Legendary Fiddler Johnny Gimble Dead at 88

Grammy Winner Accompanied Stars From Bob Wills to Carrie Underwood

Johnny Gimble, one of the most revered and awarded fiddlers in the history of country music, died Saturday (May 9) near his home in Dripping Springs, Texas, at the age of 88. He had suffered a series of strokes during his final years.

John Paul Gimble was born May 30, 1926, in Tyler, Texas. In a 1981 documentary, he said the first music that made an impression on him he heard from his uncles, who played mandolin and fiddle. He began playing fiddle himself when he was 10 and, by the time he was 12, was performing with his brothers in a band called the Rose City Swingsters.

Although it occupied only two years of his career — 1949-1951 — Gimble acknowledged that he would always be known for having been a member of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys western swing band, in which he played fiddle and electric mandolin.

“I didn’t really get crazy about Bob Wills until 1940,” he said. He would subsequently label Wills “the most charismatic” stage performer he’d ever seen. When one of Wills band members asked Gimble if he would like to join the fabled group, he remembered, “It was like asking if I wanted to go to heaven.”

Appropriately, Merle Haggard featured Gimble’s instrumental wizardry on his 1970 album, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills).

As luck (and his endless skills) would have it, Gimble actually got to play Wills in Clint Eastwood’s 1982 film, Honkytonk Man. The movie also yielded Gimble two chart singles, “One Fiddle, Two Fiddle” and “San Antonio Rose,” both of which he shared with Ray Price.

He also played and acted in Willie Nelson‘s 1980 movie, Honeysuckle Rose and was a member of Nelson’s touring band from 1979 to 1981.

Gimble moved from Texas to Nashville in 1968, where he became a much-in-demand session musician as well as a regular on the TV series Hee Haw.

Although admitting the money was better in Nashville, homesickness eventually drove Gimble back to his old stomping grounds, a region he commemorated in the cleverly crafted “Under The X in Texas.”

Between 1975 and 1990, he won five musician of the year awards from the Country Music Association and nine from the Academy of Country Music.

Then, recording with Ray Benson and his band, Asleep at the Wheel, Gimble earned two Grammys for best country instrumental performance — one in 1993, the other in 1995.

In 2007, he backed Carrie Underwood in her live performance on the Grammy Awards show.

Gimble released his final album, Celebrating With Friends, in 2010. Among those friends participating in the project were Nelson, Haggard, Vince Gill and long-time admirer Garrison Keillor, the host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion, one of Gimble’s favorite venues during his later years.

In fact, Keillor co-wrote a salute to the fiddler, “Owed to Johnny Gimble,” that appears on the album.

In his appraisal of Celebrating With Friends for Allmusic.com, critic Jeff Tamarkin wrote that, in spite of all the accompanying luminaries, “the star of the album is undeniably Johnny Gimble … [who] despite being an octogenarian at the time of the album’s release, has retained a youthful spring in his playing and his vocals as well. Regardless of who else appears on a given track … when Gimble’s bow touches the strings, that track comes to life.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.