Jimmie Dale Gilmore's album Heirloom Music was released on May 10. This interview was originally broadcast on March 9, 2011.
"His voice would make even Hank Williams cry," Nicholas Dawidoff once wrote of Jimmie Dale Gilmore in The New York Times Magazine.
Gilmore, a singer from West Texas, writes songs that would be described as alternative country. But for his forthcoming album, Heirloom Music — in which Gilmore teams up with the band The Wronglers — he says he was thinking more in terms of bluegrass music — although that's not an exact description.
"We were calling it old-timey music, but that still wasn't quite accurate," he says. "But [bluegrass musician and investor] Warren Hellman had said that someone had referred to this sort of music as 'heirloom music,' and I loved that phrase. There's something dismissive about [the term 'old-timey'] and our point is that this music is old, but it's really good and really still pertinent."
This is Gilmore's second album in a row that has explored older songs. From 2005, Come on Back was a tribute to his late father, featuring honky-tonk classics from the 1960s. But Heirloom Moments travels back even farther than that, to the 1930s and '40s — music recorded before Gilmore was born.
"This is music that I discovered because I became interested in where the music that I was in love with as a kid came from," he says. "I'm not a folklorist. I'm not a scholar in it. But I did become curious with a lot of it. I've been doing these songs for 30 or 40 years now, and never really had the context to record them in."
One of the tracks on Heirloom Music is an old Charlie Poole song called "Leaving Home." Gilmore says he originally learned it from the New Lost City Ramblers, an old-time string band specializing in folk music from the 1920s and '30s.
"I just fell in love with the song because it's just so peculiar and quirky," he says. "And as a result of that, I looked further into it and it caused me to discover some of that really old stuff and their source material."
Gilmore performed some of his new songs and some older ones at the 2011 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, his hometown for many years. He says the festival has helped put the city's music scene on the map.
"In the early days in Austin, there was a great music scene here, but it wasn't part of the reputation of Austin," he says. "I think South by Southwest has made it a public fact and a publicly recognized fact that there's so much great music in Austin."
On His Stint At Texas Tech
"I went for a couple of years and I studied a couple of things pretty intensely, but I never did get a degree. I made really good grades in philosophy and anthropology, but I was already beginning to spend too much time in the nightlife — the honky tonks and the bootleg joints. Lubbock until recently was dry. And Lubbock's a fairly large town; it's close to 100,000 people. It was dry, so any of the nightlife that involved alcohol was illegal."
On Performing At Bootleg Bars In Lubbock, Texas
"Not only was it illegal for us to be there at the age we were. There were no age restrictions, because the entire thing was illegal. And I lived in these two different worlds at the time. I had a lot of intellectual and creative friends — musicians and artists and writers; sort of university types of people. And then I had this other group of friends, because of that music nightlife stuff, who were professional gamblers. And I hung out with them a lot. I couldn't play cards. I was terrible. But I played music and I took requests from them. That's how I grew a lot of my repertoire."
On The Convergence Of Beatniks, Hippies And Honky-Tonk Fans In His Life
"There came to be this convergence of these groups of people. The intellectual crowd [I hung out with] were also music lovers and nightlife people, some of them. And the honky-tonk people and the young hippie people — my music was from the honky-tonk world, but I was more on the borderland between the beatniks and the hippies. I always had a schizophrenic feeling about my social position. I was so much into country music, and most of my friends weren't. They only liked Top 40 kind of stuff. I read this thing by Ezra Pound where 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.' I loved that, and for some reason, that had the effect of bringing my two worlds together in my own head — that honky-tonk music was dance music, and so it was almost like Ezra Pound giving the intellectuals' endorsement to this low-brow type of music."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, Host:
Our next guest, country artist Jimmie Dale Gilmore, has a new CD with the band The Wronglers. It's titled "Heirloom Music," and features fresh versions of old-timey tunes dating back to the '30s and '40s.
As a songwriter and singer, Jimmie Dale Gilmore is considered part of the alternative country music scene. He grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and his new CD is full of songs he'd heard and played most of his life. They're songs from an earlier era, associated with such country icons as Bill Monroe, Charlie Poole and the Carter family.
Terry spoke with Jimmie Dale Gilmore earlier this year just before he and The Wronglers performed songs from "Heirloom Music" at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, which Gilmore considers his adopted hometown.
But before we hear their conversation, let's listen to the opening track from "Heirloom Music," and song called "Time Changes Everything."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME CHANGES EVERYTHING")
JIMMIE DALE GILMORE: (Singing) There was a time when I thought of no other, and we sang our own love's refrain. Our hearts beat as one as we had our fun, but time changes everything.
When you left me, my poor heart was broken. Our romance seemed all in vain. But the dark clouds are gone, and there's blue skies again because time changes everything.
TERRY GROSS: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you back. I love the new record. Is there a story behind why you chose "Time Changes Everything"?
DALE GILMORE: Well it's funny. Because we kind of were thinking in the realm of bluegrass with this record, although that's not exactly what it is, really, it's not an accurate description, that songs had been a real favorite of mine from a lot of different directions. And I found a recording of it by Bill Monroe that I didn't even know about. I never had associated - that's a Western swing. You know, I think Tommy Duncan wrote it.
GROSS: From the Bob Wills band.
DALE GILMORE: Yeah, and the Bob Wills version was the one that I first knew, you know, as a kid. And then the one that I actually learned it from though was Johnny Cash.
DALE GILMORE: Yeah, there was a collection that - I think it was called "Now There Was a Song," and it was my dad's favorite - well, he had two favorite records. He had that one and a collection by Marty Robbins, of the same kind of thing, you know, cover songs, where they had done old cover songs.
And "Time Changes Everything," you know, I've heard it in many, many different versions. It's just always so funny because it's self-referential when you hear, you know, you can change the words of an old tune.
GROSS: So you say that bluegrass would not be an accurate description of this album, even though you kind of set out to make a bluegrass album. So what would an accurate description be?
DALE GILMORE: Well, you know, we were calling it old-timey music, but that has kind of acquired a ring, you know, a sort of a - it still wasn't quite accurate. And Warren Hellman had said that somebody had referred to all of this sort of music as heirloom music, and I loved that phrase.
There's something that, that old-timey sort of - you know, there's something dismissive about it, and kind of part of our point was that this music is old, but it's really good, really still pertinent.
GROSS: Well, let's hear another song from the new album, and this is a Charlie Poole song. Or at least he - I don't know if he wrote it, but his recording is certainly the first famous one. And the song's called "Leavin' Home." So tell us how you learned the song and what the song means to you.
DALE GILMORE: Well, I very first heard it from the New Lost City Ramblers. And, well, I just fell in love with the song because it's just so peculiar and quirky. And as a result of hearing that, I went and looked further into it, and it caused me to discover some of that really older stuff, their source material.
And the Charlie Poole one is still one of the strangest recordings, and I think my recording of it is somewhat true to the original. You know, this Frankie and Johnny theme that - there was probably 100 different versions of "Frankie and Johnny," and this is a different version, but it's so extremely different that it veered off into another world, I think.
GROSS: So this is Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Wronglers from their new album "Heirloom Music."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVIN' HOME")
DALE GILMORE: (Singing) Well, Frankie said to her Johnny: Now your hour done come because underneath her silk kimono she threw a .44 gun. These love affairs are hard to bear.
Johnny, he fled down the stairway. My love, Frankie, don't shoot. Frankie done aimed that .44, and the gun went rooty-toot-toot. And Johnny fell, then Frankie yelled.
I'm going away. I'm going to stay. I'm never coming home. You're going to miss me, honey, in the days to come when the winter wind begins to blow, the ground is covered. And when you think of the way you're going to want me back, your loving man, you're going to miss me, honey, in the day they say's to come.
GROSS: So in talking about your musical past, last time you were on the show, you performed songs that you learned through your father, country songs, and he used to play in a country band, although he worked at a university, where he was the director of a dairy lab. Do I have that right?
DALE GILMORE: Yeah, the Dairy Industry Department, they called it. It later on became the Food Technologies Department.
GROSS: Oh, so he had two really different sides of his life, music and his academic career.
DALE GILMORE: Right.
GROSS: And while we're on the subject, you went to Texas Tech, where he worked. You went there briefly. Is that the right word?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DALE GILMORE: Yeah, right. Yeah, I went for a couple of years and I actually - I studied a couple of things pretty intensely, but I never did get a degree. I made really good grades in philosophy and anthropology, but I was already beginning to spend too much time in the nightlife, the honkytonks and, you know, the bootleg joints and stuff, to be able to handle college.
GROSS: Bootleg? Literally bootleg?
DALE GILMORE: Oh yeah, Lubbock was, until very recently, was dry. You know, and it's - Lubbock's a fairly large town. I mean, it's not a village. It's close to 100,000 people, university town, and but it was dry. So any of the nightlife, you know, that involved alcohol was illegal.
As a matter of fact, Joe Ely and I got to be friends because - we met each other because we both played at some of these places that were not - not only was it illegal for us to be there at the age we were. Actually, there were no age restrictions because the entire thing was illegal.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DALE GILMORE: So that was part of the backdrop. And then I had a group of friends that were - well, I had - I sort of lived in these two different worlds at the time. There was - I had a lot of, like, intellectual and creative, you know, music and artists and writers and, you know, kind of university sort of people. And then I had this other group of friends, because of that music nightlife stuff, that were professional gamblers. And I hung out with them a lot. And that's where - I never did - I never could play cards or anything. I was terrible. But I played music. I just hung around with these guys and played music, and I took requests from them.
That's how I grew a lot of my repertoire, a lot of songs that I knew a little bit, these guys would want me to sing them, and so I would I'd learn them. That's how I ended up knowing so many Hank Williams songs and, you know, Johnny Cash, that sort of stuff.
GROSS: Would you describe one of the bootleg joints that you played in?
DALE GILMORE: Well, they were really - basically, they were just little, dark bars, sort of like a cross between a bar and a coffeehouse. And the only thing is that at any time, it might be raided.
GROSS: Were you ever raided?
DALE GILMORE: I never did happen to be there when one of the raids happened. And, of course, later on, you know, that world sort of blended real easily into the drug world when that happened, you know.
GROSS: I was just thinking about that. Like you're playing at these bootleg joints, right probably right on the verge of the era when a lot of young people were not only smoking marijuana but doing psychedelic drugs...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DALE GILMORE: That's exactly what happened, and there have been - so there came to be this convergence of these groups of people, you know, the intellectual crowd I was talking about that also, you know, were also music lovers and nightlife people, some of them.
GROSS: So you must have felt like you were in two completely different worlds at the same time.
DALE GILMORE: I did. I always had a schizophrenic feeling about my social position. You know, I talked about that on - I think on "After A While," that was my first actual major-label record. I talked about having an epiphany one time when I read a phrase by Ezra Pound because I was so much into country music, and most of my friends weren't. They really only liked rock 'n' roll at the time, or, you know, Top 40 kind of stuff.
BIANCULLI: The poem fails when it strays too far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance. And I loved that. I loved that so much, and for some reason, that had the effect of, like, bringing my two worlds together in my own head, you know, that honkytonk music was dance music. It was almost like Ezra Pound giving the intellectuals' endorsement to this, you know, this low-brow kind of music.
GROSS: So I have a suggestion for your next record, and I'm sure you'll want to do it, since I suggested it. Do you want to know what it is?
DALE GILMORE: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: You ready?
DALE GILMORE: Sure.
GROSS: So it's an album of cowboy songs. And I'm...
DALE GILMORE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah? Because I love that stuff. And I'm suggesting it in part because I hear this affinity, this connection between your voice and Gene Autry's voice. Do you like Gene Autry?
DALE GILMORE: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, you know, there's an interesting link between us. My great-aunt, I never did know her, but my dad's aunt actually, she was from Tioga, Texas. They always called it Tiogee(ph). And I remember that because it came up in a conversation I had with Colonel Tom Parker one time, who I didn't realize had been Gene Autry's manager.
GROSS: This was the guy who was Elvis' manager.
DALE GILMORE: Yes, yes, Colonel Tom Parker had - his history was even more amazing than most people know about. And he remembered that Gene Autry was from Tioga, Texas. You know, it's like my relatives, you know, the East Texas kind of people, you know, it's like they say No-wee(ph) instead of Noah.
Anyway, my aunt actually sort of helped raise Gene Autry.
DALE GILMORE: Yeah. He - apparently her son, who would've been my dad's cousin, who also I don't know, I never have met, but apparently they were best friends. And Gene Autry lived with them a lot. I think he was - I don't really know the details of the background to all of it. But apparently, he was closer to their family than he was to his own.
And my dad said that my aunt told him one time that she played Gene Autry his first Jimmie Rodgers records.
GROSS: Wow because his early songs are really influenced by Jimmie Rodgers.
DALE GILMORE: Yes. In the early days, he was an outright imitator of Jimmie Rodgers. He sounded...
GROSS: And he yodeled.
DALE GILMORE: he sounded just exactly like him. Yeah.
GROSS: Wow. So did you grow up hearing Gene Autry records because of this family connection?
DALE GILMORE: Well, I didn't know the family connection until many, many years later. That was just a little story that came up somewhere around the supper table one time, a long time later.
GROSS: But did you hear his records?
DALE GILMORE: I loved Gene Autry when I was a little kid. You know, I had that little red vinyl record of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." And the flip side was "Frosty the Snowman" by Gene Autry.
DALE GILMORE: And that was way - and I was in the first grade, I think. And I really loved Gene Autry. Although, later on, you know, I kind of veered more towards, well, the blues and the honkytonk music was more appealing to me than that sort of movie cowboy music.
GROSS: Well, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, it's been great to talk with you, and I really want to thank you a lot.
DALE GILMORE: Well, thank you, Terry, and it's so much fun to get to actually talk with you instead of just listen to you because I hear you just about every day, and...
GROSS: That's so great. I'm so glad you listen.
BIANCULLI: Jimmie Dale Gilmore speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His new CD with The Wronglers, "Heirloom Music" has just been released.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on Woody Allen's new movie "Midnight in Paris."
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.