The man who put the swing in our prairie home


For a man with a Texas accent, Johnny Gimble sure screamed “Minnesota” to a lot of people.

Gimble, pictured above with Peter Ostroushko and Chet Atkins in a 1985 broadcast (and I believe that’s Butch Thompson on the piano), helped put the swing in A Prairie Home Companion in its earlier days. He was a regular on the show, along with guitar player Chet Atkins, who helped give the program its musical sound.

Maybe your typical prairie home didn’t have a fiddle in it, but the rest of the world didn’t know that, especially a young journalist whose first exposure to Minnesota was a radio show playing on his Sony Walkman while riding a train through the Bronx and Harlem.

Gimble died last Saturday at 88.

He cut his teeth with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys in the late 1940s and early 1950s before becoming one of the most sought-after swing musicians. Dust off some of the great classic country songs, and there’s a pretty good bet Gimble is on it.

His career had two halves, the New York Times said in its obit for Gimble today. When rock ‘n roll pushed country aside, he became a barber. Then he moved to Nashville in the late ’60s and found new fame in his native musical tongue.

Among Mr. Gimble’s many awards are two Grammys for his work with the band Asleep at the Wheel. He was also named instrumentalist of the year by the Country Music Association five times in all. In 1994 he received a National Heritage Fellowship, an award that honors lifelong contributions to traditional American arts, from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We got home and my wife said she never had slept with a national relic before,” Mr. Gimble recalled on Garrison Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” where he was an occasional guest.

“One of our favorite people,” Mr. Keillor said about him, and then proceeded to sing a song he’d written as a tribute to his guest. It went, in part, like this:

His name’s Johnny Gimble, and now he’s a symbol for his fabulous fiddling skills,

He can play ‘Darling Nelly’ like Stéphane Grappelli, and tunes that are old as the hills,

He can play that ‘Orange Blossom’ so the people would toss ‘em dimes, quarters and some dollar bills,

He played shows and dances from Texas to Kansas with a fiddler by the name of Bob Wills.

His son says he’s been in declining health for several years.