Mere humans aren't supposed to have singing voices as heavenly and lilting as Jimmie Dale Gilmore's. His is a warm, calming, west-Texas warble, the kind of gentle tremolo that can take away the pain of life with just the briefest kiss upon your eardrum.
This is why you don't mind when you find out that his new One Endless Night album is made up of mostly covers, with Gilmore this time interpreting not only his favorite songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Butch Hancock (both of whom he's done regularly over the course of six solo albums and umpteen live shows) but also John Hiatt, Jesse Winchester, Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter (dude! "Ripple!") and even Kurt Weill's often-tackled chestnut "Mack the Knife." It's that voice, though, that matters most. Sure, it's a tawdry clich, but Gilmore may be the one guy who honestly could sing the phone-book listings and make it sound achingly, stunningly beautiful.
The music on One Endless Night is just as sweet, a typically Jimmie Dale Gilmore-stamped brand of impossibly great folk-leaning traditional-country too cool to ever be allowed near the swill that gets spun on what's passing for "country" radio these days. There are loosey-goosey, pickin'-on-the-back-porch tunes mixed with rockabilly workouts, and even though Gilmore didn't write much on the album, that voice of his—it's always about the voice—can still make you conjure up images of his pancaked, dusty, west-Texas roots and the rolling, laid-back, hill-country hippie vibe of his adopted Austin, Texas, home.
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Gilmore had mostly been a well-kept Texas secret until 1991, when Elektra Records released his After Awhile album as part of its heralded American Explorer series. That got him noticed by a slew of music scribes, who blessed him with the Best Country Artist title in Rolling Stone's critic's poll for two years running. But he already had a history dating back to his early '70s stint with the Flatlanders, a band that included Gilmore buddies Joe Ely and Hancock. The Flatlanders put out just one album, which barely got any distribution (and, even worse, was only issued as an 8-track). Still, that album proved to be as influential in modern alterna-country circles as the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo after it was rereleased in 1990 with the all-too-true title More a Legend Than a Band.
Through each successive album following After Awhile—1993's Spinning Around the Sun, 1996's Braver Newer World and One Endless Night (he's hip enough to have also cut a Sub Pop EP in 1994 with Seattle plod-rawk heathens Mudhoney, who covered his "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," while Gilmore took on their "Blinding Sun")—Gilmore has been consistently proving what country music once was and what it still is if people would only bother to dig a little.
When the heartbreak feels like it's too much to handle, when all your dreams end up in the crapper, when your friends are fake and a slow, bloody death seems like the only way out, I suggest putting on a Jimmie Dale Gilmore record. For if God/ Buddha/Allah or whatever savior you follow has a voice, it's just gotta sound something like this.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore performs at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Sun., 8 p.m. $14.50.