TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, has a new album coming out in May, and we're about to get an exclusive sneak preview. The album is called "Heirloom Music," and it features bluegrass and old-timey songs he loves. Accompanying him is the band The Wronglers.
They'll perform together next week at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, which is Gilmore's adopted hometown. He grew up in Lubbock, Texas.
As a songwriter and singer, Gilmore is considered part of the alternative country music. His previous album featured classic country songs from the '50s and '60s that he learned from his father. The new album, "Heirloom Music," features songs from an earlier era, associated with performers like Bill Monroe, Charlie Poole and the Carter family. Let's start with a track. This is "Time Changes Everything."
(Soundbite of song, "Time Changes Everything")
Mr. JIMMIE DALE GILMORE (Musician): (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 'cuz time changes everything.
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"?
Mr. GILMORE: Well it's funny. Because we're 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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?
Mr. GILMORE: Well, you know, we were calling it old-timey music, but that has kind of acquired a ring, you know, a sort of - 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: So this new album is your second album in a row that looks to old songs. This one is older. These songs are older than your previous album. Your previous album was songs that your father loved and that you learned through your father, and that was mostly classic country songs from the '60s.
Mr. GILMORE: Right.
GROSS: And this goes back more to the '20s, '30s, '40s, this new album.
Mr. GILMORE: Yeah, this is sort of like music that I discovered in the course of - because I became interested in where the music that I was in love with, you know, as a young kid, I became interested in its origins. And I've been doing these songs for 30 or 40 years now and never really had the context to record them in.
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.
Mr. 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")
Mr. GILMORE: (Singing) Well, Frankie said to her Johnny: Now your hour done come 'cause 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 gonna 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 gonna miss me, honey, in the day they say's to come.
GROSS: That's Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Wronglers from their new album "Heirloom Music."
I love the bridge in that song, and I love the line: You're gonna miss me, honey, in the day they say is to come. So is that, like, the final day that you think the song refers to, like the end of the world day that they say is to come?
Mr. GILMORE: I always wondered. And, you know, for a long time, I sang it slightly different. I used to sing: You're gonna miss me, honey, so they say in the days to come. Or, you know, it kind of wobbled around. And finally I thought: Well, I'd better sing it one way because the girls are singing harmony with me. And when I sing it by myself, I think I kind of made up words as I went.
But that song is just full of strange, little references, strange little quirky asides.
GROSS: You know, after listening to your new album, "Heirloom Music," I went back and listened again to "Tonight I think I'm Going to Go Downtown," which is one of your most famous songs, probably your most famous song.
It's a great song. And I thought, like, this is going to sound, like, so different, so much more contemporary than the "Heirloom Music" album. And what I heard was connection as opposed to opposition.
You know, like, the instrumentation behind you is kind of a more contemporary string band, and it just sounds so connected to me. And would you tell us a little bit about what inspired the song or what you were going through musically at that time that led you to write this song?
Mr. GILMORE: Well, I had been - I had already started - I was actually pretty well along and learning to play the guitar. And I was steeped in a lot of influences from that direction. And particularly I really liked the blues stuff a lot, but also the soft folk music, there was a lot of it I really loved.
And I also had been influenced by literature, by the stuff I was reading, and that song is, I think, a place where these different worlds in me kind of came together in a kind of compact way.
GROSS: What you were reading at the time I think had a lot to do with Eastern thought, like Buddhism and mysticism. So how does that connect to "Tonight I think I'm Going to Go Downtown"?
Mr. GILMORE: Well, it was the beginnings of that. You know, I hadn't really studied that stuff. I was just becoming interesting in it. And I think that entire image of the lights, you know, the bright lights, somehow starting to get an inkling that the glamorous world of modern times, you know, and the nightlife and everything, that there was maybe something a little bit flawed about it.
And I was just beginning to sense that, I think. And for some reason, whenever that phrase occurred to me and that melody, there was just something that resonated.
GROSS: Okay, great, well, let's hear it. This is Jimmie Dale Gilmore, recorded in 1991, "Tonight I Think I'm Going to Go Downtown."
(Soundbite of song, "Tonight I Think I'm Going to Go Downtown.")
Mr. GILMORE: (Singing) Tonight I think I'm gonna go downtown. Tonight I think I'm gonna look around for something I couldn't see when this world was more real to me. Tonight, I think I'm gonna go downtown.
My love, my love has gone away. My love, my love what can I say? My love would never see that this world's just not real to me and tonight, I think I'm gonna go downtown.
I told my love a thousand times that I can't say what's on my mind, but she would never see that this world's just not real to me, and tonight I think I'm gonna go downtown.
GROSS: My guest is Jimmie Dale Gilmore. His new album, "Heirloom Music," will be released in May. But you can hear three tracks on nprmusic.org. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jimmie Dale Gilmore. His forthcoming album is called "Heirloom Music." 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 a director of a dairy lab. Do I have that right?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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)
Mr. 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?
Mr. GILMORE: Oh yeah, Lubbock was, until recently, was dry. And Lubbock's a fairly large town. I mean, it's not a village. It's close to 100,000 people, university town, 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)
Mr. 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, 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 couldn't 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 learn them. That's how I ended up knowing so many Hank Williams songs and Johnny Cash, that sort of stuff.
GROSS: Would you describe one of the bootleg joints that you played in?
Mr. 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?
Mr. GILMORE: I never did happen to be there when one of the raids happened. And, of course, later on, 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...
Mr. 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.
My music was from that honkytonk world, but I was more like a young - you know, actually, I was in the borderland between the beatniks and the hippies.
GROSS: So you must have felt like you were in two completely different worlds at the same time.
Mr. 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.
But 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. 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 type 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?
Mr. GILMORE: All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You ready? So it's an album of cowboy songs. And I'm...
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 or 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 Rogers records.
GROSS: Wow because his early songs are really influenced by Jimmie Rogers.
Mr. GILMORE: Yes. In the early days, he was an outright imitator of Jimmie Rogers. He sounded...
GROSS: And he yodeled.
Mr. GILMORE: he sounded just exactly like him.
GROSS: Wow. So did you grow up hearing Gene Autry records because of this family connection?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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. And that was way - and I was in the first grade, I think. And I really loved Gene Autry.
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.
Mr. 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.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore's new CD "Heirloom Music" will be released in May, but you can hear an exclusive sneak preview of three songs at nprmusic.org. He'll perform next week at the South by Southwest Music Festival. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.