On Being Johnny's Boy
The Texas Story Project. Inspired by Johnny Gimble’s fiddle and bow.
My dad, the famed country swing fiddler, Johnny Gimble, was raised in the East Texas town of Tyler. My mother, Barbara, was from Coryell County. They were married January 17, 1949 at the First Methodist Church in Gatesville, Texas. When I arrived 11 months later, Dad was on the road with the kings of country swing, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, who were based in Oklahoma at the time. That was my first big mistake … not being born in Texas.
Within a few months we moved to Dallas, where the Bob Wills Ranch House (the self-proclaimed world’s largest dancehall at the time) had been built by O. L. Nelms, a close friend and supporter of the renowned bandleader, Bob Wills. A life on the road while raising a young family wasn’t going to work. Bob offered Dad the job as leader of the house band at the Ranch House when the Texas Playboys were out on the road. Soon my mother was expecting my twin sisters, Cindy and Gay, which meant Dad needed more income to feed the growing family. I recall him taking a job as a framing carpenter, but the work wasn’t so good for his fiddling fingers. So he and a few of my musician uncles enrolled in barber college, earned their licenses, and began cutting hair as a day job.
In 1955 he received an invitation to host a live television show in Waco on KWTX. "Johnny Gimble and the Homefolks" aired weekdays at noon. After the television show played out he continued to take the band out on weekends and cut hair some. I remember he even sold life insurance for a spell.
Alaska was about to be annexed as the 49th state in 1959 and it was a boomtown economy in Anchorage. "North to Alaska" we went. During that year and a half, I remember Dad painting houses, selling cars at the Buick dealership, and cutting hair to make ends meet. But he found time to play his fiddle downtown at the Top Hat Lounge five or six nights a week … wow! The tough part was we didn’t see much of him.
Some 40 years later at the University of Texas Austin's Bass Hall, we were playing a show for a UT history conference and Dad briefly recalled our Alaskan adventure. He said, "Y’know we must’ve not done too badly. I had to borrow $250 to get us up to Alaska, and when we moved home to Texas, I only had to borrow $200."
I think my Dad did the best he could to provide for the family. My Mother too as she kept the kids, the home, and worked secretarial jobs most of that time.
Listen to everyone in the band. Use your instrument to help everyone else sound better. Johnny Gimble
Dad had grown up in a musical family and as a pre-teenager played in a band with his brothers called the Rose City Swingsters. His desire to pursue music as more than an avocation was strong and so the family endured a lot of moving around. I changed elementary schools 9 times between the second and the fifth grades. However, the best thing that has ever happened to me occurred during that time. In Alaska, Daddy led me to Jesus.
1961 brought us back to Waco and we finally did settle down. He got a good job barbering at the Veterans Administration Hospital and stayed there until I graduated high school. I met my future wife during that period. I like to say that at the age of fourteen, Dad led me to music and at age seventeen, Jesus led me to Marilynn Pate. Then, one week after I got my diploma, the family up and moved to Nashville where Dad became a much sought-after session player. I stayed in Texas to pursue music and Marilynn. She's been Mrs. Gimble since 1970.
Dad's insights are always with me. "Play the music that you love, that moves you, that you believe in, that's FUN!" he'd say. "When you play, look people in the eye and — unless it's a sad song — SMILE!"
Dad was full of life lessons. He'd advise to, "be careful if you find yourself playing music just for the money." If the gig wasn't fulfilling, it was time to move on. But while he wasn't necessarily married to a band, he definitely had thoughts about the sanctity of marriage. He'd say, "Save yourself for one woman, then stay true to her."
After ten years in Tennessee, they all came home to Texas. And from that point on I was lucky to play music with my dad for so many years — hundreds and hundreds of gigs in all — across the length and breadth of the U.S.A. until he passed in 2015. I was so blessed. Mother and dad were not the type to ever tell us that they loved us. They weren't big on hugs and kisses but we all knew that they cared deeply about us. I am thankful to both of them.
In 2002 Bill Malone did a wonderful interview of Dad for an article in the roots music magazine "No Depression." Toward the end of the piece Bill asked something like, "Of all the places you’ve got to play and all the famous artists you’ve got to play with, what did you enjoy most?" Dad said, "The years I’ve got to play with my son, Dick."
Dick Gimble grew up with the beat of swing and the sound of the sweetest fiddle in the country. He's been fortunate to record and perform on stage with many of his heroes including his dad, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and many others. Dick continues to play, record, and teach music and lives with his wife in Central Texas.
Posted January 11, 2017