The last time I saw Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the most poetic and lovely country singer in America, he was playing on a little wooden stage hammered up on the perimeter of the walkway to the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Just around the corner from Gilmore, 8,000 people were listening to Confederate Railroad, an indistinguishable group of guys in tight jeans with long shag haircuts, singing their current hit, "Simple Man," a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Well, I thought, here is American culture crystallized under the summer sun. The rare, original artist, enchanting a handful of fans with his heartbreaking, tender voice, is being drowned out by a bad '70s cover song at a "Summer Country Festival" sponsored by Seagram's.
"It was a little odd," says Gilmore in a soft, slow Texas drawl when reminded of that moment. "But I've been playing for such a very long time that I have an extremely thick skin about all of that. I'm just so aware of how the music business works. There's a small core of intense music lovers who seek out something special, but most people are happy to go along with the crowd."
Mind you, Gilmore is not criticizing the folks who walked by him. "I mean, to tell you the truth, I've probably done that myself," he says. "I bet I've walked right by somebody that years later I had the chance to hear in a different context and went, 'Wow, this is great.' "
But then, it would be out of character for the 51-year-old singer, whose marvelous fifth album, "Braver Newer World," has just been released on Elektra, to criticize anyone.
Jo Carol Pierce, the first of Gilmore's three wives and an idiosyncratic -- not to mention outright randy -- Texas singer and songwriter in her own right, has said that Gilmore "really is a true sweetheart. I don't think that I've ever heard Jimmie say anything bad about anybody. . . . It's a kind of sweetness in the genes, I think."
That essential sweetness is transformed into tranquility, a cycle of yearning and acceptance, in Gilmore's music.
With a precise intelligence, he uses the perfect blend of Americana to bring his songs to life: melodies from country and western, rhythms from swing and rock 'n' roll, fills from folk and bluegrass. Gilmore's voice, an eerie, plaintive, lyrical warble, can turn a single prosaic line like, "Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night?" into a celebration of the city's splendors and a lament for its discontents.
So many new country artists, either those who have risen through the ranks of Nashville, like Garth Brooks, or alternative rock, like Son Volt, sound like literary critics with guitars -- their performances are glosses on their heroes. But Gilmore is the artist himself. His songs feel fully lived in, like a joyous Whitman stanza. To borrow a line from novelist Richard Powers, Gilmore's voice sounds as if it had never "inflicted hurt, nor accepted hurt as this world's last word."
Ironically, the one false step in Gilmore's career was the single that was supposed to be his breakthrough: his recording of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," from the 1993 album "Spinning Around the Sun." The only contemporary singer capable of lowering listeners into the grave of Williams' loneliness, Gilmore sounds stylized covering his mentor -- precisely the opposite of how he sounds when he sings his own compositions or those by Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, friends from his native Lubbock, Texas.
Gilmore's beautiful twang, for some reason, has remained off country radio and on the margins of commercial success. "There are a lot of program directors at country stations who are fans of mine," he says. "And they have outright told me, right to my face, 'I love your music, but we can't play it because it's just too different from what our audience is used to.' It's kind of a silly way for them to go about it, but it's something I have to live with.
With his new album, "Braver Newer World," Gilmore wanders even further afield. "I made a real deliberate decision to become a lot more experimental and get unshackled from the 'country music' label," he says. "There are a lot of people who would like my music, but are turned off by the whole idea of country music. This time around, I wanted to show that I came from a more diverse background. I've always had every bit as much a love for rock and roll and blues, for Elvis, Chuck Berry and Robert Johnson, as I had for country."
"Braver Newer World," which was produced by T-Bone Burnett and recorded in Los Angeles with such fine musicians as drummer Jim Keltner, is not a total departure from Gilmore's previous work, however. The rockabilly may be a little more pronounced than the folk music, but the legendary artists who Gilmore has evoked since he formed his first band in Lubbock in the '60s -- Buddy Holly, Hank Snow, Roy Orbison -- are still wandering through his rhythms and melodies.
Some of the album's lyrics, particularly in "Borderland" and "Outside the Lines," seem to acknowledge Gilmore's position outside the mainstream. For example, when he sings "I painted myself into a corner/But footprints/Are just about to become part of my design," he seems to be making peace with his place on the margins.
"I guess that's true," he says. "But my attitude, and I've had this attitude for a really long time, is I am a type of rebel, but I've never been an angry rebel. I've just gone my own way. "See, I feel there's a common humanity among everybody. But if your criticism of society is that it's unfeeling and unresponsive and unpleasant, well, then, it's sort of absurd to turn around and fight it with those very same approaches. I think being judgmental is about the worst thing anybody can be.
Gilmore's background is as eclectic as his music. Part Irish, part Native American, Gilmore studied philosophy at Texas Tech. In 1974, after dropping out of college and going nowhere in local bands, Gilmore gave up music. For the next six years he lived in the Divine Light Mission in Colorado, where he was a disciple of the teenaged Guru Maharaji. Feeling inspired to "integrate my spiritual life and life in music," Gilmore returned to Texas. Although his personal turmoil wasn't entirely behind him, he began to get his career on course, playing in clubs and bars in and around Austin, where he now lives.
His first two albums, "Fair and Square" and "Jimmie Dale Gilmore," recorded in 1988 and 1989 for Oakland's Hightone label, cast him as a staunchly traditional country singer. His next two albums, "After Awhile" and "Spinning Around the Sun," recorded for Elektra, are fleshed out with a wider range of instrumentation, yet one which grants them an effortless grace.
Perhaps because of his spiritual background, Gilmore's work is often labeled "Zen country music." "I thought it was hilarious the first time I heard it," he says. "But now it's become a regular attachment. Technically, I'm not a Buddhist, but I've got so many friends who are, and I've been associated with it for so long, that people always call me that... I'm not ashamed of it, but it's slightly inaccurate." Gilmore has been an avid reader since he was a teenager, when Somerset Maugham's "A Razor's Edge" was his favorite book. He is particularly drawn to science and comparative religion; after working his way through Einstein and immersing himself in Vedanta philosophy, he strives these days to keep up with the cosmologists who link quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy.
"I love science," he says. "I love the idea of knowing what's cut-and-dried. What's hard and fast and true. But when you get into the realm of feelings and emotions, well, that's something that science can't touch. And that realm is so much better expressed by metaphor and analogy. And in a lot of ways that's the whole function of good songs. I sometimes see them as therapy for the world at large."