Jimmie Dale Gilmore is teaching philosophy at universities. There was always something in his music that suggested philosophy. The songs he wrote had conundrums like “You’ve Got to Go to Sleep Alone”. Even in his voice, there’s something that suggests the elemental nature of things. When he sings of rivers, mountains and the wind, they echo within his voice. His singing itself adds a level of meaning to the lyrics he sings. Heirloom Music opens with a philosophical aphorism of sorts: “Time Changes Everything”. Not written by him, it’s a fitting catchphrase for this album, which looks backwards to earlier times in country music: to the Carter Family, Bill Monroe and various other legends. The modern production betrays the fact that this is new music, but Gilmore and the band, the Wronglers, are going for an authentic old-time feeling, with fiddles sawing and banjos being plucked left and right.
The music can sometimes sound quaint, by now the stuff of so many reproductions. Still, we’re continually reminded of how deeply these songs take us dark places. For example, this is from “Deep Elum Blues”: “Well I once had a sweetheart / She was all the world to me / She went down in Deep Elum / She ain’t what she used to be.” At its core, even when the group is moving along briskly, happily, in a way you imagine a theme-park band might, this music is sad, and it comes through strongly. I’m not sure the pain and existential dilemmas of these songs would come through in the hands of another singer. This album’s power comes not from its reproduction of an old sound, or even in its tribute to the legacy of country music, the way it reminds us this music is a precious heirloom that gets passed down from generation to generation. No, it’s in the way Gilmore’s singing can draw wells of emotion out of that look back.
I’m not sure if it’s something elemental in his voice or also the way his wailing voice coincides with the spirit of this old music, perhaps a mark of his growing up listening to it. But when he sings “Would be better for us both had we never / In this wide and wicked world / Had never met” in “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes”, he both takes you right to that feeling and makes his seem but one small voice in the bigger sweep of time. That song’s melody goes deep in the roots of American music, the same you hear in the standard “The Great Speckled Bird”, among others. It is also the melody, more or less, of “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight”, later in the album, another devastating tale of lovers’ separation.
Heirloom Music contains its fair share of despair. There are also songs of wanderers and travelers, and of places that carry nothing but trouble. He sings of jails, of “the lonesome pines”, of being stuck in one place wanting desperately to be somewhere else, of murder. “Footprints in the Snow” is chilling, for its gleeful first-person account of a murder.
Heirloom Music is a portrait of America as a lawless frontier, or a portrait of our conception of America as such a place. It’s also a look at our conception of country music, of what it is at its core. In these songs, America is a wild place of restless souls, living in a cold world where people are basically cruel to each other. In our evocation of that time, through albums such as this, perhaps we’re not just resurrecting that climate but also evoking comparisons to our own time, one filled with its own myriad tales of cruelty and hardship. Yes, the music has changed over time, but have human beings? The album ends with “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, that age-old bum’s dream of a land of plenty. Listening to it, coming after so many old hard-luck tales, it’s hard not to think about the dreams of so many poor and desperate people, then and now. Another lyric that lingers after the album’s end comes from “Brown’s Ferry Blues”: “Sitting on the wharf with my head in my hands / telling myself I’m a happy man”.