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Who Johnny Gimble
What Famed Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble dies at 88
When May 10, 2015
Where Waco, TX

Johnny Gimble, the Texas musician whose smooth, buoyant fiddle added a musical grace to scores of country albums and propelled his own audience-pleasing career, died early Saturday in Marble Falls after several years of declining health. He was 88.

His son Dick Gimble, a McLennan Community College music instructor who had backed his father on bass and guitar for nearly three decades, said his father had been in poor health for some time after a series of strokes in recent years.

Gimble had been at the Granite Mesa Health Center nursing home in Marble Falls for about a year.

“We’re thankful, really — He’s free of that worn-out body of his. . . . And what a life he had,” said Dick Gimble, while en route Saturday with son Jon, the McLennan County District Clerk, for Jon Gimble’s graduation from Tarleton State University that night.

No funeral services are planned, but family members and musician friends likely will hold a celebration of the senior Gimble’s life and music next month, Dick Gimble said.

Born May 30, 1926 near Tyler, Johnny Gimble cut his teeth as a fiddler with Bob Wills’ famed Texas Playboys in the late 1940s and early 1950s before establishing himself as one of the great western swing musicians, winning two Grammy awards and being named a National Heritage Fellow in 1994.

His style combined East Texas fiddle, with its breakdowns, schottisches and waltzes, with the West Texas sound of Bob Wills, borrowing big band jazz and pop music. Gimble fused the two into a melodic unity that reflected the emotion of a song, be it jaunty or bittersweet.

His work as a Nashville studio musician from 1968 to 1978 put his fiddle and mandolin licks on the songs of some of country music’s biggest names. On his own, Gimble recorded at least seven solo albums with “Under the X in Texas” and “All Night Long Listen To The Fiddle” his best-known compositions.

Waco guitarist Kenny Frazier, a retired McLennan Community College music instructor, played with Gimble for much of five decades and was a key component with Dick Gimble of Johnny’s band Texas Swing in the 1980s and 1990s.

“He was one of the greatest guys I ever met. He didn’t hold anything back. If there was anything you needed or wanted, he’d give it to you,” Frazier said. “He was altogether a nice guy, well-respected by anyone who knew him.”

Gimble was also known for a healthy, if dry sense of humor and his onstage patter was sprinkled with puns and wordplay that drew good-natured groans from listeners.

“He’d often say, ‘I really appreciate what you’re trying to do,’ ” Frazier said. In a world known for oversized egos and competitive ambition, Gimble’s easy-going nature and low-key Christian faith also stood out.

Frazier’s fluid, jazz guitar meshed well with Gimble’s free-flowing fiddle, often in arrangements that Gimble had borrowed from his days with western swing giant Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

“He was a teacher without teaching. He’d just show it to you and then, when you learned it, you could make it your own,” Frazier said. “Usually he would teach me a part — and then he would play the rest.”

Gimble introduced the guitarist to jazz chords and phrasing that characterize western swing as well as demonstrating a keen ear for what other musicians were playing — an ability that made him a go-to fiddler when it came to studio work.

Frazier bonded with Gimble to such an extent that after being dismissed from a hospital during recovery from a heart attack, the guitarist promptly joined Gimble for a gig.

“Johnny’s playing — I gotta go,” he said.

Gimble grew up playing dance halls and house parties in rural Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, playing in the campaign band of Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis, then serving several years with the U.S. Army during World War II.

He joined Bob Wills’ Playboys in 1949 and stayed for the next three years before leaving to play on his own.

After several years in Dallas, he, his wife Barbara and their family came to Waco in 1955 to host the KWTX television variety show “The Homefolks.” To supplement his income, Gimble took up barbering, cutting hair in Bellmead and McGregor and at the Veterans Administration hospital.

Moving to Nashville

Persuaded by Texas country stars like Ernest Tubb whenever they came through Waco, Gimble moved Barbara and their twin girls, Cyndi and Gay, to Nashville in 1968 to work as a studio musician, though son Dick stayed behind to pursue music studies at MCC.

Dick’s interest in music brought father and son together as the elder Gimble schooled his guitar-playing son on songs and music theory, too.

“It was pretty easy to make A’s (in music) after that,” Dick said. “I didn’t understand how awesome he was when I was that age.”

Gimble added his fiddle to music by Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Connie Smith and others during his time in Nashville, but he tired of the work and decided to return to Texas in 1978, settling with his wife outside Dripping Springs where they lived until recently. In Texas, his work could be heard behind Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and George Strait.

Gimble’s later Texas years saw awards begin to accumulate from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music; two Grammy Awards; and induction into the Western Swing Hall of Fame and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.

Grandson Jon, the McLennan County district clerk, found himself a recipient of one of those trophies.

“He won so many Fiddler of the Year awards that he asked that they stop giving them to him,” Jon said.

When they didn’t, he started to give them to younger fiddlers as an incentive and Jon ended up with one.

In 1994, the National Endowment for the Arts named the fiddler a National Heritage Fellow, the fourth Texan to win that honor.

Gimble’s granddaughter Emily, who grew up learning how to play the fiddle before moving on to keyboards, is carrying on the musical tradition of her grandfather and father, presently performing with famed western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

Gimble often came to Waco to perform at venues such as MCC’s Bosque River Stage, and he and Dick frequently collaborated on fiddle and guitar camps in Texas and in New Mexico.

A turning point in Gimble’s career came on Christmas Eve 1999, when he suffered a stroke. He recovered, but performing became harder for him in the years that followed, Dick said.

He and Dick had a weekly gig at Austin’s Guero’s Taco Bar, where fellow musicians often dropped in to play, but Gimble hadn’t played publicly for the past four or five years, Dick said.

As Gimble’s ability to play declined after the stroke, he commented to his grandson how “my fiddle doesn’t know me.”

Failing health brought him to a Waco assisted living center for a time, but as his condition declined, the family decided full nursing care was needed and moved him to a facility in Marble Falls, where he could be closer to his wife.

Gimble’s children were notified earlier in the week that Johnny was fading, and Dick and Emily went down to sing songs from the Baptist Hymnal to the fiddler who often preceded a concert-closing “San Antonio Rose” with “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.”

“The best thing to me is he’s home free,” Dick Gimble said.

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