Johnny Gimble (May 30, 1926 – May 9, 2015) was an American country musician associated with Western swing….who was considered one of the most important fiddlers in the genre…..and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 in the early influences category as a member of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys Band…..while being posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2018.
Johnny Gimble was born in Tyler, Texas and grew up in nearby Bascom…..where he began playing in a band with his brothers at age 12….and continued playing with two of them, George and Jerry, as the Rose City Swingsters….while playing local radio gigs….but soon after Johnny moved to Louisiana and began performing with the Jimmie Davis gubernatorial campaign….after which he returned to Texas after completing his service in the U.S. Army in World War II. Gimble continued to hone his fiddling skills with a number of Texas radio and dance bands….when in 1948 he made his first recording while playing with Robert Bro’s Rhythmairs in Corpus Christi. A year later he joined Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys…. with whom he toured for most of the next decade. With Wills, he played both fiddle and electric mandolin…..while distinguishing himself by using a five-string fiddle….as most fiddles have four strings.
His fiddling style was influenced by other Texas fiddlers who played the “breakdown” fiddle tunes….when Gimble’s fiddling style, while uniquely his own, came to be known as the “Texas fiddling style” that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century among fiddlers such as Cliff Bruner (who performs with Johnny as a Texas Swing Pioneer in this video herewith), Louis Tierney, and Jesse Ashlock. Gimble learned from them, and further developed while playing with Wills, who epitomized and promoted a new sound known as Western swing. Western swing rose to national prominence in the 1940s, combining the old-time, Southern-derived Anglo string band tradition….with its breakdowns, schottisches, waltzes, and reels….along with the big band jazz and pop music of the day.
After Gimble married Barbara Kemp of Gatesville, Texas in 1949….he settled in Dallas, where, in the early 1950’s, he began doing radio and television shows with Bill and Jim Boyd (of the Lone Star Cowboys) and performed on The Big D Jamboree….which was a weekly variety show broadcast live from the Dallas Sportatorium. He broke off to form his own group in 1951….while performing as the house band at Wills’s clubs in Fort Worth and Oklahoma City…..but rejoined Wills in 1953 and continued to play with his band until the early 1960’s…..as he played fiddle on Marty Robbins’ # 1 hit “I’ll Go on Alone”.
In 1955 Gimble, moved to Waco, Texas….and split time between running a barber shop at the regional VA Hospital and music…..when in 1960 he quit touring with Bob Wills and hosted one of the first locally produced television shows on KWTX, Johnny Gimble & the Homefolks. Gimble’s show featured a young bass player from nearby Abbott, Texas named Willie Nelson…..where a lifetime friendship and partnership was born. In 1968, after repeated encouragement from his peers, Johnny moved his family to Nashville, Tennessee…..and from then on, his steady work as a session musician included sessions with Merle Haggard and The Strangers on their Bob Wills tribute album (A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills), Conway Twitty, Connie Smith, Loretta Lynn, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, and Chet Atkins on Superpickers in 1973. The following year he took a cue from a song “Fiddlin’ Around”….which he had written and performed on the Atkins’ Superpickers album….and recorded his first solo album, titled Fiddlin’ Around…..after which he recorded nine other solo albums.
From 1979-81, Gimble toured with Willie Nelson worldwide….and appeared in a supporting role in the film Honeysuckle Rose…..when in 1983, Gimble assembled a Texas swing group featuring Ray Price on vocals….and charted a country radio hit with “One Fiddle, Two Fiddle”….which was featured in the Clint Eastwood film Honkytonk Man….in which Johnny had a supporting role portraying Bob Wills. He appeared from the 1970’s through the 2000’s on Austin City Limits….as seen in this video herewith….and on TV and Garrison Keillor’s broadcasts (radio)…..plus, he was a member of the Million Dollar Band. Gimble’s career spanned into the 21st century while recording with Vince Gill, Tanya Tucker and performing at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards with Carrie Underwood in 2007.
“Until Lloyd Maines surpassed him, Johnny held the record for most appearances on Austin City Limits. He played with heart and soul and had an infectious spirit and sense of adventure, both in his music and personality,” said ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona. Johnny was also a regular on Minnesota Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion hosted by Garrison Keillor….who in 1994 penned “Owed to Johnny Gimble” as a tribute to his friend after Gimble received the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship….and who performed the song again on May 9, 2015 to commemorate Gimble’s life.
From 1975–90, Johnny Gimble was nominated 15 times for Instrumentalist of the Year ….and won the Country Music Award five times…..in addition to winning nine Best Fiddle Player awards from the Academy of Country Music….plus, he won two Grammy awards….with his first in 1994 for his arrangement of “Red Wing” on the Bob Wills tribute album by Asleep At The Wheel….and his second in 1995 for Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Hightower” with Asleep At The Wheel. Gimble was nominated for a Grammy for his performance on the 1993 Mark O’Connor album Heroes. In 1994, Gimble was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship as a Master Folk Artist from the National Endowment for the Arts.