Jimmie Dale Gilmore - "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

"Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown"

Artist: The Flatlanders
Writers: Jimmie Dale Gilmore and John Reed
Album: Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders
Label: Plantation
Year: 1972
Of all the rock and roll memoirs as yet to be written, the one I'd most be interested in reading would be authored by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who has seemingly been, as Johnny Cash famously sang, everywhere. He came up in Lubbock, Texas (the town that gave us Buddy Holly), hung out with songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt, and created a legend of his own with the formation of The Flatlanders in 1972, consisting of his buddies, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, no slackers themselves. Before that band came together, he went on the road in search of what everyone was searching for in the late '60s: a Summer of Love in San Francisco. He settled for a pot of gold-plated insights in Berkeley, California, where free speech took a beating at the hands of Ronald Reagan's police force. After a stop in mythic New Orleans, and a brief, unsatisfying stint with The Flatlanders, Gilmore's search brought him, along with 20,000 other true believers of the 9-year old guru (or was it the 13-year old guru) Maharaj Ji, to the Astrodome in Houston in 1973, to await the end of the world. When the sun arose on the last day with the world still spinning, Gilmore followed his yearnings to Denver, headquarters of the guru and his flock, intending to devote himself to his religious beliefs.

It was just another example of how close said world came to never hearing the early output of The Flatlanders, including melancholy gems like "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown" and "Dallas," to say nothing of their later output when they were rediscovered by a new generation twenty years later. When Gilmore's old buddy Joe Ely wound up getting a record deal and putting "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown" on his fine 1978 album, Honky Tonk Masquerade, and singing it across the world with a voice touched by Buddy Holly and a soul in the grip of Townes Van Zandt, perhaps Gilmore decided to reconsider his path, moving it just slightly to the left, in the direction of some folks' only true religion, rock and roll.

"Yeah, that's possible," said Gilmore. "While I was in Denver, I became interested in studying nutrition. It came as a result of my interest in brain science. I didn't go to college; I just studied it on my own. I studied acupuncture in Boulder in '78 and '79. During that period, I started to realize that I was going to have to make some kind of deeper decision about my career. I went through this thing of was I going to study Oriental medicine, acupuncture and dietary stuff, or go back into music? And some things fell together where I just came to this realization about what I cared about the most. I knew I could read about Oriental philosophy and nutrition and holistic studies the rest of my life and enjoy it, but I didn't want to be a doctor. Really, I was a musician.

"During the time I was in Colorado I still visited Texas a lot and I always stayed either with Butch or Joe when I was in town. I went out with Joe some, not performing, but just hanging out, because we were still best friends. But there's probably an element that Joe's success gave me some more confidence that I could go do it, too."

As mystical and mythical as the concept of 'downtown' can be to a lonely teenager, Gilmore's picture of the yearning and the distance is at least halfway around the world from the mecca of fashion and fun Petula Clark sang about in 1965.

"I think I was in Austin when I wrote the song," Gilmore remembered. "But when you're writing a song, it's not necessarily like you're saying, 'This is about Austin' or 'This is about Lubbock.' It's about the feeling. I was barely out of my teens when I wrote it. So the feeling I was referring to would have been from my teenage years. So that would have been Lubbock in the mid to late '60s. There wasn't much of a downtown then, just some little old bars. Lubbock was dry until recently. Now every gas station and pharmacy has stacks of beer. But when Joe and I were young, the only clubs that sold alcohol were bootleg joints. Joe and I played in those places and that's how we met each other. We were fans of each other. Each of us would go hear the other one play. One day Joe picked up this guy who was hitchhiking. He didn't know who he was. It was Townes Van Zandt and he was just coming from San Francisco with his first record. He gave Joe a copy of the record and Joe called me and said, 'I've got this record. I want you to hear it.' And that's when Joe and I started hanging out. Joe and I played quite a bit together before The Flatlanders ever came about."
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: I co-wrote "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown" with John Reed. I wrote the lyrics and the music of the verse and John and I collaborated on the second half of the verse. I knew it had to have something. I knew it needed to go somewhere a little different melodically and John said, "Well, here, try this chord progression" and it was way better than what I was doing.

John Reed is an old, old friend of mine. He was the guitar player in Joe's band who quit and Joe got Jesse (Taylor) to replace him. John was playing with a band in Austin called Frieda and the Firedogs. It was the band that Willie Nelson came and sat in with as his entree into Austin. So John is one of those people who's a very big part of the Austin music scene, but he's never had any public recognition. We tried and tried to get him to come with us when The Flatlanders went to Nashville to do our record, but John was in the middle of a recording with Frieda and the Firedogs that Jerry Wexler was producing. I don't think that record ever came out.

We may have written some of the song in Lubbock, in 1969. We were always traveling back and forth between Lubbock and Austin. In that period I was pretty much not living anywhere. It was inspired by this feeling I had one night having to do with, Well, I just want to go downtown. Everybody knows that feeling. I think that's why that song resonates with people, because it kind of conjures an emotion that you can't quite put your finger on.

I think it's on The Odessa Tapes. That's the Flatlanders record that came out in 2012, which was really the demo we made in 1972, that got us the deal with Plantation Records, which was then Sun Records. That demo was finally released on its 40th anniversary. Our actual first record didn't really come out until it was released in Europe on Charly Records, 10 years after we recorded it. It never was actually released by the label that first recorded it. They sort of pretended to release it. They put out a few hundred copies on 8-track cassettes. In fact, they didn't even mail them out to radio stations; they just mailed a single out that had "Dallas" on both sides, one side in mono, the other side in stereo.

When the first Flatlanders album was released in England in 1980, we didn't realize it was kind of a hit. It came on the heels of Joe's popularity over there. The people in England, they look into the roots of everything and they discovered the record, which was by that time nearly 10 years old. For the next few years it gained a huge following and we still didn't know it. We hadn't played in Europe or anything. We didn't realize that we'd been cheated out of all the royalties there'd been. We never got any statements of any sales. The next thing we knew it somehow kind of got around the world. And then, 10 years after that, Rounder released it in the US as More a Legend Than a Band, almost 20 years after we recorded it.

Pretty much after I wrote that song, and even to this day, I play it in my set. A lot of times I open with it. That's not an absolute rule, I'm just saying that most of the time I do. People always like that song and I always like it. It's fun to play and it's interesting to the musicians, because it has a strange chord progression. The arrangement is a little bit different every time, depending on who's playing with you and stuff like that. It was totally acoustic on the very first recording and there's an instrumental piece in the middle of it that's a different chord progression from the verses. We didn't do that on the later recordings of it, although it's kind of a pretty thing, but it's hard to learn.

Most of my songs haven't had very many covers, because I think the songs are so totally identified with me and my voice. But a lot of people have recorded that song. Most recently, Peter Rowan had me teach it to him and he has recorded it. I believe Jerry Jeff Walker has recorded it and Nanci Griffith recorded it. And of course there's Joe's version of it, which is probably where most people heard it the first time.

During the time I was in Denver and Boulder, Butch had become established in Austin as the primo songwriter in residence. Joe kind of covered the rock area and Butch covered the folk and country thing. My reputation got maintained even though I wasn't here most of the time. When I came back in 1980 I was sort of in the position of being a newcomer and also an old-timer. I was friends with all the people who were most important in the branch of the music world that we were involved in.

We have a lot of old fans. We definitely get people that bring the original vinyl records and want us to sign them. Not the cassette, because there are hardly any of those in existence. But we have run into a few people that somehow had copies of it. I actually have one 8-track and then about five years ago Joe gave me a copy that he'd come across. So I have two copies of the 8-track. And it's on the Sun label, which is cool.

We also have a younger crowd. So many of the younger bands that were inspired by us kind of promoted us in certain ways. They talked about us and that created interest. So we've maintained a presence even without ever having any radio hits. We've been out two or three times this year already, a couple of weeks at a time, and we'll probably keep on doing that from now on, as long as we're able to. Not extensive touring, but still going out part of the time with a full band and then part of the time just the three of us, kind of in the round. We didn't plan it that way or anything, but it actually worked out kind of good for us. We also have this great thing that we're still best friends. A lot of bands that worked together that long ago don't speak to each other now. But the thing about it is, we were together originally because we were friends, because we liked each other. The Flatlanders didn't come together as some project by a record company, we got together just because we liked each other and liked each other's music. We were never ambitious in the way that most people associate with professional musicians. We just kept playing music. If opportunities came up, we would try to capitalize on them. But we never did have that drive to become big stars or anything.

Jimmie's official site is jimmiegilmore.com.
October 11, 2013
Photo courtesy of Rounder Records

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Comments: 2

  • Steve B. from Columbus, OhioProbably the first interview in the last decade where Jimmie was not pestered about a cinematic bowling score.
  • Deepspace20 from MinneapolisIt's a league game, Smokey.
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