Part of being a true living legend is not talking about it, so even as Johnny Gimble made his name playing hot country jazz fiddle with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in the late 1940s and then did Nashville session work on classic albums by Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and more, you’ll never get the 83-year-old fiddle icon to assess his place in country music history.
Compliment Gimble on his fertile fiddle part on George Strait’s ‘Right or Wrong’ from 1983 and he’ll tell you he was inspired on that one by the late, great J.R. Chatwell of San Antonio. As a member of the ‘Hee Haw’ Million Dollar Band when he lived in Nashville from 1968 to 1978, Gimble picked up some homespun comic timing that he put to use on ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ in 1994, just weeks after he received a National Heritage Fellowship . ‘I asked the man on the phone from the National Endowment for the Arts what this fellowship entailed, and he said, “Well, first there’s $10,000,”‘ Gimble told the national radio audience. ‘I asked him, “Can I pay it in installments?”‘ The humble Gimble, who has lived in Dripping Springs for 25 years, is the greatest living country fiddler, maybe the greatest ever. He’s toured with both Bob Wills and Willie Nelson, been recruited by Chet Atkins for his Superpickers band of top Nashville session players, and then, at age 80, backed Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards. And yet Gimble, who still plays with son Dick and granddaughter Emily at Guero’s Taco Bar on the fourth Thursday of every month, has never forgotten his modest beginnings, growing up on a farm six miles east of Tyler. He was the eighth of nine children who loved to pick guitars, fiddles and mandolins after a day of hating to pick cotton.
“In his mind, Johnny is still the barefoot fiddler in hand-me-down overalls,” says protégé Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel. Roberts is one of several guests on “Johnny Gimble: Celebrating With Friends,” a new Ray Benson-produced CD that comes out Tuesday featuring vocal assists from such famous friends and admirers as Haggard, Nelson and Vince Gill. The folks at the CMH label wanted to call it “The World’s Greatest Fiddler Celebrating With Friends,” but there’s no way Gimble would sign off on that. The country gentleman can’t stop others from singing his praises, however, and the album ends with “Prairie Home” host Garrison Keillor singing a song he wrote called “Owed to Johnny Gimble” (“He could play ‘Darling Nelly’/ Or Stéphane Grappelli/ Or tunes that were old as the hills/ He smiled as he played/ Some old serenade/ And the music came up from his soul”). “That record was supposed to come out on my 80th birthday,” Gimble says, sitting in the music room of the ranch house he shares with wife Barbara, whom Gimble has married three times, first in 1949. (“The divorce didn’t work out,” he deadpans.)
Benson says the three-year hold-up was because the CD’s executive producers insisted on getting written clearances for the guest stars. “Merle and Willie did it because they love Johnny,” Benson says. “All that paperwork was unnecessary.”
Several of the songs on the album are ones Gimble played with Wills and the Texas Playboys, as well as later Gimble compositions “Fiddlin’ Around” and “Gardenia Waltz.” Bob Wills and his band, which formed in 1933, were already well-established when Gimble was hired in 1949. Wills and his former Light Crust Doughboys bandmate Milton Brown are considered the architects of Western swing, which was the Texas version of big band music. When Brown, whose Musical Brownies pioneered the essential twin fiddle sound, died in a car accident in 1936, Wills became the undisputed king of Western swing. “I grew up listening to the Light Crust Doughboys on WBAP,” Gimble says of the powerful Fort Worth radio station. “And then I’d see the Texas Playboys play Mattie’s Ballroom in Longview, where they outdrew Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.” Gimble got to know Playboys mandolinist Tiny Moore at Mattie’s and even sat in with the band once.
After coming home from the Army in 1947, with an affinity for waltzes he heard while stationed in Austria, Gimble spent time in Austin, where he joined the Roberts Brothers Rhythmaires. The Western swing band had an hourlong radio show in Austin on KTBC every day at 12:30 p.m. One night in 1949 they opened for Wills’ band at the Trocadero Ballroom in Corpus Christi, and Moore remembered the smiling fiddler, who also played a wicked mandolin. Moore asked if Gimble wanted to audition to replace Jesse Ashlock in the Playboys.
After playing “Draggin’ the Bow,” the old Cliff Bruner fiddle workout, with the Playboys one night in Waco, Wills told Gimble, “You’ll fit.” And just like that he was a member of country music’s swingingest band ever. “To join Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was like throwing a baseball around in your front yard and somebody coming over and signing you to play for the New York Yankees,” says Gimble, who fiddled on Wills’ final recording session in 1973. His starting pay was $90 a week, but Wills bumped him up to $100 when Gimble’s spotlight performance of “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule,” with the fiddle braying, became a crowd-pleaser.
“Johnny has a jazz mind, and Western swing is just jazz played by country musicians,” says Roberts, 33, who’s related to Barbara Gimble and has known the Gimbles all his life. “He’s a great improviser and he’s a master of that big, round, warm, buttery fiddle tone, so he was perfect for the Playboys.” After Gimble was hired, he asked Moore what Wills expected of him. “‘When he points at you (to solo), he wants you to play everything you know,” Moore advised. “Bob Wills wanted you to play that hokum, which is what country folks called jazz,” says Gimble. To be better heard over the big band, Gimble added a fifth string to his electric fiddle to give it a fuller, viola-like sound.
During his two-year stint as a full-time Texas Playboy, the most famous recording Gimble played on was 1950’s “Faded Love.” When Wills relocated to California in 1951, Gimble stayed in Texas and ran the Bob Wills Ranch House band in Dallas. During the day he played fiddle and mandolin on recordings by Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price at Jim Beck’s studio. In the early ’50s, Dallas rivaled Nashville as a country music hotbed, but after Beck’s death from accidentally inhaling cleaning solvent, the studio closed and Nashville became Music City U.S.A.
It was time to settle down and raise a family, so the Gimbles moved to Waco, where Johnny worked as a barber for seven years and also appeared on a weekly local TV show. Then Nashville called. Gimble accomplished something very few of the free-form Western swing greats were able to do: He became a session player on Nashville’s studio A-team. Through the years he’s won the Country Music Association award for best instrumentalist six times.
“You can debate who was the greatest fiddle player,” says Benson, “but Johnny Gimble has definitely been the most versatile. And he’s also the greatest jokester.” Even after suffering a massive stroke in 1999, Gimble found some humor in the situation. “When the doctors showed me an X-ray of my brain, they pointed to a black hole on the upper left side and told me that all memory from that spot was dead,” Gimble says. “I thought to myself that I hoped that’s where I kept ‘The Orange Blossom Special.'” The most requested fiddle song, the “Free Bird” of breakdowns, is also the most hated by sophisticated players. When he came home from the hospital, the first thing Gimble did was to see if he could still play “Orange Blossom Special.” He could. “I still play the fiddle every day,” Gimble says. “I’m afraid if I don’t, it won’t know who I am.”
Fat chance of that.