Johnny Gimble, the so-called "king of the swing fiddle," has toured with Willie Nelson and recorded tracks with Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, Chet Atkins and Connie Smith. The 84-year-old Grammy-winning Texan still commutes to Nashville, where he just recorded the tracks for his newest album, Johnny Gimble: Celebrating With Friends, a 14-song retrospective album featuring Haggard, Nelson, Vince Gill and Garrison Keillor.
Gimble has been playing the string fiddle for more than 70 years. He tells Dave Davies that he couldn't help but pick up the instrument when he was a kid growing up in Tyler, Texas.
"My dad had two younger brothers. Uncle Paul played the fiddle. ... And I think that was an inspiration," he says. "And then Uncle John, Dad's youngest brother, picked the mandolin some. And Dad bought a fiddle and a mandolin, which [my brother] Bill started learning to play. And he started teaching me, which [my brother] Jack was teaching [my brother Jean], who was a year older than me. ... Jean started learning guitar from Jack and Bill's teaching me fiddle, and we wound up, all of us, playing together."
A Day's Work
Gimble and his brothers soon realized that playing music together was more lucrative than working in Tyler. Their first paying gig took place outside of a grocery store, where they jammed for hours on a flatbed 1936 Ford truck.
"[The promoter] paid us each $2 for the day's work," Gimble says. "The only other income I had was we would pick cotton in the summertime. And my dad, he'd raised a few acres of cotton, and the going rate the cotton pickers got was like a half-cent a pound. But he'd pay us a penny a pound, which was twice what he was paying the hired hands. But it was all I could do to earn a dollar — to pick a hundred pounds of cotton in a day. So when [the promoter] started paying us $2 for a day playing music — which is what we wanted to do anyways — it was a lot more fun than picking cotton."
By 1949, Gimble was working as a fiddler in Corpus Christi, Texas. One night, his band opened up for the legendary Western swing band Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. After hearing Gimble play, a member of Wills' band confided in him that their fiddle player was leaving, and asked if Gimble would be interested in touring with Bob Wills.
Gimble said yes, and spend the next several years with the Playboys on the road, where he played the five-string fiddle, in addition to mandolin and fiddle. He continued playing off and on with Wills until the early 1960s, when he started working as a session musician in Nashville, recording with country-music legends Haggard, George Strait, Mel Tillis and Charley Pride. For the past half-century, he has continued to record, compiling a nearly seven-decade body of recorded work.
Gimble has been named "Instrumentalist of the Year" five times from the Country Music Awards. He has also received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is a frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion.