The Strings of the Father
How Johnny Gimble became one of the greatest fiddlers of all time—and showed me and my son a thing or two about playing music.
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!”
For generations, long before a man going middle-age crazy could buy private lessons, the fiddle was passed down, literally, by hand, much like a family elder bequeathed a well-seasoned skillet or a well-worn knife. The instrument’s compact size meant that little fingers could easily learn from older, longer ones, and the music was taught knee to knee, master showing apprentice how to hold the fiddle on the shoulder just so, how to draw the bow and keep it straight, when to bend the wrist. The experienced fiddler—often a father—would perform a tune, and the novice—often a son—would echo it. Then they would play and play, over and over, the melody becoming as familiar as the tones of everyday speech.
For Johnny Gimble, the fiddle was all about family. Born in 1926 on a farm near Tyler, he grew up surrounded by musicians; one of his most vivid memories was of his uncle John playing “Washington and Lee Swing” on the mandolin on the front porch. The second-youngest child of nine, Gimble picked up the fiddle at around age ten—his siblings Bill and Jack showed him the basics—and soon afterward formed a jug band with three of his brothers called the Rose City Swingsters. In the summers, they each made $2 a day, more than the rate for picking cotton, by performing on a flatbed truck parked in front of grocery stores all over East Texas.
The brothers aspired to play western swing, a new, jazz-inflected dance music that was exploding in the thirties and incorporated drums, steel guitar, and, most notably, two or three fiddles. As he grew into his teens, Gimble tuned in every night to WBAP, the far-reaching Fort Worth radio station, to hear the big-band country sound of the Light Crust Doughboys, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. This was music that kicked, Gimble liked to say, and he often practiced along with the radio, trying to figure it out. Though he would later tell people that he learned something from everyone he ever played with, it wasn’t until after high school that Gimble got formal knee-to-knee instruction: Cecil Brower, a classically trained swing fiddler, showed Gimble how to hold the instrument—where to place his left thumb under the fingerboard, how to arch his fingers. Playing properly, Gimble would later recall, was “the hardest thing I ever learned.”
Around that time, in 1943, Gimble met the fiddler Cliff Bruner, who had been part of Milton Brown’s band. The elder musician imparted not only a few riffs but also advice on how to improvise and play jazz, or “hokum,” as it was called. “He said, ‘Can you hum it?’ ” Gimble remembered years afterward. “I said, ‘It goes around in my head all the time, I hum it all day long.’ He said, ‘Practice your instrument until you can play what you hum, play what you think, and you’ll start branching out and playing some licks.’ ”
Gimble took this new method to heart, and when he was sent to a desk job in Austria during World War II, he played for hours after getting off work, fingering what he heard in his mind or on the radio. In 1949, after he’d returned to Texas, Gimble was performing with a band called the Rhythmaires when he caught the ear of none other than Wills himself. “You’ll fit,” the famous bandleader told the 23-year-old after his onstage audition; Gimble would later describe the experience as akin to a kid’s throwing a ball around in the sandlot and being asked to join the New York Yankees.
Gimble played both mandolin and fiddle with Wills, adding an extra string to his fiddle to perform lower and louder. After two and a half years of touring, he left the Playboys to lead the band at the Bob Wills Ranch House, a honky-tonk Wills opened in Dallas. By the time Gimble left his mentor’s world, a few years later, he had grown into an experienced and versatile musician, with a smooth, round tone and the hands-on knowledge of hundreds of songs.
He had also become a husband and father—with a baby son, Dick, and twin daughters—and to supplement his musician’s income Gimble took construction jobs and earned a license as a barber. In 1955 he moved his family to Waco, where he hosted a television show, Johnny Gimble and the Homefolks, for a few years. On the show, Gimble gave a break to a singer named Willie Nelson, hiring him to be the bassist in the house band; Gimble also introduced him to the guitar-fiddle combination of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, a sound that would influence Willie for the rest of his career. (“He loved Django,” remembered Willie.)
Throughout the fifties and sixties, Gimble spent much of his time cutting hair, leaving his performing for the weekends and the occasional fiddle contest. These contests, annual shows of technical mastery in which fiddlers performed frantic breakdowns and ornate waltzes, had helped give rise to a tricked-up style of playing—known as Texas-style fiddling—that was quickly becoming its own genre. But this kind of performing wasn’t what drew Gimble; he traveled to the contests mostly so he could jam afterward with all the breakdown fiddlers. His love of playing never waned, and when a member of Ernest Tubb’s band, the Texas Troubadours, told him during a gig in Waco that he could make more money in Nashville fiddling on demos than he could in Waco cutting hair, Gimble knew what he wanted to do.
He moved his wife and daughters to the heart of the country music industry in 1968; Dick, who had just graduated from high school, chose to stay in Texas. Gimble quickly figured out how to give Nashville’s producers what they wanted, running his riffs through the muscle memory of all his years in the honky-tonks, fingering melodic solos and smooth double stops that sounded like two fiddlers playing at once, and sometimes adding jazzy sixth or ninth notes. Within a few years he became Music City’s top fiddler, eventually winning the Academy of Country Music’s Fiddle Player of the Year award nine times. Everybody wanted Johnny Gimble on his or her record; his pocket calendars from those days, discovered later in a cigar box by his son, read like a who’s who of Nashville and beyond. “I pulled one out from 1974, and I was amazed,” Dick told me. “Tuesday at ten: George Jones. Thursday: Conway Twitty. Saturday: Paul and Linda McCartney.”
Gimble also found himself becoming a fiddling elder, with a following of hungry young musicians who were captivated by his free-spirited leads and warm, beefy tone. By this time he had recorded a few albums of his own, and many of his fans sought him out, hoping to sit and jam and ask how he did certain things, such as the dreamy two-finger slide on his most intricate song, “Gardenia Waltz.” Sometimes they just wanted to play harmony with him on old standbys like “Faded Love.” Gimble would pull out his fiddle, lean in, look his acolytes in the eye, and, always smiling, take off on a solo.
“He loved to jam,” said Ray Benson, whose band, Asleep at the Wheel, asked their producer to get Gimble to perform on their debut album, recorded in Nashville in 1973. “He’d play at the drop of a hat.” Danny Levin, a fiddler for the band, had been playing the instrument for only three years when he first jammed with Gimble. “He’d sit with me and just play,” he recalled. “I’d say, ‘What was that lick?’ and he’d show me. As soon as you knew the tune, he would play harmony to make it sound like three fiddles.”
Yet Gimble missed Texas, and in 1978 he and his wife moved back, eventually settling in Dripping Springs. He continued to perform all the time, touring with Willie’s band (he appeared in the movie Honeysuckle Rose), making more records, and working with other musicians, including George Strait, on eight of his albums. He also appeared in more episodes of Austin City Limits than anyone, sometimes showing up unannounced with his fiddle at sound check when old friends like Merle Haggard were booked. And he was as generous as ever with his protégés, even starting a camp in 1996 that eventually included a few of them—such as Levin—as teachers. Every night after classes, Gimble would jam with all the campgoers.
“The magic, that’s what keeps you playing,” he explained at one point. “That’s what never wears off.” And that magic was why the younger fiddlers came to him: the pure joy Gimble felt in playing music with someone else, the conversation without words, the connection made while creating something that would never come again. “He loved to play above almost everything else in life,” said Levin. “And that, more than any didactic method, is what he gave those of us who were lucky or dedicated enough to get close to him. He is the rare combination of a great performer and benevolent guy who reaches out and helps and inspires others. He’s like a father to me.”
When Jack turned six, his mother and I decided he should take music lessons, and we gave him a choice: guitar, piano, or violin. He picked the smallest one—the one none of his friends were playing. It was a natural fit: his fingers were agile, and he had rhythm. He moved quickly through all manner of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” variations, “Allegro,” “Andantino,” and others, and when he performed at recitals, he was nervous but undaunted. I loved watching him.
Jack played for a year and a half and made it through most of two Suzuki books. Then his teacher went on maternity leave, so to fill the following months, I figured I’d introduce him to the old-time songs I knew. I pulled out my dusty fiddle book, and throughout that spring, the strains of “Flop-Eared Mule” and “Buffalo Gals” filled our house again. That summer I signed Jack up for a class with an Austin group called the Blazing Bows, where he worked through a book of classic swing tunes.
Jack liked the sheet music—there was comfort in being told what to do—but I also encouraged him to improvise, to play what he felt, to just play. On weekends, or some evenings before dinner throughout the school year, I’d bring out my guitar and we’d stand in his room, side by side, me hitting the chords for “Joe Turner Blues”—Jack’s favorite—while he riffed on the melody. One night, as I banged out the rhythm using jazz ninth chords I’d forgotten I knew, I was struck by how easy it was for my son, how naturally he followed the rhythm, how much fun he was having—and how much I was too.
And so it was that on a Monday morning last July, Jack and I found ourselves headed to Glen Rose, to the Elmore Fiddle Camp. I had discovered the camp earlier that spring, wading through lists of activities to fill a nine-year-old’s summer; inspired by the idea of doing something together, I’d signed both of us up. Randy Elmore was a well-known fiddler whose main qualification, in my mind, was that he had been one of Johnny Gimble’s protégés. The four-day camp included classes led by Valerie Ryals, the first female fiddler to be inducted into the Texas State Championship Fiddlers’ Frolics Hall of Fame; Levin, the Asleep at the Wheel veteran; and even Dick, Gimble’s son, who would be teaching a guitar class. Jack had liked the idea, and in anticipation, I’d pulled out my fiddle again, running through some of the old songs.
On our drive, I explained that we’d each be attending four hour-long classes a day. “Four classes?” Jack cried. “Aw, man!” But when we pulled onto the grounds of the Country Woods Inn, a forty-acre compound of old farmhouses and pastures, there was little time to brood. We checked in to our cabin, grabbed our fiddles, and headed to our first lesson—Jack to the intermediate class for kids, me to the intermediate class for adults. Of the 62 campers, almost half were under eighteen. My class had 17 students, most of them well-scrubbed retirees with gray in their hair.
Elmore was our first teacher. Fifty-nine years old, with a bushy mustache and a deep, slow drawl, he’d been playing since he was eight. As a boy in Fort Worth, he’d bought his strings at a violin shop owned by fiddlemaker and repairman L. T. Childress, who knew all the fiddlers in Texas. “They’d come in and out of the shop,” Elmore told me later. “I met all the great players: Benny Thomasson, Norman and Vernon Solomon, Major and Louis Franklin. They’d say, ‘Come see me, I’ll show you some stuff.’ You’d go to their house, they’d sit with you knee to knee and play with you. I didn’t pay for a lesson once—the only trouble was getting home without forgetting it. They taught everything: rags, polkas, schottisches, waltzes. They wanted it passed down. I was eat up with it.”
Elmore handed out sheet music for the ballad “Shenandoah,” and all of us launched into the song. I worked my bow quietly, watching the 70-year-old bus driver and the 58-year-old college teacher near me play with greater confidence than I could muster. On a second go, Elmore encouraged us to hit the high note in the melody by sliding our left hand up the fingerboard. The seventeen of us sounded like a flock of sick sheep. Elmore wasn’t perturbed. We should think of adding triplets and slurs, he said. “You want to move people one way or another,” he said. “To love it or hate it.”
I found Jack afterward. He was with two other boys, trying to shoo a wasp out of the cabin. “How was it?” I asked.
“I learned three new songs,” he said, beaming.
“So you like it?”
“I love it.”
I told him I thought I was the worst in my class. He said he felt the same. “But I bet we’re gonna be real good after this.”
We went back to our classes, and later that afternoon, I ran into Jack and a ten-year-old named Adam outside in the bright sun, playing an Irish jig from sheet music on the ground in front of them. That night, Jack practiced on his own, something he never did at home.
Over the next few days, the two of us sawed diligently through tunes like “Miss Molly,” “Mississippi Waltz,” and “Hector the Hero.” But the real learning, we discovered, took place each evening after dinner, when students and teachers splintered into groups to jam. Each night, Jack and the kids from his class gathered in one of the pastures, set up their music stands, and ran through the songs they’d been learning, like “Pig Ankle Rag” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Another class gathered by a trailer and played contest fiddle songs—“Gray Eagle,” “Sally Goodin,” and “Tom and Jerry”—going into the wee hours.
The adult intermediate students also got together, standing in a tentative circle of eight or nine near a large oak tree. One of the fiddlers in the circle, a man in my class named Rocky, had brought his whole family to camp—his wife played stand-up bass; their son, guitar; and their daughter, fiddle. On one of the first nights, I was feeling desperately timid about playing, but Rocky encouraged me to join the group, and so I snuck in and started to follow along on “Red River Valley” and “Amazing Grace.” Everyone was a little nervous, but we launched into song after song. “Playing with bigger groups, you may be intimidated at first,” a 72-year-old fellow student named Darlene told me afterward. A friend of hers, Kay, who was 67, chimed in. “Jams are the best way to learn,” she said.
The master musicians jammed too. Another night, under the giant oak tree, Elmore and Levin played fiddle, Dick played bass, and two teenage sisters, Minnie and Ella Jordan, played guitar and fiddle. The girls had been coming to Elmore’s camp for seven years. They sang perfect harmony on “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and then Elmore and Levin did a solo together, performing melody and harmony. The fiddlers dueled with each other for the next half hour, knocking off dizzying solos on traditional numbers like “Leather Britches” and jazz standards like “Mona Lisa.”
Through it all—every day, every evening—Elmore played with whoever asked, looking kids in the eye, calmly encouraging them. This was how, 45 years earlier, when he was 14, he had first played with Gimble, one summer at a fiddle contest in Gatesville. Elmore was a contestant, and Gimble had shown up with his fiddle and entertained the crowd during breaks in the competition. “Afterward,” Elmore told me, “he was jamming with some other musicians and I wiggled up to the front and watched him. After a while, he asked, ‘You play the fiddle?’ I told him I was trying to. ‘Well, get it out,’ he said.”
They played a tune, and later Gimble showed Elmore how to play the riffs of “Silver Bells” and “Beaumont Rag,” two quintessential Texas swing songs. Elmore eventually became so good that he started winning contests all over the state, later going on the road with Red Steagall, Reba McEntire, and Mel Tillis. He got to sit knee to knee with Gimble again a few other times, and the two became friends; the younger musician visited his mentor in Nashville and fiddled with him often when he returned to Texas. Elmore would never forget that first invitation to play as a teenager, and in 2001 he founded his own camp so he could do the same with others. On our last night in Glen Rose, he leaned against a fence post and played “Faded Love” with one of the teens, confidently urging her on.
“I tell everybody, ‘You learn these tunes, pass ’em on,’ ” he said. “Nobody owns this music.”
Gimble’s spiritual heirs remember their first time playing with him as a seminal moment; his closest blood heir, Dick, remembers the experience differently. He was eight when his father tried to teach him the fiddle, but Dick couldn’t make it sound right. “I hated the fiddle,” he said. “It sounded terrible when I played it.” He found his calling six years later, when his father brought home a stand-up bass to use on some songwriting demos. “I started thumping on it, and Daddy heard me and said, ‘Do you want to play bass?’ ”
His father taught him the essentials, and soon the two were sitting in Dick’s room, jamming on songs like “Stay All Night” or “Milk Cow Blues.” Dick was such a quick study that six months later, his father asked him to play in his band. On Thursday afternoons, Johnny took Dick out of school for weekend tours in East Texas and Louisiana as part of the Aunt Jemima Bandwagon, where they’d perform on a flatbed truck parked in front of grocery stores, just as Johnny and his brothers had done in the thirties. For the younger Gimble, it was a crash course in Texas swing and music theory. In the car, father taught son how to sing harmony with songs like “You Are My Sunshine.”
Then Johnny moved to Nashville, and Dick began playing in other bands in Central Texas. By the time Johnny returned, Dick had become one of the most well-known bassists in Austin, backing up numerous country musicians onstage and in the studio. It was only as he worked with these various performers that Dick began to realize how innovative a fiddler his father was—and how pedestrian some of the others were. “The very thing that makes the fiddle so great, its expressiveness, is also what makes it so hard to play,” he told me. “There’s an infinite number of tone qualities and pitch qualities you can make on a fiddle to make it so expressive. But it can also sound so bad, and those guys were just crap. Daddy was so dang creative. He’d take elements of jazz and put them in country music and make it work.” When members of Asleep at the Wheel, who had been based in Oakland, also moved to Austin, Dick started jamming with them. “They revered my dad. That kind of woke me up.”
With Johnny back in Texas, the two Gimbles began performing together once again. Dick played bass on all of Johnny’s albums, even producing some songs, and when Johnny put bands together for his shows, he always turned to Dick. Yet the highly expressive fiddler was not the most expressive father. “He was from that older generation. They didn’t say ‘I love you’ or things like that. I remember after a gig we played, a woman came up to Daddy and said, ‘Johnny, I’ve been watching your son—you must be very proud of him.’ And Daddy said, ‘Not really.’ My heart just sank. Then, after a pause, he said, ‘No, pride is one of the seven deadly sins. I’m extremely thankful for him.’ ”
In 1999, after Johnny suffered three minor strokes, it was Dick who got his father fiddling again. The strokes affected Johnny’s left side, damaging both his intonation and his desire to practice, but Dick sat with his father and played, encouraging him to perform, until they made plans to form a band, eventually bringing in Dick’s daughter Emily on piano.
Still, Johnny’s body was slowing down, and over the next several years he began suffering from macular degeneration and a general loss of stamina. By 2010, his once-a-month shows at Güero’s were his only gig. In October 2011 Gimble performed his last show under the restaurant’s oak trees—Jack, my wife, and I were there—and a year and a half later, Dick moved Johnny to a retirement home in Waco.
Son visited father regularly, bringing along CDs—Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Bob Wills—and, on a couple of occasions, a guitar and a fiddle. Dick would riff on chords while Johnny sat, fiddle on his knee, until finally he’d lift it to his shoulder and eke out some notes. He had lost much of his joy. “We’d play an hour,” remembered Dick, “but it got to where his eyes glazed over.” Then, last July, a few weeks after Jack and I attended fiddle camp, Gimble suffered another stroke. Though he could move his left arm, he couldn’t do the fingering anymore, so Dick took only CDs to his father’s room. “That’s the main thing we’d do,” Dick told me. “Listen to music, laugh when someone hit a good lick.”
Two months after the stroke, Dick decided to set up a show in the nursing home, knowing his father needed to hear the music he had spent his life playing. He asked if I wanted to go, and because I hadn’t seen Johnny since his days at Güero’s, I jumped at the chance. On a Sunday afternoon, Dick and the band he’d gathered—Elmore, Valerie Ryals, Minnie and Ella Jordan, and Paul Anastasio, a fiddler who played with Asleep at the Wheel and Merle Haggard—set up in front of three dozen octogenarians, who formed a semicircle with their wheelchairs. Johnny sat nearest to the band, in dark-blue pants and a long-sleeved shirt. His hair was white and combed over the top of his head. His son introduced himself—“I’m Dick Gimble. I’m Johnny’s favorite son”—and then the members of the band.
They launched into the old Wills standard “Roly Poly,” all five fiddlers performing in harmony, the Jordan sisters singing. Ryals played the first solo and Elmore the second. Johnny, caught up in the music, whooped loudly, and at the end of the song, when the five fiddlers played again in harmony, he let loose again. “Whoo!” he yelled as the tune came to a close.
Before the band kicked into “Faded Love,” Ryals told a story about how Johnny had once encouraged her at a Fort Worth fiddle contest decades ago. “Thank you,” she told him now. Then she, Elmore, and Anastasio performed the triple-fiddle intro to the song Johnny had first played with Wills back in 1950. He rose up on the arms of his wheelchair, as if struggling to get out of his seat, and began to sing. “As I read the letters that you wrote to me,” he intoned, his voice wavering with the high melody. The others came in to back him on the chorus, and he sang the second verse. “As I think of the past, all the pleasures that we had . . .”
For the next hour, while most in the audience sat quietly, Johnny whooped, clapped, and sang the words to “Right or Wrong,” “Trouble in Mind,” and “Milk Cow Blues.” He clearly felt a longing—for the songs, for the camaraderie, for the playing. In one form or another, these musicians were the sons and daughters of Johnny Gimble; they felt that magic when they played. Now all he could do was listen. At times, his left hand rose and he fingered the air, as if reliving an ancient melody.
I drove home that evening thinking about Jack. Since the summer, “Milk Cow Blues” had become one of our favorite swing tunes to play together, one we practiced almost every day, Jack hitting the introductory riff and me banging out the chords on my guitar. I’d sing a verse, he would do a solo, I’d sing again, and we’d go on like that for three verses. We’d each get caught up in the music, as if we’d waded into the currents of a great river, neither of us worried about getting certain notes right.
One day I found myself staring at him, trying to make eye contact—like Elmore had done with the fiddlers at camp and like Johnny had done with the young musicians who sought him out. When I caught Jack’s eye, he smiled. The next day, we jammed again, and this time Jack stared at me, fixing his eyes until I returned his gaze. I grinned. He took off on a solo, and I followed. We sounded better than ever.