Singer and songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore began his career as a member of the Flatlanders, whose sole recording project in the early 70s was barely distributed, but has since been acknowledged (through the 1991 reissue "More a Legend Than a Band") as a milestone of progressive, alternative country music. While his songs and his ethereal vocal style established his reputation, it wasn't until 1988 that Gilmore released his first solo album for Hightone, "Fair & Square." Following a second, self-titled album for Hightone in 1989, he released three albums for Elektra in the next decade: "After Awhile" (1991), "Spinning Around the Sun" (1993), and "Braver Newer World" (1996). The Rolling Stone Critics' Poll named him the Country Artist of the Year for two straight years, while the Grammys nominated him for Best Contemporary Folk Artist for "Spinning Around the Sun" and "Braver Newer World." In 2000 he released "One Endless Night," and then reconvened with the original band members of the Flatlanders to produce—after three decades—a new album called "Now Again." This interview, conducted in the summer of 2002 by Christian Hawkey, took place a few minutes before a Flatlanders concert in Northampton, Massachusetts.
This may be apocryphal, but I heard the writings of Ezra Pound inspired you early on in your career. Is this true?
I read a lot of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. There was one particular statement that Pound made that resolved a conflict for me—a conflict that I'd had for years and years. It was an absurd conflict but one that I lived in because of the fact that I grew up in two different worlds. I read. I was surrounded by very literate, intelligent people. Some of my friends were musicians, but most of my friends were not necessarily musicians, although they loved music. Because of the strange background I had coming out of country music (and this was a period when rock and roll was completely dominant-and I love rock and roll, it's a huge part of what I do) there seemed to be this odd conflict: if you were a country music person you had to hate rock and roll, or if you were a rock and roll person you had to hate country music.
Or if you were either you didn't read.
Exactly. And so there was a very odd conflict for me. I guess that tended to make me wonder if I was missing something, if I was mistaken one way or the other. I loved the heart of that old country stuff, but those people distrusted and despised intellectuals. And vice versa—the intellectuals were condescending toward country music. Then I came across the passage by Ezra Pound, and I think I have this quote accurate. He said, "The poem fails when it strays too far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance." That sentence was an education for me. What I realized is that this music I really loved was dance music. It was honky-tonk dance music. People danced to it. Very rhythmic, very simple. I already had that opinion, but I had never articulated it to myself before. It's so revealing, and from both directions: it undercuts, in a sense, the pompous sort of thing that poems can so easily get into. And at the same time it recognizes poetry as being crucial to us.
Do you also see "the dance" as a kind of thinking, or way of imagining?
I don't know. All of that is very questionable to me. The whole notion of the interconnectedness of everything is an extremely important insight in the way the world works—and I'm getting this from the Buddhist tradition, which I've been exposed to for a long time—but discursive thought has a tendency to go in that direction, to put us in touch with the "song" and the "dance." And even thinking of myself as an example, I'm a "thought-ridden person," and in one sense I see it as a—I may not be addressing the question directly. . .
I think you are.
. . . but maybe it's just got to do with words like "thinking" or "thought" having many different meanings, and different meanings for each of the people using them in conversation. Words are subjective. In one sense I revere logic, but at the same time it's become clear to me that logic by itself is kind of dead, which is one of the reasons poetry is so important: it undercuts expected notions of logic. That's also the dance.
Are there other poets you are drawn to?
I read a lot of Ginsberg, and became friends with him later on in his life. I also read Rilke, and a lot of Baudelaire and Rimbaud early on. Although the truth is I'm much more of a fan of prose than poetry. I don't read much fiction. I read poetry now only as it comes to me—someone passes a book on to me, etc. But I read a lot of it in my youth.
One can sense that in your songs, in your vocal style as well as in the wonderfully precise and simple images you use. I'm thinking particularly of the opening lines of "Dallas": "Have you ever seen Dallas / From a DC-9 at night."
You know when I thought of that line I already knew it had everything. It told the whole song in a way. And then it took me a long time to write the rest of that song, because it had to live up to that line. I kept chiseling away at it until I got it. A lot of my friends are very prolific—Butch Hancock, for instance. I think Butch is a real poet. He's much more natural and relaxed. He thinks of the cleverest word plays and hilarious puns, and it doesn't bother him to go into total silliness in the next line. He'll write something completely profound, and then undercut it with the opposite. I admire that play a whole lot. I've always tended to be more serious, which I see as an affliction.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Lubbock, Texas. It's flat and desolate. It's farm country—originally cotton—but it's also a university town. It's a city, not a little village now. It's extremely typical of middle class America after WWII. Geographically it's sort of featureless. There are no rivers, and there are trees because of irrigation. It's isolated. But what does that mean now? There are cars, television, movies, cell phones. My old friend Michael Ventura—I don't know if you know his work, he's a writer—he lived with us for a short period, when the Flatlanders were living together. He grew up in New York City, I grew up in Lubbock, and we both read the same books. I also credit—and this isn't flippant—I think MAD Magazine was my opening to the world.
To read the rest of this interview, please click here to purchase JUBILAT 6