Sharps & Flats

Zen cowboy Jimmie Dale Gilmore expresses the beauty of sadness and the perfection of sorrow.

Published March 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

There's an amazing scene near the end of "American Beauty" in which a young man gazes upon the murdered body of his girlfriend's father. Watching blood ooze from the man's head and spread out over the tabletop in a shimmering, glowing lake of scarlet, the boy stares as he bends to get a closer look, not with revulsion or terror or even sadness but simply with a sense of wonder at the perfection of this singular moment. The entire film seems to argue for a Buddhist-inspired understanding that life's inevitable pains and joys are all of the same beautiful cloth -- if only we had the eyes to see it.

Because Jimmie Dale Gilmore has so often discussed his interest in Eastern thought in interviews, and because his spirituality appears to have become a primary focus of his songwriting, it's hard to listen to his latest album, "One Endless Night," in anything other than a Zen context. Many of Gilmore's compositions encourage this approach. Like his earlier releases ("Spinning Around the Sun" remains my favorite), "One Endless Night" delivers a contemporary fusion of rock 'n' roll and country music that seems to have risen naturally from the west Texas plains. But then Gilmore's words stride across this scenery wearing sandals and carrying a meditation cushion.

"Defying Gravity," a track that explodes from the silence with a burst of drum and organ the rest of the cut never manages to match, is a good example. "I live on a big round ball, I never do dream I may fall/And even if one day I do, well I'll jump off and smile back at you," he sings, sounding for all the world like a playful, grinning Buddha, one fronting a turn-of-this-century country band. Elsewhere, the lines "To be the last, to be the only one, for all and everything" or "This too shall pass, we two and everything," both from the title track, arrive like roots-rock koans.

In fact, the entire album has the full, warm, snapping twang one has come to expect from the music made in the living-room studio of roots-rock songwriter/producer Buddy Miller, though the arrangements, here and there, also seem needlessly restrained and careful, particularly on the ballads. That said, the point of a Gilmore record is his voice, that remarkable high tenor, as expressive as it is distinctive. When Gilmore has a go at Willis Alan Ramsey's "Goodbye Ole Missoula," for instance, it's hard to think of a singer who can more perfectly convey human loss. That's not the same as saying Gilmore has the ability to transform sadness into beauty, as it is usually put, but rather that he somehow expresses the ways that sadness is already beautiful, perfect just the way it is.

"Goodbye Ole Missoula" is among the exceptions here, mainly because elsewhere Gilmore sings so cautiously. On the title track, it's as if he's sneaking up on the verses and never catches up. On "Down by the Guadalupe" and "No Lonesome Tune," his usually emotional voice is pretty but dulled -- and so on. Metaphysically, he sings not like he's relinquishing ego but suppressing it. Musically, the album mostly sounds high and lonesome without the lonesome.

Which is a shame. The songs Gilmore sings on "One Endless Night" are often filled with the most crippling sorts of sorrow. But when, for instance, he tells the story of "Darcy Farrow," a young girl who dies unexpectedly just before marrying, he could just as easily be singing about a woman who didn't die, or about any woman at all; he could be singing about washing the dishes. As in too many of his performances, Gilmore sings as if he has mistaken a detached observation of the moment for being in that moment.

The album concludes (not counting "Ft. Worth and Dallas," a track "hidden," I'd guess, because it rocks so much harder than anything else on the disc) with an unexpected version of "Mack the Knife." As Gilmore recounts the grim tale -- "When the shark bites through his victim, scarlet spreads amongst the rain" -- a bass drum tolls behind him, but quietly, and a steel guitar seems to drop shimmering tears. Gilmore's voice, quivering and alone, creepy and scared but calm enough to also be amazed by the scene, is just, well, beautiful.

By David Cantwell

David Cantwell teaches college composition in Kansas City, Mo. He is a contributing editor at No Depression magazine.

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