Over the weekend, Texas lost one of its greatest musicians. Renowned fiddler Johnny Gimble set down his bow and walked off the stage of life on Saturday morning. The 88-year-old icon of Texas swing died of stroke-related ailments at a nursing home in Marble Falls.
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.
The Tyler native’s career extended from the late Thirties well into the millennium. Throughout that time, he played with top Texan talent, including Wills and his Texas Playboys, Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, and Merle Haggard. Gimble’s masterful sawing also starred in a stack of solo albums that ranged from Texas Swing to gospel and included a collaboration with bassist son Dick Gimble and pianist granddaughter Emily Gimble, entitled A Case of the Gimbles.
“He was my hero and a lot of the reason I play music is because of him,” Emily Gimble told the Chronicle by phone Sunday night. That influence extended beyond the family circle. “Every person he played for or met, he sparked something in them.”
Gimble frequently meets admirers of her grandfather at her own shows.
“People come up every night and say, ‘I saw your grandpa at a dancehall in 1970!’”
On of those admirers is Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, who considers Johnny Gimble the Wheel’s “musical guide.” Last summer, he asked Emily to join the band.
“I didn’t really grow up listening to Asleep at the Wheel, but there were pictures of Ray Benson in our family photo albums,” says Emily. “It’s cool to play the same songs, like ‘San Antonio Rose’ and ‘Faded Love,’ with them just like I did with Poppa.
“They even use his arrangements.”
Due to the effects of multiple strokes, Johnny Gimble lost his ability to play music at the end of his life, according to Emily. And yet, right up to his final days, he was visited by friends who came to the nursing home and sang and played for him.
“I’m thankful that he’s in a better place now,” says Emily. “That takes the edge off.”
Funeral plans for Johnny Gimble haven’t been made public yet, but his granddaughter was excited at the suggestion of a tribute concert.
“It would be so wonderful to get all the fiddle players that were influenced by him to have some kind of celebration.”
For an in-depth look at the life of Johnny Gimble, revisit the Chronicle’s 2002 cover story, “King of the Swing Fiddle.”
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