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 Johnny Gimble at Snyder Western Swing Festival  

Still Dragging the Bow
Graham Lees Interviews Johnny Gimble



On a trip to Texas in June 2007, I was afforded the opportunity to have a chat with top country fiddle player Johnny Gimble. For nearly seventy years Johnny has performed with everyone from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys to jazz clarinettist Pete Fountain; from country pioneer Floyd Tillman to country music super-star George Strait. He played in the campaign band for Jimmie Davis (composer of "You Are My Sunshine") during his successful bid for governor of Louisiana in 1944. Once he even played fiddle on a Paul McCartney track (his then teenaged daughters were pretty excited about that one).

Johnny has a great sense of humour….asking me where I came from I told him Yorkshire, England. “Oh yeh” was his reply “that’s East Texas, across the creek!!! (laughs) I played the Wembley Festival a couple of times. Mervin Conn used to produce the show when I was in Johnny Gimble performs with Carrie Underwood at 49th Annual Grammy Awards 2/11/2007 (AP photo Mark J. Terrill) Nashville. Steel guitar player Lloyd Green and I were a team on that along with a whole lot of number one vocalists. We were the only instrumentalists and the crowd there really liked instrumental music. We played “San Antonio Rose” and “Steel Guitar Rag”….they hadn’t heard it before! Then we came back a few years later with harmonica player Charlie McCoy. Charlie had a little trouble coming through security. He had a little aluminium case and the security guard said..…what is this??? Charlie said harps!!! He said I’m a musician and I play harp (harmonica). He opened it up and he had about twenty five harps…one for every key. The security guard couldn’t understand why he needed more than one!”

“Security since that 9-11 thing has really been a bitch on carrying stuff on board!!! I had a little battery tuner in my mandolin case and it showed up on the x-ray. So they made me stop and then they started going through my fiddle case. I had a double case with two fiddles. I was going to help them and show them that the pockets didn’t have anything in there. He said…Don’t touch it!...we’ll do that!!! I said O.K. sorry to trade jobs with you!!!”

Johnny Gimble grew up on a farm in East Texas, near Tyler, with his four musical brothers. “The older ones started learning music. My oldest brother was in the navy at that time. My next brother Jack was about seventeen years old and my dad found a guitar for him. He started a few cords on the guitar. Bill was the next oldest and he started learning fiddle and mandolin. Jack was teaching Gene (who’s a year older than me) to play guitar and Bill was teaching me fiddle and mandolin. We just started playing for fun and after we all came home from the service after WWII we formed a little band called the Blues Wrestlers…….we were wrestling blues…cheering people up. Then Jack wrote a little theme song and so we were trying to book out dances. We got a little radio program so we could advertise our gigs…that was the standard procedure. We were at Houston down near Bay City and there was a big Exxon oil refinery with a lot of Johnny Gimble 1943workers. So we got a radio show and started advertising and they’d come out to the dances.”

Johnny’s favourite music was western swing and especially the music was Bob Wills! “From the time we got a record player we bought every Bob Wills record we could.” Johnny played with Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys from 1949 -1951. “I had met Tiny Moore who had played fiddle and electric mandolin with Bob. I was in Corpus Christie with a little swing group and this booker, booked Bob Wills for a concert and also after the concert they were going to come over and finish the dance that we were playing at the night club. So we were on the bandstand playing as they were bringing their instruments in. Tiny heard me play and at the intermission….they had Jessie Ashlock playing fiddle. He said I think Jessie’s talking about leaving (the Playboys) and I was wondering if you’d be interested in going to work with the band. I told everyone later it was like, that if you were out in the backyard playing sand-lot baseball and someone said…would you like to go over to the New York Yankees??? Bob’s band was the top! I hadn’t met Bob. Guitar player Eldon Shambling was the band manager, so he called me and asked if i could go up to Austin where they were playing at a big dance hall. So I went up and sat in with him. He said…well you got the job if you want it! Go back and work out your notice…everyone would work two weeks notice went they quit. The first date was in Macalister, Oklahoma and on the way I stopped off at Waco, Texas where they were playing at a dance hall that I used to work at a couple of years earlier. Bob was on the bandstand and he said….well folks there’s a little fiddle player in the house tonight. The boys have heard him play and they’ve hired him. He’s going to play with us next week. They say he’s good…well he darn sure better be Johnny Gimble playing with Bob Wills Texas playboys(laughs).”

“We worked out of Oklahoma City and played driving distance to around 200 miles. We played six night’s a week and most of the time four-hour dances….we played from nine till one. We’d finish up a dance and be back in town by four or five in the morning, which would give us time to rest before the broadcast at 12.30pm (radio broadcast).”

Johnny Gimble moved to Nashville in 1968 and worked there for ten years. “I recorded with all the name artists there, such as Ray Price.” Before I moved to Nashville, I’d recorded in Dallas and Columbia Records had a producer Don Law…he was a Britisher! The one before him was Art Satherley who was also from England. But, there was a studio in Dallas that Don liked to record in, (Jim Beck’s studio) which he did with Lefty Frizzell’s early records. Anyone form the Southwest, he’d bring to Dallas to record before Nashville became so famous for recording. So I recorded in Dallas with Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robins and Ray Price. So if there was anyone on Columbia where they used the fiddle, they’d call me in! When I was in Dallas I was playing a night club and I’d get calls to go into the studio…sometimes at midnight. That was how I got acquainted with studio work, so when I moved to Nashville I already had a bit of experience.”

After Johnny left Nashville in July 1978, he played music wherever he could. Willie Nelson was making the movie Honeysuckle Rose (released in 1980) and he called Johnny Gimble to say they had a scene where they needed a little dance band and Nelson asked Gimble to put a band together. Johnny brought in piano player Curly Hollinsworth, drummer Bill Mouse, Johnny’s son Dick and steel guitarist Maurie Sanderson for the scene. “We played in the movie and then I travelled up the road with Willie’s band for six months. We played one nighters. Play a concert in Shreveport and then get back on the bus and drive to Memphis or Nashville some three or four hundred miles away and play a concert there the next night……some of them are still doing that! I spoke with Floyd Tillman (singer/songwriter) when I moved back from Nashville. I was 52 years-old and Floyd was 60 or 62. We played some golf tournament together and I asked him…are you doing any personal appearances? Floyd said…oh Johnny Gimble with Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Willie Nelsonthey call me and if it sounds like it’ll be fun I go and do it. So that is the way I kinda do it now! They call and sometimes it pretty hard. We played at Elko, Nevada for the cowboy poets gathering they have every January. It was pretty hard flying out there. We flew to Salt Lake City, then hired a car and drove two and half to three hours to Elko, hang around, play two or three engagements and then reverse the procedure to come home.”

Johnny Gimble is now 81years of age and on Christmas Eve 1999 he suffered three strokes in quick succession. “We were at home doing Christmas stuff and I got to mumbling and fumbling. Barbara (Johnny’s wife) reminded me we were putting money in envelopes for our grandchildren for presents and she said that I couldn’t even count money. She said something’s wrong with you, so they took me to the hospital emergency room. They did a CAT scan and the doctor said Mr Gimble you’ve had three tiny strokes in your right frontal brain. I said does it have anything to do with this (Johnny indicated his left arm to me) and he said it has everything to do with your left side. So I was surprised that I could play, because my hero J.R. Shatwell in San Antonio had had a stroke that paralysed his left side and he couldn’t play anymore. As long as I can make them think I can play I’ll just keep on going!!!”

Johnny Gimble ‘can’ still play, maybe not as he did at his peek, but he’ll still holds his own with fiddle and mandolin on stage. And he’s a pretty good singer to boot!!!!!!!

Big thanks to Johnny Gimble for taking the time to talk to me before his evening performance at Snyder Western Swing festival, Texas 2007.
Graham Lees