Jimmie Dale Gilmore was raised in the dusty Texas panhandle town of Lubbock, birthplace of none other than Buddy Holly. Like Holly, he is a singer, songwriter and guitar player. But the similarities end there.
Gilmore is one of a handful of Texan musicians famous for their lyrical acoustic tunes – think about Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle or Nanci Griffith, for starters – that incorporate deft turns of phrase and steep poetry, and melodies that borrow from blues, folk and country sources for something altogether unique.
There’s just something about Texans.
Gilmore is playing the Savannah Music Festival with the Flatlanders, which also includes – as it has for more than 40 years – his fellow Lubbock singer/songwriter Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. Because the Flatlanders’ music is more country/rock than singery or songwritery, the show is called "Giants of Texas Country."
All three of these guys have forged extremely successful solo careers, but they always come back to the Flatlanders (the name is a sly reference to the famously empty terrain around Lubbock).
Gilmore lives in Austin, where he’s been playing SXSW shows nearly every night for the past week or so. He`s got a new album out, Heirloom Music, a collection of songs from the ’30s and ‘40s that he recorded with a California string band called the Wronglers.
If you don’t recognize Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s name, you’ll remember him from the classic Coen Brothers movie The Big Lebowski. He played Smokey, the milquetoast bowler who had a pistol pointed at him by hotheaded Walter (John Goodman).
His singing voice sticks with you, too. It’s a rather high–pitched, nasal sound – as if Pat Buttram (Mr. Haney from Green Acres), could carry a tune and knew how to deliver it. The voice’s pinched quality unserscores an aching and unforgettable vulnerability.
Merle Haggard’s mother told him she didn’t care for Lefty Frizzell, because it sounded as if he was singing through his nose. Haggard’s reply was “I don’t care if he’s singing through his ass, I like the way it sounds.” You don’t have a conventional singing voice. Why does it work so well on the kind of music that you do?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: I don’t know, because I learned to sing, I would guess, unconsciously imitating all the singers I liked. And most of the ones I liked the most were real nasal. But mostly, they were real emotional. That’s something you could say about Lefty, or of course Hank Williams, who’s at the top of the list, always.
Is it something you worked at, or is that just the way it came out?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: I learned how to sing before I even ever knew there was such a thing as voice training or anything. Sometimes I’ve wished maybe I’ve had a little training in it – same as with guitar, I was so much self–taught that in later years I wish I had somebody really show me a bunch of stuff when I was younger. Because I think it limited me.
But I developed my singing style so much by myself that it didn’t even occur to me to ever get any training.
Astonishingly, it will soon be 40 years that you, Butch and Joe made your first record, in 1972. Are you guys literally school chums from the old days?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Oh yeah. Butch and I, all the way back to the mid ‘50s. We were little kids. Butch and I are the same age, Joe’s a little bit younger, and Joe and I got to be real good friends when he was somewhere between 18, 19 or 20. The three of us got together about 1970 or so.
It was very loose. Butch and I were from that really loose folk–music background, and Joe had always been in rock ‘n’ roll bands, where there’s always that emphasis on rehearsal and getting’ it right. Butch and I had played where you just sit down and start playin.’ And Joe’s been a real good influence on both of us in that way. Although, to this day, I think we’re still not quite enough that way!
What’s the secret to staying friends?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: I think part of it may be that we’ve done so much through the years that wasn’t together. So it always makes it great when we are back together. But who knows? Part of the thing is the simple fact that the basis of our relationship was friendship to begin with. We all just liked each other. And we were all mutual fans of each other.
And another part is just the simple fact that we were each so different from each other. Everything about our sound, our styles, our personalities and everything is real different.
You’ve got this new record out with the Wronglers. So why aren’t you touring with them, instead of the Flatlanders?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: It’s not really set up like touring. I’m doing a large number of one–off dates with both of them. And the Wronglers are huge fans of the Flatlanders, so there’s no conflict from their side.
How did you decide to record those old–timey tunes?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Do you know Warren Hellman? He puts on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. It’s huge, and it’s free, and he pays for it out of his own pocket. And it’s not cheap.
It comes from his personal, intense love of bluegrass and all old–timey music. And he plays the banjo, himself. We got to talking, and we hit it off. We both love this music, and we had a sense of humor in common.
Warren put this little band together. At one time, he’d been on the board of Levi Strauss, so the name Wrongler was a joke on Wrangler. The idea popped into my head, “Why don’t we all make a record together?” Warren and I were almost from two different planets in every other respect, but we love this music.
Why are you in The Big Lebowski?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Joel and Ethan made their first film, Blood Simple, here in Austin. And you know, I’ve never asked them specifically, but they had become fans. They used to come to my gigs if they were in town, or around the country. I was touring with my electric stuff. At first, they asked me if I would do some music for one of their movies.
When they said “We want you to play a part,” I just went “What?!” I’m not an actor, definitely, and I said that: “I’d love to, but I don’t know if I can. I don’t think I can do it.” And they said, no, no, we’ll take care of it. We’ll coach you and get it right. We have the part for you.
And so I did it, and it was wonderful.
Savannah Music Festival
With Junior Brown
When & where: At 7:30 p.m. March 26, Lucas Theatre