Country Music Hall of Fame member Johnny Gimble would belong in the rotunda off the strength of any of the three different eras of his career. Born John Paul Gimble in Tyler, Texas, the legendary fiddle player is primarily known for his role in the popularization of the Western swing style. That is, unless you consider his time as one of the best damn fiddle players in Nashville to be his career peak. If you prefer both, there’s always those late career years where Gimble and his family payed homage to the music that in 1994 earned him a National Heritage Fellowship as a Master Folk Artist from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“If You’re Going to Play in Texas…”
Gimble is at least part of the reason why fellow Hall of Famers Alabama expect Texas bands to feature a fiddler. After a stint in the Army, he first joined Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. For the uninitiated, the group put members in both the country and rock halls of fame with its genre-defiant blend of jazz, country and Western sounds. Until the 1960s, Gimble’s five-string fiddle breakdowns and underrated mandolin playing skills helped shape the sound of Wills’ band.
A Sought-After Session Fiddler
In 1968, Gimble moved to Nashville, positioning himself for a second influential career as a country star. He became a sought-after session musician in the years to come, adding his talents to such seminal recordings as Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December.” His popularity as a studio musician earned him multiple CMA and ACM awards. He also won two Grammy awards for his collaborations with Western swing purists Asleep at the Wheel, the future band of his granddaughter Emily.
His reputation as a fiddler landed Gimble a gig with the Hee Haw house band. Regular appearances on A Prairie Home Companion and Austin City Limits came later in his career.
Gimble also returned to the road during this time period, spending 1979-’81 as a member of Willie Nelson’s touring band. That led to appearances in a couple of movies, Honeysuckle Rose and Clint Eastwood’s Honkytonk Man. In the latter, Gimble portrays his old band leader, Bob Wills.
An Ambassador of Texas Music
Later in life, Gimble embraced his role as a Texas Swing legend. Celebrating the past became a family affair, with son Dick and daughter Cyndy helping start a camp to teach swing style to a new generation of fiddlers.
Old age didn’t keep Gimble out of the studio, with his final album, Celebrating With Friends, coming in 2010. It pointed back to different facets of the fiddlers’ career by featuring Nelson, Haggard, Ray Price and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, plus traditionalists Vince Gill and Dale Watson, as special guests.
Gimble died on May 9, 2015 at his home in Dripping Springs, Texas following complications from a series of strokes. He was 88 years old.