Johnny Gimble: More than getting by with a little help from his friends.

And Celebrate He Should…
By David McGee

Johnny Gimble
CMH Records

Pretty near everything about Johnny Gimble’s Celebrating with Friends is right. This legendary Texas fiddler, for one, truly is legendary, having been around long enough and been good enough to be one of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys and to tour with Willie Nelson, so it’s right that he get an album-length tribute on which some notable musicians of our time (and of all time) gather ‘round to help him put on this little clinic here—he should be playing with Willie, with Merle Haggard, with Ray Benson, with Vince Gill; Garrison Keillor, whose Prairie Home Companion has benefited incalculably from Johnny showing up to add some fiddling spark to the proceedings over the years, damn well better craft a witty poetic tribute to Mr. Gimble’s facility with the bow and strings, and he does. And who better to explain in words the Gimble phenomenon than his fellow Texan and country music authority, Chet Flippo, who in fact pens the liner notes herein? Johnny Gimble deserves all of this attention, and more. Soft-spoken and humble man that he is, though, Johnny Gimble doesn’t make a big deal of all the attention he’s receiving here, but instead does what come natural—he lets the music speak for him and through him.

In 1985 Johnny Gimble appeared on Aly Bain’s Down Home show. Here, with Dick Gimble on guitar, he plays his classic ‘Gardenia Waltz’ and discusses Texas fiddle music. As a founding member of The Boys of the Lough, Bain played with the group for 30 years; he’s also been awarded five Doctor of Music degrees.

Following a humorous Gimble reminiscence of how he got started professionally, the music kicks off with a jazzy Gimble original, “Fiddlin’ Around,” with Asleep at the Wheel fiddler Jason Roberts making the first of his two appearances on the disc with some typically graceful, smoothly melodic Gimble-style fiddling that makes way for tasty solo runs by, in quick succession, Danny Levin on piano, Kenny Frazier on electric guitar, and Maurice Anderson on steel. Roberts returns a few cuts later on the lovely “Gardenia Waltz,” a certified Gimble classic on which he again takes Gimble’s fiddle part and fashions a strikingly lovely, tenderhearted lead ahead of Eddie Rivers’s evocative, weeping steel guitar lament—a beautifully textured mixed of rich chording and trebly single notes woven together—before returning to take it home with more sweet, lush bowing. Bob Wills was never at a loss for outstanding vocalists, and neither is Gimble here. Vince Gill comes aboard to croon the lighthearted swooner, “Somewhere South of San Antone,” a Gimble-Wills chestnut that also happens to feature Gimble himself adding a couple of personable vocals. Merle joins the fray on a bopping “Sweet Georgia Brown,” with a light, frisky vocal that’s as full of high spirits as is the driving music behind it (when Gimble works up a head of steam on his fiddle solo, Merle cries out, “Ah, tear it up, Johnny!”), which gets some adrenaline charges from Danny Levin’s rollicking barrelhouse piano, an intense Jason Roberts fiddle solo and even a cool, thumping bass solo from Dick Gimble. Classic western swing drew from many musical wells for inspiration, and Gimble emphasizes that fact here by bringing Willie Nelson in to lend his casually ingratiating swing to George and Ira Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good,” which also features a sizzling twin guitar duet between Kenny Frazier and Rick McRae among a bevy of instrumental high points (Jason Roberts tears it up on fiddle again, and Danny Levin shadows the Frazier-McRae duet with a similar flurry of cascading notes and propulsive chording). Dale Watson has made his mark more with hard-edged, hard country and rockabilly, but his sturdy baritone vocal on the sprightly western swing ballad, Gimble-Wills’s “I Needed You,” demonstrates his rarely tapped facility with more vulnerable emotions, aided by some empathetic, to-the-point soloing by Levin on piano, Roberts and Gimble on fiddles, and Anderson on steel. And whereas Gimble’s old boss Wills had the McKinney Sisters, Johnny G. has Emily Gimble on the distaff side, employing her airy, jazz-based phrasing in service to a lilting pop ballad, “If I Had You,” a fusion of Wills-style western swing (in the fiddles and steel) and classic ‘50s pop-jazz (specifically, Levin’s piano and Gimble’s voice) in the Dinah Washington-Beverly Kenney mold.

Not the least of the contributors to Gimble’s opus is Ray Benson, some of whose Asleep at the Wheel mates factor into the proceedings but who also did an exceptional job producing the whole shebang, keeping the vocals front and center and allowing a wide sonic berth for the various instrumentalists to shine as well. Aging gracefully, Benson has become quite a fine singer in his later years, as he again demonstrates on this disc by taking the mic for a warm, easygoing reading of Johnny’s toe-tapping appreciation of his home state, “Under the X in Texas.” Other fine performances—by vocalist Jesse Dayton on Gimble’s spirited appreciation of the rodeo men, “Hey Mr. Cowboy,” by the various musicians (including Gimble, who distinguishes himself further with a witty mandolin solo on his “Mandelopin’”) on three other instrumentals—precede Keillor’s clever, appreciative encomium to Gimble, excerpted from a 1994 Prairie Home Companion broadcast the week after the fiddlin’ man had been presented by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton with a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship. Thus the emotional capper for a project that has brought out the best in some very fine musicians, and truly could not happen to a nicer fellow, who, it should be noted, does his part exceedingly well in making this a moment to treasure. 

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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024