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This one hurts a bit more than most.

Never met Johnny Gimble, but felt as if I had.

His warmth and decency as a person is what first came across, even before the music. And, the music was good.

Johnny Gimble, who died on May 9 at age 88, was a top Texas fiddler who played with the likes of Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and George Strait. He was described by those who know more than I do as “one of the most revered and awarded fiddlers in the history of country music”.

He was one of the last connections to the original golden era of Western Swing.

As an obituary in the Austin Chronicle put it, ” Aside from his onetime boss Bob Wills, Johnny Gimble remains the first name in Texas fiddle players. Anytime his fingers touched the strings of a fiddle – or mandolin, for that matter – undeniable magic occurred. It happened for decades”.

Although it occupied only two years of his career — 1949-1951 — Gimble acknowledged that he would always be known for having been a member of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys western swing band, in which he played fiddle and electric mandolin.“I didn’t really get crazy about Bob Wills until 1940,” he said. He would subsequently label Wills “the most charismatic” stage performer he’d ever seen. When one of Wills band members asked Gimble if he would like to join the fabled group, he remembered, “It was like asking if I wanted to go to heaven.”

A New York Times obituary reports that after playing in the 1950’s, Gimble, toward the end of the decade, saw his music begin to fade out of vogue with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, “Mr. Gimble, never thrilled by the life of a touring country band, mostly withdrew from full-time playing and earned a living for several years as a barber”.

Gimble moved from Texas to Nashville in 1968, where he became a much-in-demand session musician as well as a regular on the TV series Hee Haw.

Although admitting the money was better in Nashville, homesickness eventually drove Gimble back to his old stomping grounds, a region he commemorated in the cleverly crafted “Under The X in Texas.”

From 1975 through 1990, he won five Best Instrumentalist awards from the Country Music Awards and nine Best Fiddle Player awards from the Academy of Country Music. Gimble was also nominated for a Grammy award for his performance on the 1993 Mark O’Connor album Heroes. Gimble was awarded two Grammys: 1994 for his arrangement of “Red Wing” on the Bob Wills tribute album by “Asleep At The Wheel”; and 1995- for Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Hightower” with Asleep At The Wheel. In 1994, Gimble was awarded the National heritage Fellowship as a Master Folk Artist from the National Endowment for the arts

I first came upon Johnny Gimble in the 1980’s listening to him on a Prairie Home Companion. He was my instructor as I was introduced first to Bob Wills, then Cliff Bruner and to the whole wonderful world of Western Swing.

As importantly, it was through Johnny Gimble’s visits to Lake Wobegon that I came to appreciate not just the man and his music, but the special world
that the music came from.

Thanks to Johnny Gimble, Texas finally became quite understandable and enjoyable to this son of the North.

(One of my favorite Johnny Gimble pieces can be found at 1:51 of the second You Tube, a PHC appearance where he sang “When the Desert Sun Goes Down”)

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