dog. Still, I think The Flatlanders' record not coming out was probably the best thing that could have happened to us, because it gave us time to get back to finding out what was really important inside ourselves."
For one Flatlander, it was time to dig that 100-foot well. Gilmore moved to New Orleans to immerse himself in the teachings of Maharaji, a 14-year old Indian who meditation techniques freed him to feel life instead of think about it, bringing him a joy more enduring than what he experienced in nightclubs. The ashram where he lived was just a few blocks from Tipitina's, mecca of the lively New Orleans music scene, but Gilmore had no interest in taking his guitar over there for a gig. He was surprised by how at peace he felt. "Not only am I a twentieth-century American, I am a West Texan," Gilmore said in a 1995 interview with the Buddhist publication Shambala Sun. "Bowing down to anything was absolute taboo in the culture I was raised in. That was so taboo it wasn't even thought of as a possibility. To me, the bowing down was an act of surrendering the ego. I didn't think I could do that. And then I did it. It was very liberating."
Within a few years, Gilmore was living in Denver in a community of several thousand Maharaji followers. He helped coordinate music for the Divine Light Mission, and occasionally he sat in with his Lubbock friends, Tommy and Charlene Hancock, also Maharaji followers, performed in clubs around town. But for years, Gilmore steered clear of the music business. He became interested in Oriental medicine while working at a health food store. He started commuting to Boulder for acupuncture classes. He also became curious enough about macrobiotics to study in Boston at Michio Kushi's renowned institute.
Then Gilmore reached a crossroads. "I had to decide whether to move to Boulder to continue with acupuncture studies or to Austin to resume my music career," he recalls. "It finally became clear to me how much I loved music. I decided that I could read books about Oriental medicine and study that stuff as a hobby."
In the early '80s Gilmore found himself in Austin playing five nights a week, on-stage and off. "I went completely crazy," he remembers. "I was drinking all the time. And I was being devotedly not monogamous." Having already had two failed marriages, Gilmore was determined to avoid entanglements. What he didn't quite grasp was that relationships were just what he was missing. "I was not longer surrounded by the community I'd had in Denver," he says, "so I didn't have the ongoing support and inspiration. I let my meditation practice taper off. I became very unhappy."
Gilmore continued performing music, night after night, until two things happened: He found the support he needed to quit booze, and he met a woman with whom a relationship didn't feel like an entanglement. "When I met Janet," Gilmore says, "I finally had someone in my life who always could see what was good about me even in the midst of all my confusion and my lack of dependability." They were married in 1988 and now live in the hill country west of Austin.
There are wild times
and moody moments, culminating with the rough-around-the-edges
Outside the Lines, in which Gilmore addressed the path that his
life and career have taken: I painted myself into a corner/ But
footprints are just about to become part of my design / Now that
I've found myself over the line. His wife, Janet, smiles knowingly
when she hears the first notes of what she calls "his autobiographical
Charlene Hancock, Gilmore's longtime friend, believes his widespread recognition came at a perfect time.
Butch Hancock agrees. "(Gilmore's) time with Maharaji helped him gain confidence. It's a combination of having more confidence and understanding where that confidence comes from, which is a more relaxed, more peaceful place," says Hancock. "You can hear it in his singing voice."
"By my nature, I'm always ready for a little adventure. And I was curious to see if I could do it. How would it affect me? Would I learn anything?" Jimmie Dale Gilmore could be talking about any of the many adventures he has undertaken in recent years, from his boisterous CD collaboration with the Seattle grunge band Mudhoney (big fans of his) to his acting work in The Big Lebowski, an upcoming film by Fargo producer-director team Joel and Ethan Coen (also big fans). Gilmore is referring, however, to his songwriting workshops the last two summers at Omega Institute, a holistic retreat center in upstate New York.
Omega regularly enlists the services of offbeat workshop leaders such as Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson and actor/director/writer Andre Gregory (My Dinner With Andre); Gilmore fitted right in. After the first summer, student feedback was impassioned, with participants most impressed by something other than Gilmore's command of rhyming schemes and rhythms. "People appreciated the opportunity to be with someone of his caliber who was very welcoming and really wanted to help everybody on their own individual path, wherever they were in their talent," says program coordinator Kim Blisard. "He made it a very inclusive experience. And that's not always the predominant feeling in these kinds of workshops. Often there's a clear divide between teacher and students."
Gilmore insists, "I was a student in the workshop. I felt as though the whole group acted as one another's teachers." Whereas another Omega songwriting teacher, Rosanne Cash, selects workshop participants from the most promising tapes she receives from applicants, Gilmore accepts beginners. "That goes along with my whole approach to music," he says. "I was never trained, and to me everybody is potentially a songwriter. It's only the ones with an intense desire who look inside and find their songs."
Gilmore's learning experience in the workshop also involved an inner search. "I was forced to talk out loud about processes that always had been totally internal," he says. "And as a result I learned some helpful things about my songwriting." He came to understand, for example, that his creative process sometimes is slowed to a crawl because of his perfectionism about lyric rhyming. "A lot of songwriters in country-western and folk tend not to care about that so much - to rhyme 'train' and 'again' is pretty standard," he notes. "But ideally, in a song, as in a poem, I prefer a perfect rhyme. It was really good for me to become conscious of the realm of perfection I'm looking for in the craft."
If Gilmore's trips to the Hudson River Valley have been educational, his journeys down the Rio Grande with a rafting company called Far-Flung Adventures have churned with inspiration. For the past five years, he has accompanied groups of about twenty on three-day trips down the river along the Mexican border near Big Bend National Park, playing music for them around a campfire each evening. "These river trips have been reconnecting me with the love of nature I had when I was a kid, when climbing on trees was my favorite thing to do in the universe," says Gilmore. "The blend of ecosystems is amazing - a fertile river right in the middle of stark desert. Between the natural beauty and the community among the people on the trip, you get this tribal feeling."
Gilmore has been pondering those river trips and the feeling of oneness a lot lately, ever since he picked up theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra's recent book, The Web of Life (Anchor Books). "One of the insights in the book is the connection, no, the identity of humans with the rest of nature," says Gilmore. "Now, I often get excited about the latest thing I've read, but this book synthesizes what i had thought were separate interests of mine. It essentially says that cognitive science, which is the latest in Western science, is identical in its explanation of consciousness to the ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts. The Buddha was sort of the primo psychotherapist." Capra has made science out of something that Gilmore had long believed intuitively. "It feels like a circle is being completed," Gilmore says, "that my intellectual life and intuitive life are merging."
This synthesis is refreshing for Gilmore. One look into his brown eyes reveals how excited he is to be thinking about it and talking about it. He says that Capra's world view reminds him of something he read long ago: "I think it was Alan Watts, or maybe Aldous Huxley, who wrote that human beings are like amphibians in that we live in both the solid, physical, bump-into-thing-and-break-your-bones world and in a mental and dream world, and that finding our way through those worlds simultaneously is the goal of life." Gilmore pauses, and a smile spreads across his face. "No matter how wise you become," he says, "you're still going to want to go eat Mexican food in a little while."
You may hear talk of Mexican food if you go see Jimmie Dale Gilmore in concert, but you won't be preached to about Alan Watts or Maharaji or the Buddha. Gilmore does not treat the stage as a lectern or a pulpit. "My connection with the Great Spirit or with Wakan Tanka or Brahman, or whatever the word is for it, is so personal that I can't proselytize," he says. "A lot of what is wrong with organized religion is that it has so absolutely and thoroughly lost touch with the individual, personal connection with divinity and is so totally concerned with making other people behave in the way that's prescribed." Gilmore cites still another favorite author and thinker, the late Buckminster Fuller: "I like what he said about how the bumblebee goes for the nectar of the flower and by accident accomplishes his job in the ecosystem, which is spreading pollen. My interpretation of that is that we should go for what is real and lovable to us, and the spinoff is not our business."
For Gilmore, after all these years, what's real and lovable is music. "I believe that the impulse to make music is a religious impulse," he says. "The music of Hank Williams was coming from a deep, deep longing for connection. It was almost like a prayer for salvation. I used to say that I used music as a way to find inner peace - or if 'inner peace' is too strong a term, maybe escaping from the rest of my chaotic life. But I have come to perceive music as a means of expressing something that transcends music. So instead of music being the road to an inner experience, it has become simply the way for me to talk about it."