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Music Review: Johnny Gimble – Celebrating With Friends

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As a member of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Johnny Gimble helped develop the sound that came to be known as Western Swing. And as a consummate sideman, his quicksilver fiddle work has graced countless recordings over the last seventy-odd years.

With a resume like that, it’s no surprise that Gimble’s made some pretty high-profile friends over the years. Here he gets the star treatment, with the likes of Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson dropping by to lend a musical hand.

Produced by Ray Benson – Asleep At The Wheel frontman and a virtual one-man preservation society for western swing – this collection literally does sound like a celebration among old friends, with an irresistibly loose, feel-good vibe throughout. And as befits a man whose career has spanned some seven decades, the disc is also a tribute of sorts, with a spoken-word reminiscence from Gimble himself kicking things off.

Gimble’s opening soliloquy recalls a time when he made a whopping two dollars for performing music, at a when he was lucky to make a dollar a day picking cotton. He hasn’t looked back since, and closing out the collection is a warm and genuinely loving homage by Garrison Keillor, taken from his Prairie Home Companion show, on the occasion of Gimble’s receipt of a National Folk Heritage Fellowship.

Between the bookends, though, we’re treated to an easy-going stroll through a dozen tunes that sway and swing with relaxed but unerring assurance. He’s more than capable of dazzling dexterity, but Gimble is a musician first and foremost – with nothing to prove, he forgoes pyrotechnics for the amiably melodic, leaving lots of room for contributions from everyone else. In addition to Gill (“Somewhere South Of San Antone”), Nelson (a delightful “Lady Be Good”), and Haggard (“Sweet Georgia Brown”), there’s fellow fiddler Jason Roberts, Gimble’s granddaughter Emily (captivating on a gorgeously languid “If I Had You”) and hard-core honky-tonk man Dale Watson. Producer Benson is a steady presence throughout, stepping up to take the lead vocal on “Under The X In Texas.”

Gimble’s own vocals are amiable if unremarkable, but his fiddling remains as supple as ever, whether he’s darting in and out around a vocal or sauntering through a solo with limber ease. And everything’s just so darn friendly, so unhurried and so impeccably performed, it really would be hard not to like this stuff.

A wonderful tribute to a true treasure …!

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