'Fresh Air' Remembers Johnny Gimble, The 'King Of The Swing Fiddle'

'Fresh Air' Remembers Johnny Gimble, The 'King Of The Swing Fiddle'

1:16pm Jun 26, 2015

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This is FRESH AIR.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Texas Playboys are on the air.

BOB WILLS: (Singing) Now, listen everybody from near and far, if you want to know who we are, we're the Texas Playboys from the Lone Star State. And if you'd like...

DAVIES: That's the unmistakable sound of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. We're ending today's show remembering Johnny Gimble, who spent years playing fiddle with the band and was regarded by critics as one of the best to ever pick up a bow. He died last month on May 9 in Marble Falls, Texas. He was 88.

Gimble played fiddle and mandolin with Wills in the 1950s and 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."

He won a host of country music awards, including a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He met his wife Barbara while playing in Corpus Christi. They divorced twice and remarried twice.

I spoke to Johnny Gimble in 2010, when he'd released an album called "Celebrating With Friends." Those friends included Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and members of the band Asleep at the Wheel, like Ray Benson, who sings this Johnny Gimble tune called "Under The X In Texas."


RAY BENSON: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Under the X in Texas. Now I'm sitting here looking 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 trying to figure how to get back home again. Right now...

BENSON AND GIMBLE: (Singing) I wish I was sitting 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 except in Texas. Right under the X in Texas is where it's best for me.

BENSON: 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.

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?

JOHNNY GIMBLE: I was born in Tyler.

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


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

GIMBLE: My dad was a telegraph operator for the Cotton Belt Railroad. He worked seven nights a week from 4 until midnight, no vacation. And my mother was raising nine kids.

DAVIES: And how did you get into playing music?

GIMBLE: I couldn't help it (laughter). My dad had two younger brothers that - Uncle Paul (ph) played the fiddle some. Just - he had an old – sorry, old box that he had sewn, play "Bully Of The Town" and "Blue Ridge Mountain Home" and those old songs. And I think that was an inspiration.

Then Uncle John (ph), 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 while Jack was teaching Gene, who's a year older than me. He's 85 this year. He said he's older than he ever has been.


GIMBLE: But - 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 then thump the fiddle. (Singing) Ding dong. (Plays guitar) (Singing) Never do brag, never do boast, sing our song from coast to coast. We're the Light Crust Doughboys from the Burris Mill.

And when Bob started the Playboy band, he used that for a theme, which he helped write it with Milton, but he used it and changed it to(Singing) The Texas Playboys are on the air.

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.

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."

GIMBLE: Right, and 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?

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

(Singing) I fell in love beneath the Texas moon above, somewhere south.

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 to jitterbug. We married in January of 1949.

DAVIES: We should hear the song, "Somewhere South of San Antone." The vocal is done by Vince Gill.


VINCE GILL: (Singing) I fell in love beneath 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.

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

GILL: (Singing) Oh, she's at my side for I made her my bride...

GILL AND GIMBLE: (Singing) ...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.

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?

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, Ariz. We were on a tour of one-nighters through New Mexico and Arizona, out 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 [expletive] 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 - 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 a 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 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: Do you play every day? I know you perform a couple times a month, right?

GIMBLE: I intend to. Yeah. 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 keep a fiddle hooked up in the music - we've got a music room, and try to pick it up.

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?

GIMBLE: The Merle Haggard track. I take a solo on it. On "Sweet Georgia Brown," he sang. 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.

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

DAVIES: All righty. Fiddler Johnny Gimble, recorded in 2010. He died last month on May 9 at the age of 88. He's survived by his wife, Barbara.


MERLE HAGGARD: Here's Johnny.

DAVIES: On Monday, Mat Johnson, author of the critically acclaimed new novel "Loving Day," joins us. It's based in part on his life. He grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood of Philadelphia. His mother was African-America, his father Irish-American, and he says he looks white. One reviewer says Johnson handles issues of race with ruthless candor and riotous humor. Hope you can join us then. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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