LOS ALAMOS, NM, 2013. The band with the Texas plates pulled up to the street fair stage and found out they were expected to play two 75-minute sets that night. Such a surprise double shift would send most bands into an obscenity-coated tizzy, but to the Warren Hood Band that just meant the three distinctive soloists- Hood on violin, Emily Gimble on piano and Willie Pipkin on electric guitar- would get to stretch a bit. The good people of this town in the mountains outside Santa Fe were in for two and a half hours of top flight Western swing, Chicago blues, gypsy jazz, Memphis soul, pop standards, Uncle Walt Band covers and even a Civil War fiddle tune.
But just as often, the Warren Hood Band played originals that are so good they sound like covers. That’s the magic of the new self-titled debut, which is richer in pop songcraft than you’d expect from a serious violinist who left a rising local band in 2002 to study jazz and classical at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Hood has been one of the best fiddle players in town since he was a student at Austin High, yet he has only recently found a smooth, confident singing voice. Having to follow the soulful Gimble, who sings three leads on the album, including the standout “Pear Blossom Highway,” has Hood working on his vocals more than on his fiddle technique these days.
“A singer can touch you much more than an instrumentalist,” said Hood, who comes off less a violin virtuoso than a charming singer/ songwriter on the new LP which, unlike the live shows, doesn’t include any jaw-dropping instrumentals. Hood’s been singing tunes by Uncle Walt’s band, which featured father Champ
Hood on guitar and fiddle, since he was a 16-year-old phenom in the South Austin Jug Band. But the new album’s version of “Motor City Man,” written by Warren’s godfather Walter Hyatt in 1972, is vocally richer, fuller, than when he’d shyly step to the center of a packed Momo’s on Sunday nights.
“I just turned 30, just got married and just released my first real album,” says Hood, who wedded the former Ashley Moore, a Harvard graduate and former Continental Club waitress, on June 2. “It just really feels like a new beginning for me.”
“Motor City Man” also has a new beginning, quite literally, as producer Charlie Sexton wrote a new intro to replace Champ Hood’s old fiddle opener. “When Charlie suggested it, my first thought was ‘my mother’s gonna hate that,’” said Warren, with a laugh. Elizabeth Haynes and Champ Hood split up when Warren was a year old, but remained close through Champ’s passing from cancer in 2001. “Charlie wrote all these new intros because he likes the tracks to start off with some mystery, not revealing much. Then the song blossoms out of the intro.”
The album’s basic tracks were laid down at Austin’s Yellow Dog Studio in September 2011, but then Sexton went out on the road as Bob Dylan’s guitarist for months at a time and Warren toured last summer with the BoDeans and the Waybacks. “Warren Hood Band” wouldn’t be finished for another year and a half, during which time Warren Hood and the Goods- the group’s name before Red Parlor Records insisted on a change- gelled with newest member Gimble, 28. The granddaughter of country fiddle legend Johnny Gimble, the gifted Emily draws Adele/ Norah comparisons, but maintains a humble, unaffected nature and seems to find her greatest joy playing with other musicians. She’s also a member of the Marshall Ford Swing Band and is engaged to the drummer James Gwyn, who also plays for Junior Brown. Ten years ago, Gimble was too shy to take piano solos when she came to Austin from her home in Crawford to play with her father and grandfather. Now she’ll go toe-to-toe with the best of them. “I was always intimidated by great players, but Poppa told me that it’s not a competition,” Emily recalled. “Solos are just for having fun and expressing yourself, and after that I kinda loosened up.”
Between his time as fiddler for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (that’s him on “Faded Love”) and a second career as a top Nashville session player, Johnny Gimble settled Waco in the ‘60s to raise a family and work as a barber. His son Dick, Emily’s father, is a bassist who still lives in McLennan County, where he teaches music at the community college.
Emily grew up in the rural Waco suburb of Crawford, where she started taking piano lessons in fifth grade, then switched to guitar around ninth grade and even played in a punk band. During Gimble’s years at Crawford High, a newcomer to town kinda changed everything, with Presidential motorcades replacing homecoming floats as leading cause of street closures. And Emily found her way back to the piano after she was kicked out of Koda for spitting water at the singer. (“I thought I was just being punk.) Piano felt natural.
Gimble settled on a music career when she started playing regularly with her father and grandfather, 87, who moved to Dripping Springs in the early ‘80s and occasionally still played around Austin until recently. The three generations made the “Case of the Gimbles” album together in 2005 and toured small festivals around the country, an experience Emily calls “one of the highlights of my life.” She likens her four years playing with Slim Richey’s Jitterbug Vipers, her first band after moving to Austin eight years ago, to “piano college.”
Back from Berklee in 2004, Hood worked as an in-demand fiddle player, touring with Alejandro Escovedo and Kelly Willis. But he also started his own band, with former SAJB bandmate Willie Pipkin, an unavowed Jimmie Vaughan acolyte. Gimble had sat in with Pipkin’s blues band (they’ve all got three other bands) and the guitarist told Hood he really oughta look at adding Gimble to the band. “I went out and saw her and, of course, she blew me away,” says Hood. “I took her to lunch the next day and said ‘you’re way too qualified, but if you want the gig you’ve got it.’” Hood didn’t know that Gimble was also a fan of his work and had been thinking how much she wanted to play with him. They’ve proved to be a perfect match. Emily sings so well that you almost forget that she’s a terrific piano player- and getting better by the week. And Hood is such an amazing instrumentalist that it’s easy to overlook his vocals.
All they needed now was a producer. Warren wanted Charlie Sexton because, he says, “he understood what we were about as an Austin band, but he also knew how to take us to a national level.” It mattered not a whit that before she started dating Hood two years ago, Ashley was with Sexton for a spell. Sexton’s mission was to push the band beyond its swing music roots and into a band whose original tunes tap into a Lovin’ Spoonful vibe with Hood’s understated vocals or sometimes more The Band if Garth Hudson played fiddle.
After hearing about 10 songs the band had been playing live, Sexton asked if they had any more material to consider for the album. Warren and the group played their three newest songs- the rocker “Allright,” the Suzanna Choffel co-write “You Got It Easy” (originally performed with the Coveters spinoff) and the jazzy Gimble vocal showcase “Pear Blossom Highway.” Those tunes ended up being the first three songs on the album.
With the Warren Hood Band that night in the Land of Enchantment, the sultry-singing Gimble covered everything from Western swing standard “Old Fashioned Love,” which she’s been singing onstage since she was six, to Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” which she learned from a mix CD Marcia Ball gave her. She’s got a nice chemistry with Hood, Pipkin and the rhythm section of drummer Corey Keller and Bassist Nate Rowe, and even with all the distractions of a street fair, their Lovin’ Spoonful-like musical vibe made time stop. All that musicality on a little square of wood: the Warren Hood Band does Austin proud when they go out into the world. And their album’s fantastic.
It’s inevitable that Emily Gimble will one day record under her own name, but for now she’s happy in the piano chair, with her three or four vocal turns per set. Hood is confident he’ll have Ms. G to play off of for awhile, at least.
“She’s a Gimble,” he said with a laugh. “She’s gotta have a fiddle in the band.”
The father and son approached the violin from two distinctly different directions, but after Champ passed away Warren took his place at the Toni Price “Hippie Hour” shows at the Continental Club. He knew his father was proud of him- regardless of the genre he’d pursue. Warren recalls a time when he was about 16 and listening to a great classical violinist on the stereo. His dad walked in and Warren said sadly, “I’ll never be that good.” Champ laughed and walked back to the kitchen. “Hell, boy,” he shouted around the corner. “You’re already that good.”