How it’s New York:
I spent magical time with the indomitable guitarist Gene Gimble from the legendary Texas musical family. He is full of music, fun and jokes, including “A Texan goes to New York.”
How it’s Irish:
In the words of the legendary fiddler Benny Thomasson (think of the Texas equivalent of Michael Coleman) “My granddad played a lot of Irish music. It hadn’t been too many generations, his (folks) came from back in Scotland, Ireland or England or somewhere’s back in there”.
Fabulously friendly people, great fiddle music, respect for tradition, sessions into the night, deep community spirit, slower life style, scorching heat. West of Ireland, right? No (maybe the weather comment was a giveaway). It was Llano, Texas, population 3,232. Yay! Musical road trip to deep in the heart of Texas!
I’ve always had a bit of a furtive Texas fiddle fetish, starting with the Bob Wills references of the hippest band of my Birmingham youth, Ricky Cool and the Icebergs, and a couple of decades later a fun time at Johnny Gimble’s Texas fiddle camp, but recently the gentle musical explorations of the Jersey fiddle group Four Fiddles Count ‘Em and the burgeoning Americana scene in Jersey City led me to a Benny Thomasson record. The first lesson was such an epiphany moment that in a film would deserve a close up of a needle dropping onto a spinning disk (I made do with a click on a plastic mouse).
First up, “Dry and Dusty” and a twist at every turn: “hey, this is relaxed and swinging … hmm, sounds like he added some kind of low-tuned drone (how does a drone sound so emotional and yearning?) … now we are bouncing along a comfortable groove … top of the tune again … holy cow, he has taken me to a happy sunny place populated with high double stops … a lonesome vibrato across two strings (how the hell is he even doing that?) … too gorgeous to try and analyze any more … let’s just float on this stream.”
And every track was like that, a new experience. The greatest thing though is that for all the technique and nuance of expression, you got the sense that this was man having fun with his music; you could have just wandered into his back room listening him play for himself.
All this left me with two questions. Where on earth did that come from? How can I get more of it? Turns out the simple answer to both questions was Texas, though the liner notes filled in some gaps: Benny’s father and grandfather were contest fiddlers in the 1800s. Benny tried his hand at contests to mixed results, so decided the old tunes needed to be “worked over and fixed up”. This decision was a pivotal moment in the story of Texas (and American) fiddling. That makes sense – sounds like he “owned” it.
So I needed to “Go West” and my experience with Irish Traditional Music told me I also needed to “Go Deep”. Okay, so today’s going deep means surfing the web for a few minutes and that is what led me to the Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association on the web and an intriguing reference to a Llano Fiddle Clinic.
A further surf of the airline sites and a brief period of internal expense rationalization later I was on the plane to Austin. Llano is a couple of hours north of Austin, an easy drive taking you under another-worldly intricate lattice of overhead highways. This mesmerizes for miles of commercial strip before suddenly dropping into open country just at the point you finally make up your mind to stop at the next barbecue joint. 40 or so BBQ free miles later I landed in Llano. Naturally I had booked a one-room cabin out of town on a ranch to get the western flavor (the fact it was cheaper was purely coincidental). Finding it involved a series of road surface quality downgrades but this didn’t stop my spirits soaring as I congratulated myself for figuring out that the left and rights on my directions were 100% reliably reversed. All the same I was happy to find a gate with the Reed Ranch sign that I could open and enjoyed an absent-minded deer-spotting half mile or so drive through reminds me of South Africa scrubland and saw the cabin at the top of a rise.
Once in ‘Phoenix Nest” I threw my bag of fancy groceries ( the latest variants on beef jerky and cheese whiz and local honey wine) onto the counter. I hadn’t calculated the momentum that the fancy wine had or expected the kitchen roll holder to be decorated with antlers around its perimeter. After carefully repositioning the chipped article I took a nap with plenty time before the evening session. Overslept in fact, which was a surprise since the John Wayne painting and all the bits of dead animals on the wall “gave me the willies”.
After another “fish out of water” experience, fiddling on combinations on gate locks in pitch black being noisily observed by what I hoped were friendly large creatures, I arrived at the delightful home of Lynda Gammage, the hostess for the session.
The large garage/den/party room was at the opposite end to my cabin, decoratively and politically speaking; the walls were covered with campaign posters for Lynda’s distinguished husband Bob Gammage, former Democratic congressman and Texas Supreme Court justice, and the surfaces had fascinating memorabilia (a signed photo of Willie Nelson caught my eye). If this wasn’t enough there was Texas music royalty sitting on the sofa in the form of Dick and Gene Gimble, son and older brother respectively to fiddler Johnny Gimble. Johnny, who died in May 2015, defined recent Texas (and indeed American) fiddling in his post Bob Wills years, even conquering Nashville in the process.
The scale of Johnny’s influence was indicated by his recognition at both the recent Grammys and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (though unfortunately without clips in either case). Fame is nice but music and camaraderie is the name of the game in this scene and we were soon having fun swapping tunes. Songs are a bit part of the scene as well and Gene was regaling us all with (mostly) sweet love songs from the first half of the last century, accompanied by hip chords and a big smile. There were young folks there as well, easily swapping from driving fiddle to belting out songs of the swing era. On top of all this good-natured crack there was food and drink. But work was waiting in the morning.
Well not really work, but at the Llano Fiddle Clinic I had to look sharp to take in some of the new stuff – for example some terms I wasn’t used to …”push” for an up bow, “pull” for a down bow, “digging” and “weaving” for improvisation. The convention by the way is to start the bar on a pull. Tutor Wes Westmoreland recalled how his grandfather always started on a push – “he made it sound almost the same, but it was hard work”. That wasn’t the only thing that his grandfather and his generation had to overcome – the fiddle was regarded as the Devil’s Box and it wasn’t permitted to play in the house under the age of 18!
Don’t be fooled though, this is sophisticated stuff – though you have to dig deeper into the history of the violin to appreciate how. Technique is conscious and for purpose, even to the extent of changing bow hold for the type of tune.
Keenan Christensen Fletcher ( the genial mastermind behind the whole event ) was able to fill in the gaps – the favored bow hold for breakdowns (has a few variations but always has the bow held high on the first finger near where is meets the palm, and often has the rest of the fingers counter balanced in the manner of an aristocratic Englishwoman drinking tea from a fine China cup) is from the Russian violin tradition (before those troublesome Franco-Belgians started telling everyone what to do) and is often adopted by Itzhak Perlman when he wants to chill when playing. The key thing is that it’s a broad church.
There were some great stories as well, again from Wes Westmoreland: “There was a fiddle player. I wish you could have seen his hand. He was from Oklahoma, He was an Indian, a real (comical whoop noise) Indian. He had that finger broke right here – it stuck up in the air when he played – it looked like a little biddy snake – it was the coolest thing. When he was playing – his hand looked like a dish rag. He would just pop that, flick that hand, it was just jumping, and the note would hit you right here – POW! He wasn’t a real technically correct guy, and he wasn’t real accurate with his tuning but the feel he got made up for that and more. It was really exciting. Nobody could make it sound like he did. I heard a lot of people try. (laughing) Man he was so good too .. it really was good.”
The spiritual home for the weekend was the Fuel coffee house, a community(mission) run venture – so community in fact that even the locksmith started raising questions as to how many keys were handed out. On Saturday night this became the performance space where fiddle tutors Wes Westmoreland and Bubba Hopkins joined force with the Gimble band to cut loose and give a relaxed swinging set. And everyone back to the Gammage place afterwards!
Another great day in Texas. But church was waiting in the morning.
Yes, you did read that right. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not one of life’s avid churchgoers (hatching, matching and dispatching aside) but Keenan is very persuasive, and this was no ordinary church service. For one thing is was held in the increasingly multipurpose Fuel coffee house and another it included self-accompanied songs from Darrell Staedtler.
Darrell Staedtler has had songs that have gone platinum, songs that have gone gold and songs that have topped the Billboard Magazine charts. This day he had songs with rudimentary fiddle accompaniment as the ever persuasive Keenan had dispatched me to the car to fetch my instrument. Darrell bore it in good humor with just the one sideways glance as I horsed into an enthusiastic hoedowny type of accompaniment to a particularly sensitive devotional song. Casting levity aside though, this was a wonderful, welcoming family affair which educated me of a genuine deep faith which was inclusive and tolerant.
The weekend was drawing to a close now and despite a tempting offer to spend some time in Luckenbach, Texas (of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson fame), I got to hang with the hospitable Keenan and Gene Gimble, work through a few old song books, have some fine Mexican food, and most importantly hear the “A Texan goes to New York” joke.
So, here goes….. in the small Texan town it was a big event when a local boy went to New York. The neighbors gathered round to wish him luck, and old Mrs Dunne said “you must look up my son John, he has not been in touch for days”. The Texan lands in Manhattan and is wandering around in awe. Gazing at the canyons of skyscrapers he comes across a real fancy building, with the words “Dunn and Bradstreet” carved high into the edifice. Swaggering into the lobby he politely asks the girl at the desk “Is there a John here?”
“Third on the left, down the corridor” she says.
He enters and finding the office empty apart from single cubicle, he hollers out:
“Are You Dunne?”
“Well then you have to call your mother.”
Well, it was great when Gene Gimble told it. Thanks to my new Texas friends, and here’s to my next visit.