The following excerpt from WESTERN SWING FIDDLE is reprinted by permission ©Stacy Phillips. Please visit www.stacyphillips.com
Stacy Phillips: What kind of music did you listen to when you were young and interested in becoming a musician?
Johnny Gimble: We had an old Edison record player that played the thick Edison recordsmostly marches and legitimate music. There was no country music on it.
How did you first hear swing music?
I had a couple of uncles who played mandolin and fiddle. We didn't get a radio until I was ten, and we began to hear the Light Crust Doughboys and other Texas string bands. That was about '36. Before that we had music parties. I had a cousin that played Joe Turner's Blues on fiddle and a neighbor that had some records o Down Yonder. I think it was Gid Tanner. I just remember that I liked that kind of music.
We got a record player in '38. My brother had Milton brown's Saint Louis blues with Cecil Brower fiddling on it and Jesse Ashlock was playing hot fiddle on Bob Wills's early records. The first fiddle player that just knocked me out was Cliff Bruner, the records he made in 1938. That was his best swing band. I didn't know what was going on, but I liked it. I was playing elementary tunes, Ragtime Annie, Down Yonderbut swing was what I really liked. At the same time we heard Tommy Dorsey records. I didn't even know what the instruments were. Bruner's records of When You're Smiling, Draggin' the Bow, and I'll Keep On Loving You, that session he did in 1938Bob Dunn on steel, Leo Railey playing ragtime mandolin, and Moon Mullican (piano). I still like it as well as I did then. It wasn't just fiddle. The jazz guitar that Zeke Campbell played with the Light Crust Doughboys was a thrill.
When did you first hear some of the mainstream players like Stephane Grappelli?
I didn't hear him till after I was grown. I've always regretted that the Hot Club of Paris with Django (Reinhart) and those guys were playing in Paris when I was on leave over there in 1945-46 and I didn't even know they existed.
So you had already developed a style.
I liked cliff Bruner and Preacher Harness. He used to play with Bill and Bob Shelton. I discovered J.R. Chatwell in 1943.
Do you read music?
Enough to get by. In high school I played alto sax, held one really.
How did Bob Wills find you?
The Roberts Brothers Rhythmaires were playing a club in Corpus Christi. There was Buck, Carlton and Curly Roberts, a drummer, and myself. We played all the old standards and the popular country tunesthey called them hillbillyEddy Arnold, every one of Bob Wills's tunes, they were always popular on dances. But we also played In the Mood, Basin Street, tuxedo Junction, Rose Room, we had a guitar player, Troy Passmore, he used to play like Charles Christian (another Texan). We were all digging those guys.
Bob was booked into that club. He had played a show in the auditorium and we opened the dance and they came over about ten o'clock. Tiny Moore told me that Jesse Ashlock was leaving in the next few weeks and he wanted to know if I'd be interested. (1949) I didn't meet Bob at that date. Eldon Shamblin hired me when bob was in the hospital. When I was hired I came by and they were playing a job in Waco and bob asked me to play a tune and he made a remark over the PA. I had played Waco, it was sort of home to me in a wayand Bob said There's a little fiddle player here, the boys have hired him and I haven't heard him. They say he's good and he'd better be! He put me on. He was real nice.
You must have been pretty excited to get that job.
Oh yeah! He was number one!
Where did you get the idea to scat sing with the fiddle?
Cliff Bruner had told me when I was fifteen, I was asking him about how he learned to play jazz, they used to call it take-off or hokum fiddle, and Cliff said, Do you think that kind of music? I said, I go around humming it all the time. He said, When you learn your instrument well enough that you can play what you think and what you hum, that's how you do it. You are never gonna play what you can't imagine.
When I was overseasI never did work in a band in the Army, I was a typistI used to sit and practice. I'd hum licks and work them out. About that time I heard Slam Stewart playing the bass. I don't know if I was doing it before that, but I did it after I heard him.
What kind of scene was there among the musicians when you started to play professionally?
Every time we had a night off we'd go to a band. We were totally involved in music. My brother and I had a band called the Blues Rifflers in '47. If Cliff Bruner was playing nearby I'd see him. That's how I met J.R. Chatwell in Houston.
Benny Thomasson told me that he used to play with you at some Texas fiddle contests.
Oh yeah. He was as good as they come as a breakdown player but he wasn't really into jazz, but all those guys like it, you know. I used to enter the contests, seldom win. It's a different breed of music. Vernon Solomon (another successful contest fiddler) once told me to pick out about five tunes and really work on them to perfect a small repertoire. He said, You'll win gas money. (laughs) But I won first place at a few. Some of those old fiddle players got mad because they knew I wasn't as proficient as they were.
In fact just a few weeks before Benny died I saw him at an all-night fiddling at a ranch over here. I used to walk up behind him under a tree somewhere. He'd be practicing and have a crowd around him and I'd start playing licks and he'd like thatlittle fill licks between what he was doing, like Dixieland.
How has your fiddle setup changed? I know that now you use an electric five-string. How about when you started with Bob Wills?
They were playing acoustic. I'd been playing electric for several years with a DeArmand pickup. Tiny told me that Bob did not like electric fiddles. He tried themin fact I have tapes of him at the Grand Ol' Opry, he used an electric, sort of a harsh sound. He despised feedback and it was hard to get volume without it.
When I went on the bandstand I was used to hearing electric and I couldn't hear myself in front of the loud band. That's when I discovered why Joe Holley always played on the high string, in order to hear himself.
Bob was the kind of guy, you could make a suggestion to him and let him think he thought of it. The pickup on my mandolin broke. I had it tuned down to mandola tuning, A,D,G, and C. I asked Bob if while it was in the shop I might tune a fiddle to that tuning and play my part through an amp. We had four-way things with Eldon (Shamblin), Tiny (Moore), and Herby (Remington). Bob was real agreeable. He liked the sound. He used to call it the big fiddle. He asked if I could play a solo on it, which I was dying to do. The next chance he gave me a chorus and it knocked him out. Then he asked Tiny and me to rig up all three fiddles for our section work.
Yeah. It wasn't that bad a sound. You know Stuff Smith played a DeArmand. It was the best before Barcus-Berry.
So that was when we went electric. I carried two fiddles and tuned one like viola. In about '53 I was playing in Dallas with Dewey Groom. I had an old fiddle maker in Fort Wroth change one I had into a five string and it's the one I'm still playing. I asked bob to play something on it once and he said, I've got to learn to play these four first.
Did you ever record with the viola tuning?
I used it a lot. In Dallas I think I played it on a lot of Marty Robbins records. It had a good acoustic sound. I didn't play it electric on sessions. In Nashville I always used it through an amp and an acoustic four-string for a country sounding fiddle.
Old Cecil Brower was a great fiddler. I played with him back in '54 with the band in Rose's Barn up the street from Dewey Groom's Longhorn Ranch. We played fiddles together. Nobody back then played five-string. He'd try to play and hand it back. He said, I can't stand to look down the middle string. (laughs)
You can get a little disoriented.
It helped me that I'd been playing the mandolin in viola tuning for five, six years. My only problem was learning to stay off the fifth string. I'd go for the G and hit the C string. But it wasn't a week or ten days and I was used to it.
Now Barcus-Berry is making five string but I still have the first type of pickup they made where the wire goes into the back of the center of the bridge. I got them to mount a volume control in the tail piece so I didn't have to feel for one on my belt like they used to have.
I've had the bridge trimmed down and built up again over the years. I could probably do better with a new one but I don't want to fool with it cause it's playing pretty good.
How about your amp?
I can't find one. (laughs) I haven't found one I like since 1958. I kept waiting for Peavey until they started making a two-channel amp. The thing about Peaveyit's got transistors and it's got a hard sound to me. It's not bad if you play it at a loud volume. I've got the Vegas 400 and at dances at a certain volume it sounds real good. But when you get in a studio it's got a read hard sound.
I'd like to try a Polytone. They make a real good jazz guitar amp. That's the reason I think a fiddle would work good because the old jazz players use a nice fat tone. (Bobby Bruce and Buddy Spicher use Polytones.)
I'd like to mention a couple of names of a couple of fiddlers I only discovered after starting this book and get your reaction. Did you ever hear Curt Massey play?
I used to listen to Curt on the Bugler Plantation Party from WLS in Chicago in '43 or something like that. They had George Baarnes playing guitar when he was about eighteen years old. Curt was a real great fiddle player but that's the last I heard of him except in the fifties he was on a radio show from Hollywood. He was a good smooth player.
How about Bobby Bruce?
Aw, Bobby is great! To me he is the best double-stop guy. The stuff that he played on Leon McAuliffe records in '49 and '50. I have a tape of him in '76Leon took him and Keith Coleman and they played at the Palomino in North Hollywood and did an hour broadcast on KLAL. No rehearsal or anythingBruce played Danny boy in F and he played the complete fiddleas much as could be played on one. Just all over.
Let me ask you something. The last few days I've been listening to T. Texas Tyler from 1947 that had an electric viola player, Don Decker.
I don't know the name. (I immediately hunted up a few of his solos.)
I hadn't heard these records in forty years. Last time I was in Nashville, I went to the Hall of Fame and taped off a bunch of them, and I can remember that he knocked me flat out. He had Jimmy Wyble playing guitar, Noel Boggs on steel, and Don Decker on viola. He played like Stuff Smith and J.R. He just beat a note to death you know.
Did J.R. listen a lot to Stuff Smith?
He said Stuff was the only fiddle player. I never heard him until I got home from the Army. I bought two records on 78s. At that time I didn't know what J.R. thought about him. In '53 or '54 Cecil Brower gave me an album of Svend Asmussen. I thought he was the best I'd ever heard, but I kept hearing J.R. Chatwell in it. Then I found out that both of them were fans of Stuff Smith. That's how it evolved.
I heard he was in Nashville a while back.
I saw him that trip. We got him to do Up a Lazy River on Hee Haw. He's my favorite of all the jazz players I've heard. He plays the entire fiddle. He plays a lot of double stops which you don't get to hear him play on records.
We use the same string, Jargar.
I'd like to ask you about the kind of jobs you had with Bob Wills. I assume most were dances.
I bet we didn't play a half-dozen shows other than radio. We had a broadcast every day.
Bob used to start off the dances with south because it was a moderate two-step. The second tune was always The Kind of Love I Can't Forget that was a little slower. Then he'd maybe drop down and play a waltz and kick it up again with Beaumont Rag or something.
Today there's a lot of country music that's done in eighths rhythm. (hums a country shuffle) I don't know enough tunes like that. My son plays with me at some dances. I get carried away and get to playing old jazz and Dick will say, Daddy, reckon we ought to play Amarillo by Morning? and that'll fill up the floor.
How did the rhythm section deal with Bob's rhythm?
Well, it's like someone told me, Jimmie Rodgers (another musician with his own sense of timing) came to New York to record in '29 or '30 and he told the band, Now boys, I'm not here to sing with you, you're here to play with me. (laughs) Bob did everything naturally you know. When he broke time you just jumped and went with him. He never did break the beat.
Do you think that Nashville C&W fiddle evolved from Wills's playing?
Tommy Jackson played Ray Price's stuff and he was a big fan of Bob's. You're influenced by everything you hear. I heard Ray Price telling about Bobby Helms's record called Fraulein, and Tommy Jackson played on it when he was with Ray. Bobby got real hacked at him for using his style of fiddling. Ray said, What do you mean? We both stole it from bob Wills! Jackson used to call it semi-Bob Wills. Bob played those little grace notes. But the Nashville players like Shorty LavenderI used to work with himwhen you put those little grace notes, they want the harmony to play every one of them. Like a computer readout. On his records Bob would play those little notes and the other guys wouldn't. It had a real loose, good sound.
What did you do musically after Bob? I know you spent some time in Nashville.
I went to Nashville in '68. I stayed in Dallas from '52 to '55. That's when I worked for Dewey Groom and played Rose's barn and the Big D Jamboree and began to make records with Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins, and Ray Price, the guys on Columbia.
I moved to Waco in '55 and had a television show for three years. I went to Missouri to play on the Five Star Jamboree with Rex Allen, Jimmy Wakely, and I played with Cecil (Brower).
Then I settled in Waco and played weekends and cut hair for seven years until I moved to Nashville and stayed there for ten years.
Any solos on those Columbia sessions that you were real happy with?
I did one on Marty's I Couldn't Keep from Crying where I played a double stop 7/9. I didn't know what I was playing. There was one record where Don (Don Law, Columbia's Dallas producer) heard me hum along with a solo and told me to go ahead and do it. It was called It's a Long, Long Ride from Tennessee to Texas or something like that. Most all those records were plain, vanilla countryno hot choruses.
I took a mandolin break on rose City Chime that Bobby Garrett recorded for Trophy Records in '58 that Ralph Emery (a Nashville disc jockey) used as his theme for his all-night show for four or five years. That got some recognition.
When I moved to Nashville, Tommy Jackson's style was what had sold on records. You sort of adhered to that. At a record session you do what they want you to do. In 1973 I played on a record with Connie Smith called If It Ain't Love. Bob Ferguson produced it, and I had worked a lot of sessions for him with dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Jim Ed Brown, and different people and had always played commercial country. On this one bob said just play what you want to play on it. I just dove in and played jazz. It went to number one and it was my first break. From then on people would tell me to play what I wanted to, which is what I've been trying to play for thirty years.