Long before such capitals of alternarock chic as Athens, Seattle, Chicago, Raleigh and San Diego were anointed in the ’80s and ’90s, Lubbock, Texas, was home to some of the strangest records and most idiosyncratic individualists in music. Exhibit A is The Flatlanders, a collaboration of Lubbock’s Holy Trinity — Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock — that still sounds weird more than two decades after its release (on 8-track cartridge no less; the reissues are in more accessible formats). Gilmore’s tremulous tenor duels a musical saw for space at the top of the mix, and the whole affair has an eerie, otherworldly vibe that sends chills. Opening with “Dallas,” his classic tale of alienation at twenty-thousand feet, Gilmore redefined the high-and-lonesome vocabulary of Hank Williams.
While Nashville wanted nothing to do with this warped brand of country (which also incorporated a good portion of blues, bluegrass, folk and even rock), the punk and new-music scenes eventually picked up on the Flatlanders’ iconoclastic artistry. Ely was the first to be adopted, as he toured and recorded with the Clash. More than a decade later, Hancock picked up the Health and Happiness Show as a backing band (with Richard Lloyd on guitar); Gilmore cut a Sub Pop EP with Mudhoney.
While Ely and Hancock recorded and performed steadily through the ’70s and ’80s, Gilmore dropped out of music to study metaphysics and meditation, and was not heard from again until 1988. Surrounded by his Austin-by-way-of-Lubbock gang (including Ely as producer), his solo debut, Fair & Square, is a warm, relatively brisk and surprisingly traditional comeback. A superb but far from prolific songwriter, Gilmore includes only two of his own songs, while running through a who’s who of post-modern Texas country tunesmiths, including Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner Blues,” Ely’s “Honky Tonk Masquerade” and David Halley’s stunning “Rain Just Falls.”
With slightly greater emphasis on originals, Jimmie Dale Gilmore revisits roughly the same terrain, in a similarly neo-traditional setting anchored by Lloyd Maines’ pedal steel guitar. Besides a remake of “Dallas,” the other key performance is the singer’s “Deep Eddy Blues,” a two-step in which the beauty of the performance cannot mask the devastation unfolding in the lyric.
It wasn’t until After Awhile, however, that Gilmore’s unique style became fully apparent. For the first time, the breadth of his writing is on display; while “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown,” “Treat Me Like a Saturday Night” and “Midnight Train” are clearly rooted in honkytonk, folk and blues — and the singer’s voice steeped in mountain balladry — he guides these traditions into terrain more closely associated with Leonard Cohen, Stephen Sondheim and Bob Dylan. For all the high-minded aspirations in the music, Gilmore never turns into a cosmic cowboy; not for nothing is he fond of quoting Ezra Pound’s maxim that “The poem fails when it strays too far from the song and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance.” The music on After Awhile embodies that synergy between heart, intellect and groove.
With Spinning Around the Sun, Gilmore’s skills as an interpreter are given a broader context than on the Hightone discs. Gilmore treats the American songbook as a continuum, blurring the boundaries between country, blues, soul and rock’n’roll with the effortlessness of some of the 1950s pioneers: Presley, Cash, Lewis. Gilmore is no match for the early Elvis — his cover of “I Was the One” is the sole disappointment — but his dirge-tempo version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” does the master justice. And his readings of contributions from his West Texas pals, including Al Strehli, ex-wife Jo Carol Pierce and Hancock, are definitive-particularly Butch’s “Just a Wave.”
Two Roads catches two old pals teaming up for an acoustic career retrospective while on a tour of Australia. Hancock’s craggy no-nonsense croak is offset by Gilmore’s soaring warble, and the material is mostly first-rate Hancock, a treasure chest of metaphysical longing and introspection.
The aptly titled Braver Newer World completely severs whatever tenuous ties Gilmore had left to the world of country music. Producer T-Bone Burnett inventively frames the singer’s singular voice in a richly atmospheric mix, with a potpourri of percussion, pedal-steel drones, Vox organ, lowing horns and chunky baritone guitar. Even as the disc veers across a century of music, from the spectral longing of Portishead (suggested in a cover of singer Sam Phillips’ “Where Is Love”) to the raw sexuality of Blind Lemon Jefferson (“Black Snake Moan”), Gilmore sounds utterly in control, both relaxed and urgent. Just as Los Lobos’ Kiko and PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love embrace both experimentation and tradition, Braver Newer World perfects Gilmore’s career-long synthesis of the two impulses.