March 19, 2010
He fiddled with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He fiddled with Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Dolly Parton, and Merle Haggard — and also on TV with Hee Haw’s Million Dollar Band. His fiddling won him a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 1994, presented to him by then first lady Hillary Clinton. And he fiddled on the campaign trail for Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis. (Oops! He actually played banjo for the singing governor.)
Johnny Gimble turns 84 in a couple of months, and he’s still fiddling. He has a new album out, Celebrating With Friends, on which he’s joined by friends like Nelson, Haggard, Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel, Vince Gill, Jesse Dayton, and Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor. And the album’s cover art is by Mekon/Waco Brother/western-swing lover Jon Langford.
Personal digression: Despite his lengthy western-swing/country music résumé, I didn’t become aware of Johnny Gimble until the late 1960s. It was on a record called Make a Joyful Noise by a wild tribe of hippies called Mother Earth, led by a rich-throated blues belter named Tracy Nelson and a warbling poet named R.P. St. John.
Gimble was one of several country-music veterans to appear on this record. There was also another veteran fiddler — Grover C. “Shorty” Lavender — as well as steel-guitar master Pete Drake. One of the best moments on Joyful Noise was Gimble’s jaw-dropping solo on Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.” Shamefully, this album was out of print for decades until it was reissued on the Wounded Bird label about six years ago.
Back to the present: Celebrating With Friends almost seems like a tribute album. Indeed, on a couple of tunes Gimble doesn’t actually play. A younger fiddler, Jason Roberts, an impressive musician who is part of the house band that forms the backbone of the record, fills in for the master on the Gimble-penned instrumental “Gardenia Waltz.” He also plays and recites the lyrics of Gimble’s “Fiddlin’ Around.”
And then there’s the final track, “Owed to Johnny Gimble,” which is from a 1994 Prairie Home Companion show recorded shortly after Gimble won the NEA award. This is an actual tribute song by Keillor, who sings, “There was a fiddler named Gimble/Whose fingers were nimble.” (Keillor also rhymes “Darling Nelly” with Stephane Grapelli, but at least he doesn’t end any line with “Nantucket.”)
But the best tributes here are the classy jams featuring Gimble, who plays electric mandolin on some tracks and even sings a few songs. He swaps verses with Gill on “Somewhere South of San Antone,” showing that time has been kind to his vocal chords. Gimble’s granddaughter Emily Gimble sings “If I Had You” while grandpa proudly plays in the background.
Jesse Dayton takes time off his duties as Rob Zombie’s resident country singer to do a fun little number called “Hey Mr. Cowboy.” It’s nice to hear Dayton, whose last album was the Zombie-produced Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures, sing a song that has nothing to do with flesh-eating ghouls or demonic forces.
Of course, I’m partial to Willie and Merle. Nelson’s “Lady Be Good” is a snazzy, jazzy take on this Gershwin number, with a standout piano solo by Danny Levin. But I think my favorite tune on this album is Haggard’s spot, a hot version of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” It’s so good I can make it almost all the way through without thinking of the Harlem Globetrotters.
If you’re a fan at all of western swing, there’s no way Celebrating With Friends isn’t going to make you smile.
* Somewhere in Time by Reckless Kelly. This is an album that Reckless Kelly has been threatening to make for years.
It’s a collection of songs written by the band’s country-music mentor, one Pinto Bennett. Never heard of Pinto Bennett? Neither had I before this album. Apparently he’s a honky-tonk hero up in Idaho, where he led a band called the Famous Motel Cowboys during the Outlaw Era of the ’70s.
Bennett was friends with the father of Cody and Willie Braun, the brothers at the core of Reckless Kelly, who grew up in Idaho before moving to Austin, Texas. Pinto, a burly bearded guy who looks like a healthier version of Blaze Foley, is not well-known outside of the potato capital, but judging from this album, he’s a heck of a songwriter.
And this sounds as if it were a fun album to make. Texas luminaries like Joe Ely, Lloyd Maines, Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson’s harp man), and Bukka Allen (Terry and Jo Harvey’s boy) show up. And so does Pinto Bennett. The old Idaho Cowboy himself is here to sing lead on “Thelma,” a sad waltz about a doomed love.
While RK is known for its powerful roots-rock — and there’s plenty of that here, such as in the opening track, “Little Blossom” — my favorite songs are the more traditional honky-tonkers like “I’ve Done Everything I Could Do Wrong,” “You Cared Enough to Lie,” and “I’ll Hold the Bottle, You Hold the Wheel.” I can imagine Ray Price singing that one.