Johnny Gimble: 'The King Of The Swing Fiddle' The Grammy-winning country-music fiddler is still recording new tracks 70 years after he picked up his first instrument. Gimble's new album, Playing With Friends, features Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Garrison Keillor.
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Johnny Gimble: 'The King Of The Swing Fiddle'

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Johnny Gimble: 'The King Of The Swing Fiddle'

Johnny Gimble: 'The King Of The Swing Fiddle'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

Unidentified Announcer: The Texas Playboys are on the air.

(Soundbite of music)

BOB WILLS and HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

DAVIES: That's the unmistakable sound of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Our guest today, fiddle player Johnny Gimble, spent years playing with the band and is regarded by critics as one of the best to ever pick up a bow.

Gimble began playing at a young age and joined the Playboys in 1949. He played fiddle and mandolin with Wills in the '50s, and he later became a highly regarded studio musician in Nashville, recording with Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins and others. He toured with Willie Nelson and was in the house band for the TV show "Hee Haw."

At age 83, Johnny Gimble is still playing. He lives in Dripping Springs, Texas, and performs regularly in Austin, often with his son and granddaughter. He has a new album called "Celebrating With Friends," in which he's joined by several musicians, including Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and members of the band Asleep at the Will, including Ray Benson, who sings this Johnny Gimble tune called "Under the X in Texas."

(Soundbite of song, "Under the X in Texas")

Mr. RAY BENSON (Singer): (Singing) Now I'm sittin' here lookin' at a map I got laid out on my lap, and there ain't too many places I ain't been, but the one place I love best is spread out all over the West, and I'm tryin' the figure how to get back home again. Right now, I wish I was sittin' right under the X in Texas, right in the heart of where my heart must be. No matter where I roam, I never feel at home 'cept in Texas. Right under the X in Texas is where it's best for me. Oh, Johnny Gimble.

DAVIES: And that was the song "Under the X in Texas," sung by Ray Benson, written by our guest Johnny Gimble and fiddled by Johnny Gimble, and it appears on his new CD called "Johnny Gimble."

Well, Johnny Gimble, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd talk about your early days. You were born in Bascom, Texas, which is near wrong? I'm wrong already, huh?

Mr. JOHNNY GIMBLE (Musician): I was born in Tyler.

DAVIES: Tyler, which is in East Texas, right?

Mr. GIMBLE: Yeah.

DAVIES: What did your parents do? What was your life like at home?

Mr. GIMBLE: My dad was a telegraph operator for the Cotton Belt Railroad. He worked seven nights a week from four until midnight, no vacation. And my mother was raising nine kids.

DAVIES: And how did you get into playing music?

Mr. GIMBLE: I couldn't help it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIMBLE: I had - my dad had two younger brothers that - Uncle Paul played the fiddle some. Just, he had an old sorry old box that he had sewn and play "Bully of the Town" and "Blue Ridge Mountain Home" and those old songs. I think that was an inspiration.

Then Uncle John, Dad's youngest brother, picked the mandolin some. And Dad bought a fiddle and a mandolin, which Bill started learning to play. And he started teaching me, which Jack was teaching Jean, who was a year older than me. He's 85 this year. He said he's older than he ever has been.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIMBLE: But Jean started learning guitar from Jack, and Bill is teaching me fiddle. And we wound up, all of us, playing together, and we listened every day on the radio to the Light Crust Doughboys. It was a band that Bob Wills and Milton Brown formed in 1932 that was on the he was on the air until the '50s.

And the opening announcer would say: The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air. And they'd thump the fiddle, ding dong...

Mr. GIMBLE: (Singing) Never do brag, never do boast, sing our song from coast to coast. We're the Light Crust Doughboys from the Burris Mill.

Mr. GIMBLE: And when Bob started the Playboy band, he used that for a theme, which helped write it with Milton, but he used it and changed it to...

Mr. GIMBLE: (Singing) The Texas Playboys are on the air.

DAVIES: Do you remember the first time anybody paid you to play music, to perform?

Mr. GIMBLE: Yes, in fact, there was a million company at Denton, Texas, up near the Oklahoma border, that made a flour called Peacemaker flour. And they had a promotion man, Big Boy Green(ph), big-old 300-pound guy that hear us brothers playing somewhere and he hired us.

He came by and hired us to go out on a Saturday morning early with he'd pick us up at 5:30 or six Saturday morning and drive to East Texas town down at Lufkin or somewhere down that way. But he would pull up in front of a grocery store. And they'd have a flatbed truck waiting, and he had speakers on top of this old '36 Ford that he drove and an amplifier with a turntable where he could play records. And then we'd get up on the truck and they'd put us through a mic, and we would play music at the Peacemaker Boys, advertising his flour.

So he paid us each $2 for the day's work. The only other income I had was we would pick cotton in the summertime, or the fall, whenever the cotton was ready. And my dad, he'd raised a few acres of cotton, and the going rate the cotton pickers got was fifty cents a hundred, like a half-cent a pound. But he would pay us a penny a pound. He's paying us twice what he was paying the hired hands, you know. But it was all I could do to earn a dollar, to pick 100 pounds of cotton in a day. I just wasn't good at it. So when Big Boy Green started paying us $2 for a day's playing music which is what we wanted to do anyway it was a lot more fun than picking cotton.

DAVIES: So I know that you got together with your brothers, and you started playing professionally. And I believe you hooked up with Bob Wills in 1949, right? How did that happen?

Mr. GIMBLE: In '49, I was playing with a group in Corpus Christi, Texas. We had a daily radio show on KWBU, and we booked out and played dances in surrounding territory. And Bob Wills was working from Sacramento, California then, and he would go and go on the road, playing one-nighters all across the Southwest.

And they booked him in Corpus Christi, but they left us in there to open for him. So we played like an hour and a half, and Jesse Ashlock was the fiddle player in Bob's band then. And so Tiny Moore, who I had met three years earlier, Tiny doubled on fiddle. They Jesse and Tiny would play harmony to Bob's lead.

He heard us playing and heard me perform. And at intermission, we were visiting, and he said I think Jesse's leaving the band. Would you be interested in going to work with the Texas Playboys?

DAVIES: I thought we'd let's talk about Western swing a little, and I thought we would hear a cut from your new album, and the track I thought we would listen to is "Somewhere South of San Antone."

Mr. GIMBLE: Right. That's one I wrote back years and years ago, I was - but it's a true story.

DAVIES: What's the story that inspired you to write this song?

Mr. GIMBLE: It tells about how Barbara and I met beneath the Texas moon above, and above rhymes with love, don't you know.

Mr. GIMBLE: (Singing) I fell in love 'neath the Texas moon above, somewhere south...

Mr. GIMBLE: You can't sing when you're choked up, you know. I moved from Austin to Corpus Christi, and then we started going together, and she'd go to the dances. She loved, loved to jitterbug. We married in January of 1949.

DAVIES: We should hear the song. Let's listen to this track from the new album by Johnny Gimble and many of his friends. This one, "Somewhere South of San Antone," the vocal is done by Vince Gill.

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere South of San Antone")

Mr. VINCE GILL (Singer): (Singing) I fell in love 'neath the Texas moon above, somewhere south of San Antone. Her smile was fair, a gardenia in her hair, somewhere south of San Antone. Oh, Johnny.

Mr. GIMBLE: (Singing) Many moons have passed. Now we're going back at last. We're going to make it our home.

Mr. GILL: (Singing) Oh, she's at my side for I made her my bride somewhere south of San Antone.

DAVIES: And that's the song "Somewhere south of San Antone" from the new album by our guest, Johnny Gimble and the vocal there sung by Vince Gill and by you, Johnny Gimble. I mean, you sang quite a bit in your career and still have some voice left.

Mr. GIMBLE: I sang a verse on it.

DAVIES: Now, Bob Wills was known to enjoy a drink and more than one on occasion. Did anybody have to look after Bob on the road?

Mr. GIMBLE: The first year and a half I was on the Wills Band, Bob would was not drinking. He had just come off a two-week case of flu, I guess they called it. And when he started drinking, I heard all those stories, you know, about things he did when he was drunk. And I never did see it.

One time we played we were playing in Phoenix, Arizona. We were on a tour of one-nighters through New Mexico and Arizona, going to California. And Bob, at intermission, one of his old buddies had a bottle. And when he came back onstage after intermission, he started mouthing off on the microphone, making an ass out of himself, and Eldon Shamblin, the guitar player, was the band manager, and he'd just sit over there and grumble.

So I'd heard these stories about Bob being incapacitated for a week or two weeks at a time, and I didn't expect him to be on the bench then the next night. But Eldon just got in the car with Bob and drove from Phoenix to the next date, and Bob was on the stand and worked the whole four-hour dance.

So I asked Eldon after, when we started back on the bus, I said how did you get him sober after that night in Phoenix? And he said, I got in the back seat and sat on top of him and said Bob, the bar has closed. We've got a tour to play.

And so when it came my turn to we used to call it babysitting when we were on the tour in 1951, he had a pint, and I put it between the mattresses on my bed, and when he wanted a drink, I said Bob, you can't have one. We've got to play tonight. You've got to work tonight and tomorrow night, and we've got to finish this tour.

I saw that fifth of whiskey that had maybe half, three or four drinks, out of it, you know, and it was on the sink in the bathroom. So I went in there and uncorked it and just poured it out, you know. And Bob saw me do it. He hated me forever after that.

DAVIES: Our guest is fiddler Johnny Gimble. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Our guest is Western swing fiddler Johnny Gimble. He has a new CD called "Celebrating with Friends." You were known for putting an extra string on your fiddle. Is that right?

Mr. GIMBLE: Yeah, I was afraid you wasn't going to ask me, Dave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, I know you have it there, and you've got the fifth string on there, right? Yeah, show us that fifth string and what it does.

Mr. GIMBLE: Okay, here we go.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GIMBLE: And the low string.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GIMBLE: "Sweet Georgia Brown"

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Georgia Brown")

DAVIES: You were just playing us a little bit of "Sweet Georgia Brown." It sounded like jazz. I mean, do you think of swing as jazz? Were you a fan of jazz?

Mr. GIMBLE: What is jazz? Well, it's getting away from the melody and playing whatever you're inspired to play. Like I tell about Cliff Bruner, the hottest fiddler in Texas. I asked him they used to call it hokum. People disregarded it. He'd play jazz. They'd say that ain't music. It's just a bunch of hokum.

And so I asked Cliff when I was 17 years old, I got to play a show, he was there, and said Cliff, how do you play that hokum? And he says: Can you hum it? Can you think it? And I said, I go around humming it all the time. He said, well, practice on your instrument until you play what you can hum, what you think. You go through that chord progression, and you play whatever feels good. That's where that...

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. GIMBLE: I knew a fiddle player in Nashville, Shorty Lavender. He says oh, I can't play jazz. I can play some country swing. It's just, country fiddle you play, it's like...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GIMBLE: And I learned and the first tune I ever learned on the fiddle was called "Darling Nelly Gray." You notice that the first time Bob played "Faded Love," it didn't have any words to it. He just played it instrumental. And I thought well, he's playing "Darling Nelly Gray," I wonder why he calls it "Faded Love."

And Bob's younger brother, Billy Jack Wills, was playing drums in the band, and he said: Bob, they all want to dance to "Faded Love," but it doesn't have any words. And he said write some. And Billy Jack was not a songwriter, but he wrote:

Mr. GIMBLE: (Singing) As I look at the letters that you wrote to me, it's you that I am thinking of. As I read the lines that to me were so sweet, I remember our faded love.

DAVIES: You know, Johnny, I think we should hear it. We've got the track here. This is Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

(Soundbite of song, "Faded Love")

BOB WILLS AND THE TEXAS PLAYBOYS: (Singing) As I look at the letters that you wrote to me, it's you that I am thinking of. As I read the lines that to me were so sweet, I remember our faded love. I miss you, darling, more and more every day, as heaven would miss the stars above. With every heartbeat I still think of you and remember our faded love.

DAVIES: And that was "Faded Love" with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Well, Johnny Gimble, you know, you started out picking cotton in East Texas with a big family and played with a lot of bands, and we've mentioned Bob Wills, but a lot of other musicians over the years, Willie Nelson, and you played studio sessions with a lot of famous folks and are still playing with your family near Austin, Texas. I know you live in Dripping Springs. What's been the best thing about your career? What will you remember?

Mr. GIMBLE: That's a hard question. I guess all of it together has been great. I've had a good family. Dick(ph), you know, plays guitar and bass and plays in our band, the Johnny Gimble and Texas Swing, and his daughter, Dick's daughter Emily(ph), was singing. We made a CD featuring her singing.

DAVIES: Do you play every day? I mean, I know you perform a couple times a month, right?

Mr. GIMBLE: I intend to. Yeah, but Chet Atkins used to have an expression. He said if I don't pick that guitar up every day, it gets to where it don't know me. I try to I keep a fiddle hooked up in the music we've got a music room, and I try to pick it up. And sometimes I'll have a jam session with Pete Fountain(ph). I'll have a CD of his I can play with.

DAVIES: The clarinet player, the jazz clarinetist, yeah.

Mr. GIMBLE: Yeah.

DAVIES: Well, Johnny Gimble, I want to wish you good health and great music, and I thought we should end with another song from the new album. What would you like to hear?

Mr. GIMBLE: The Merle Haggard track, I take a solo on it, on I mean, yeah, "Sweet Georgia Brown" he sang. I think that represents my playing probably more than anything else on that CD.

DAVIES: Well, great. Let's hear it. Johnny Gimble, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. GIMBLE: Thank you for all the FRESH AIR you bring us.

DAVIES: All righty. And here's Johnny Gimble with Merle Haggard from Johnny Gimble's new CD called "Johnny Gimble."

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Georgia Brown"

Mr. MERLE HAGGARD (Singer): Here's Johnny. Tear it apart, Johnny. Sweet Georgia Brown.

DAVIES: Johnny Gimble's new CD is called "Celebrating with Friends." You can hear three tracks from the album, including an appearance with Garrison Keillor on "A Prairie Home Companion" at

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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