If you ever need to break the ice with Baylor football coach Art Briles, skip right past the topic of his record-setting offense (he won’t tell you any secrets anyway) and instead bring up another kind of record: Neil Young’s Harvest, for instance, or the most recent release by roots-soul singer-songwriter Amos Lee. Like most Texas football coaches, Briles, who led Baylor to its first-ever Big 12 championship last year, is all about football, faith, and family.
“New towns are springing up so rapidly in Texas that even the people of the State seem at a loss to keep track of them. Hence a stranger, traveling by rail, asking a Texas fellow-passenger the name of places being passed, will find from the response that a generic term has been adopted, viz: ‘Damfino.’ ” — Letter to the Editor, Texas Siftings, December 17, 1881
When Glenn Beck moved his media operation to Dallas in 2012, Texas solidified its reputation as America’s one-stop shop for fevered conspiracy theories. Our state’s passion for believing that small groups of rich, powerful men rule the world (a belief often held by other rich, powerful men) reached a high-water mark in the days leading up to November 22, 1963, when paranoid rantings about communism, the United Nations, and the Catholic Church poisoned the air of Dallas.
The City of Austin Water Utility revealed that it is considering imposing a “drought fee” to help it make up for millions of dollars in lost revenue. The shortfall was caused, apparently, by customers’ heeding the utility’s demands to conserve water.
Here in margarita land, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Texan who hasn’t heard about the Great Lime Panic of 2014, when the price of the humble fruit reached stratospheric heights due to a shortage in Mexico (which supplies a mere 98 percent of our country’s supply) and we were left dry and not the least bit high. Realizing for the first time how much we take those tart green orbs for granted, we had to ask ourselves some tough questions: What will put the zip in our guacamole and the tang in our tacos?
In the summer of 2011, New Braunfels, the watery old town between Austin and San Antonio, was undergoing an invasion. Sweaty refugees, turned away from rivers elsewhere in Texas whose waters had been diminished by the worst one-year drought in history, found solace in the town’s spring-fed Comal River. They came in great numbers, and they came to tube.
One morning in June of last year, Houston defense attorney Jack Carroll arrived preoccupied at Harris County’s 338th District Criminal Court. He had never appeared before the court’s presiding judge, Brock Thomas, and he needed to ask for a continuance. As he waited for his client to be brought in, he ignored the disheveled woman in jail orange waving frantically at him, trying to get his attention.
The woman was Ana Lilia Trujillo, who was on her way to becoming the most notorious accused murderer Houston had produced in years. She’d been arrested for killing her boyfriend, Alf Stefan Andersson, less than 24 hours earlier, and already it was nationwide news.
If she had stabbed Andersson with a steak knife, it would have been unremarkable, a commonplace if terrible act of domestic violence. But instead she had stabbed him with her five-and-a-half-inch stiletto heel. The legal sharks of Houston’s criminal defense corps, who like nothing better than the kind of attention the case was receiving, sent emissaries to tout their skills to Trujillo.
The fiddle is a harsh little instrument. It has no frets, no black and white keys, no guarantees. Your two hands play in opposition, and the slightest error—a finger placed too near or too far, a bow pushed too hard—will send you, and everyone around you, into torment. Its vibrations, at once overwhelming and intimate, travel straight into your skull and down through your body. There’s no place to hide from a fiddle played wrong.
But a fiddle played right? There’s no instrument like it. Played well, held close to the mouth and above the heart, the fiddle makes sounds that can’t be put into words—tones from long ago, notes from other fiddlers who came before you. Played well, it sounds like you feel, and once you get started, you don’t want to stop.
My fiddle, a cheap, dark-brown model made in West Germany in 1988, was given to me by my wife on my forty-third birthday. I was in the midst of one of those dramatic enthusiasms of middle age: I wanted to grow, learn something new. I’d played music since I was a kid—piano, electric guitar—and starting in my twenties, I’d fronted several rock and roll bands with a measure of slacker success. But anyone can bang the piano or strum the guitar—not so the complicated, mysterious fiddle. I loved its sound and spent hours listening to old-time American music: the lazy drawl of the Cajun fiddle, the scratchy tunes of Appalachia, the jump of Texas swing. As a rock and roller, I’d recorded several times with some great fiddlers, like the late Champ Hood, who had performed in Uncle Walt’s Band and with Lyle Lovett. I’d been mesmerized by his sawing rhythms and sweet, yearning vibrato. I wanted to make sounds like that too.
I signed up for private lessons, squeaking my way through ancient songs like “Oh! Susanna,” “Shady Grove,” and “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” At home, I’d shut the bedroom door, put on old Cajun or Texas swing CDs, and fiddle along. My two stepdaughters mocked me, but I ignored them, closing my eyes and feeling for the sound. There was something primeval about playing these tunes. “Bile Them Cabbage Down,” one of the simplest, earliest ones, had been brought to the U.S. by African slaves. “Soldier’s Joy” hailed from Scotland more than two hundred years ago. “Arkansas Traveler” was one of the first country songs ever recorded, by Texas fiddler Eck Robertson in 1922.
These songs had been performed for generations around campfires; at community dances, weddings, and funerals; and eventually on bandstands throughout the country. They’d inspired the greatest fiddlers of all time, rural Texans like Bob Wills, Benny Thomasson, and Johnny Gimble, and they were still being played by bands such as Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys, the Hot Club of Cowtown, and Asleep at the Wheel. The fiddle offered me a ticket to a whole new world.
But by the time my son, Jackson, was born, a few years later, I’d already put the fiddle back in its case. It wasn’t a conscious choice, yet like other middle-age enthusiasms of mine—learning barrelhouse piano, running a marathon in under four hours—this one dissipated too. Instead, I played music with him, or at him, on my guitar, singing old folk songs and making up lullabies to put him to sleep. I couldn’t tell if he liked them, but I hoped the music we shared in those still hours would somehow leave a mark.
Then, sometime after Jack’s third birthday, I was dumbstruck to learn that Johnny Gimble—the Johnny Gimble—was performing once a month at Güero’s Taco Bar, a restaurant in our South Austin neighborhood. Gimble, a native of East Texas, had played with Bob Wills in the forties and fifties and been the most in-demand fiddler in Nashville in the seventies, backing up everyone from Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton to Jimmy Buffett and Paul McCartney. He had fiddled on thousands of recorded songs and jammed with some of the best musicians of the twentieth century. Now he was in his early eighties, and he had just this one regular gig, performing in Güero’s outdoor oak garden with his band, the Gimbles, which included his son, Dick, and granddaughter Emily.
I knew I had to go see him—and I knew I had to take Jack. The two of us, together with my wife, began going regularly to the shows, inviting a couple of other families with young boys to come with us. Gimble would take the stage, short and stocky, invariably wearing jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat. He’d hoist his fiddle to his shoulder, the way he’d been doing since before World War II, and launch into the Texas songbook—“Faded Love,” “San Antonio Rose,” “Milk Cow Blues,” “Waltz Across Texas.” They were songs he’d played 10,000 times, yet he was always smiling, always enjoying himself. Though he’d recently suffered a series of small strokes, he could still execute the bouncy riffs he’d played with Wills, the darting melodies he’d recorded with George Strait, and the lonely blues he’d played with Willie. Watching him was like watching one of the old bluesmen, Lightnin’ Hopkins or John Lee Hooker, one of those guys who had changed American music forever.
His progeny was impressive too. Dick was one of the best stand-up bassists I’d ever heard, swinging the songs while keeping the band anchored, and Emily played the piano like Count Basie. Gimble would point his bow at her, the way Wills had once pointed at him, and she’d bang out a solo. He’d call out to Kenny Frazier, his longtime guitarist, who often accompanied him on these nights, and Frazier would riff like Charlie Christian. “Yeah!” Gimble would shout, moved by the music. His voice was a little scratchy and his fiddle tone a little wobbly, but his sense of humor was intact. “Do they still have the Alamo down there?” he’d ask one of his bandmates before launching into “San Antonio Rose.”
Jack enjoyed the music, but he liked running around with his friends more, and he’d watch the band for a minute, then veer off and climb a tree or poke his head through the little stage door behind the band. My wife and I marveled at the audience: young folks with albums for Gimble to sign, elderly couples who danced to “Waltz Across Texas” under the oaks, musicians who came to watch and learn. There was usually a fiddler, someone Gimble had mentored years before, who waited in the crowd to be invited to join him on a classic like “Faded Love.” Gimble clearly loved this part of the set; when he called on the younger player, the two would stand together, leaning in toward each other as their bows worked the strings. Gimble would smile slyly, look into the fiddler’s eyes, and take off on a solo.
When Jack ambled back to us, I’d give him a few dollars to throw in the tip jar that sat at Gimble’s feet. Jack would scoot around the dancing couples, his unruly curls flying, and toss the money in. One time, he paused and pretended to reach back into the jar, as if to take out some of the bills, and Gimble playfully swatted at him with his bow. Jack, delighted, ran back to our table.
“That’s Johnny Gimble,” I told him. “He’s the greatest fiddler alive!”
Q: I grew up in the forties and fifties, when the rule in my grandma’s Texas kitchen was that the men ate first, waited on by the women, then the women and children dined. Everyone seemed happy with the arrangement.
My husband and I are sitting across the table from our daughter, Teal, and her fiancé, Bennett. Around us, the restaurant is bustling, with servers slipping between tables hoisting fragrant pan-Asian dishes while patrons scream delightedly at one another. Noise aside, this will be the last calm moment the four of us have together for a while.