Good western swing music never gets old, but the 1999 stroke of fiddle master Johnny Gimble was a scary reminder that its legends do. Thankfully, Gimble survived, and is still in form most musicians can only aspire to on the recent CMH Records release Johnny Gimble: Celebrating With Friends, a star-studded 80th birthday celebration delayed a few years by permissions issues. (Gimble will turn 84 in May.)
The delay means that the album’s release coincides with another anniversary – 2010 marks 40 years since the founding of torchbearing western swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel, the current lineup of which figures prominently on this Ray Benson produced collection.
Kicking off with Gimble’s own telling of his musical beginnings and ending with a lovely Garrison Keillor Prairie Home Companion song-poem (circa 1994) about the place he has come to occupy in American music, the 12 tracks in between feature exemplary musicianship and a rotating cast of vocalists that includes Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dale Watson, and Vince Gill, among others.
Haggard and Nelson give spirited, if somewhat ragged, readings of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Lady Be Good,” while barroom heroes Dale Watson and Jesse Dayton are smooth as can be on “I Needed You” and “Hey Mr. Cowboy.” Granddaughter and Marshall Ford Swing Band member Emily Gimble seduces the mic on jazzy showstopper “If I Had You,” and Ray Benson serves up the swing as only he can on “Under the X in Texas.”
Perennial harmony man Vince Gill coaxes Gimble into an early duet of the sweet “Somewhere South of San Antone,” but it isn’t until near the album’s end that we get a full-on Gimble vocal on the amusingly absentminded “Do What You Did, When You Did.” For a guy who has always been known chiefly for his instrumental talents, Gimble is still in pretty strong voice. (He also wrote or cowrote all but four of the songs.)
This being a tribute to a Texas Playboy, music is obviously every bit as important as words and vocals, and it’s the music that makes the biggest impression. The band, which includes son Dick Gimble on bass, is simply excellent. There are no showoffs here, just great players assembled to pay tribute to a friend and hero. The fact that this is a great band record, not just a great fiddle record, becomes apparent on instrumentals like “Gardenia Waltz,” “Rural Riffin’,” and “Mandelopin’,” which are every bit as enjoyable as the vocal pieces.
Of particular note is the interplay between Gimble and protégé Jason Roberts, the Asleep at the Wheel fiddler whose own 2005 solo outing Texas Fiddle Man is also well worth checking out. They trade fiddle and mandolin licks throughout, with Gimble regularly ceding the spotlight with an affectionate “Here’s Jason!” Roberts is also entrusted with the lead on the only two songs that Gimble sits out, “Fiddlin’ Around” (possibly pulled directly from Texas Fiddle Man, where it also appeared) and aforementioned instrumental “Gardenia Waltz.”
There will be bigger, flashier albums released this year, but it’s hard to imagine anything beating Celebrating With Friends for sheer musical joy. Long live Johnny Gimble, and long live western swing.