One of the many crises America faces in this period of cultural decline is a severe shortage of first-rate fiddle players, and the problem was greatly worsened over the past few weeks by the deaths of Benjamin “Tex” Logan on April 24 and and then Johnny Gimble on Saturday. One can hope that we’ll hear their likes again, and that the quintessentially American traditions they came from will be revived, but the way things are going we can’t help but worry that it will be a long while.
Gimble’s name is the more familiar of the two, at least to those music lovers fortunate enough have to lived on the plains for a sufficient number of years to be familiar with the ineffable wonders of western swing. Born in 1926 to a musically gifted family in sparsely populated west Texas, Gimble was reared in the Scots-Irish tradition of fiddling but also absorbed the blues of his black neighbors and fellow cotton-patch pickers, the sophisticated jazz music that was making its way through the radio waves to even the remote regions of the country, from such far-away sources as the New York City Onyx Club where Stuff Smith was fiddlin’ hokum and even from as far away as Sweden’s unaccountably jazzy Svend Asmussen, and especially the strange hybrid of those three styles that The Light Crust Doughboys and Milton Brown and his Brownies and other bands were gradually developing in the southwestern states. By his early teens Gimble was making such a professional splash that he was playing with and learning from the likes of the great J.R. Chatwell of Adolph Hofner’s Texans, which was understandably re-dubbed “Tex” Hoffner’s Texans around the time of America’s entry into World War II, the great Cliff Bruner of Texas Wanderer’s fame, and the great Huggins Williams of Prince Albert Hunt and his East Texas Serenaders, who had started the western swing ball rolling with its stone age recordings of rural white string-based ragtime. By his late teens Gimble had so successfully melded these disparate styles, and with such an astounding degree of virtuosity, that he landed a gig at the very top of the western swing heap with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
By that time the Playboys had been dominating the music scene in the southwest quadrant of the United States for two decades, and had featured such formidable fiddlers as Jesse Ashlock, who laid down some sizzling jazz, and Wills himself, who as good as anybody in the old-fashioned Scots-Irish style, but Gimble’s few years with the band were among its very best. In the mid-’50s rockabilly and the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution at last overwhelmed western swing even in its native region, and Gimble was forced to retreat to Nashville and earn a good living and a stellar reputation playing more straitlaced country music in Nashville’s still-lucrative studios. You can hear his perfectly appropriate playing on a number of hits by the most popular country musicians of the era, including George Jones and Roy Clark, but Gimble inevitably grew bored and returned to his beloved plains to play for the aging aficionados who still flocked to the dance halls of Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas and the western swinging region for the real deal prairie stuff, although he still continued to make classic recordings.
When Merle Haggard went to cut his epic rendition of “Brain Cloudy Blues” he insisted on Gimble providing the fiddle, and the result is a masterpiece of American music. A few notes into Gimble’s solo Haggard urges him to “get it low, man, get it low,” and Gimble gets right down into that loamy dirt from whence America’s best music has always come. He showed the same knack with a younger generation of talented performers such as Mark O’Connor and Asleep at the Wheel who were eager to learn what he had gleamed from Chatwell and Bruner and Wills and Asmussen and all the rest of that great line of fiddling. Our hope is that they picked something up, and will somehow be able to pass it along.
There’s also a lot to be learned from both Benjamin F. Logan Jr. and his alter-ego, “Tex” Logan, but the former will probably more influential than the latter. “Tex” Logan was an awe-inspiring bluegrass fiddler, who mastered the technically demanding style with such virtuosity that he was frequently invited to play along with none other than Bill Monroe, the acknowledged original master of the genre, and although his fame never spread far beyond the elite circles of bluegrass musicians he was highly regarded within them. Emmylou Harris and Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan and the “newgrass” generation of players that kept the style alive frequently recorded his tunes and employed his playing, but he always took the stage with the same corny cowboy-hatted persona that he had learned in his tiny Texas hometown of Coahoma. The music was always rural and rough-edged, too, with a high-lonesome hillbilly sound so many city-slickers associate with that oddly-shaped banjo player in “Deliverance,” but a more careful listening to “Tex” Logan and the other virtuosos of this ancient and intricate music will reveal a remarkable level of intellectual sophistication.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Benjamin F. Logan Jr. was also one of the most remarkable scientific thinkers of his generation. A graduate of the electrical engineering school at Texas Tech, with a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from Columbia University, Logan became well-known within engineering circles as a research mathematician at Bell Laboratories from 1956 to 1993. He wrote a dissertation on high-pass signals in the mid-’60s, did groundbreaking work in computer-generated reverberation of sound, which unfortunately led to all those kids downloading his songs off the internet instead of buying them on records, and along the way he threw in such innovations as colorless artificial reverb and an echo canceller for satellite communications and some big thoughts about the “Shepp-Logan Phantom” which helped doctors to render potentially life-saving images in cranial scans. We’re confident that a lot of bright young men and women are following up on all these ideas, this being a very high-tech age, but we’d like to thank that some of “Tex” Logan’s low-down fiddlin’ will also echo through the internet and the ages.
In Tom Wolfe’s intriguing history of the technological revolution of the past decades, “Robert Noyce and His Congregation,” he notes how many of the era’s greatest scientific minds seemed to come from tiny little towns on the windswept plains and deserts. He attributes this partly to the egalitarian-by-default nature of the educational systems that provided learning to both the rich and poor seated together in those hardscrabble places, and to the strange snobbishness about engineering and other technical professionals among the educated upper-classes of the east, but we believe that the freedom of that time and place also played a role. The bright young men and women of that time and place were free to let their imaginations soar over the vast landscape, rooted in the traditions of their upbringing but open to the intuitive brilliance of their supposedly unsophisticated neighbors and fellow cotton-pickers, inspired by the sounds pouring through the modern age of radio, ready to encode those sounds on to something so far-fetched as internet, unrestrained by the prejudices of the past or the fads of the moment, well educated by home-grown, human-to-human cultural institutions safely outside the official academy, and always able to take it low, man, low with the highest level of soulful craftsmanship, which is pretty much America at its best. You can still hear an inspiring few notes of that freedom and excellence in the recordings of Gimble and Logan, and we hope that a few generations from now they’ll still be able to hear live in some low-down beer joint and not just on whatever newfangled gizmos they’ve come up with to play the old stuff.
— Bud Norman