Montana Folk Festival: Hey there, Emily Gimble

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It’s a long way from Butte, Montana, to Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Back in December, members of the Woodside Avenue Snowman Posse posed next to their creation. Much time has passed since, but we still have snow on the ground.

Dec. 11, 2013 – God day-em.
I am in a bad way.
(Editor’s note: If I thought things were bad on Dec. 11, I still had a thing or two to learn. Now it’s Jan. 29 30 Feb. 4 Feb. 5. I’m on the job again and headed back to early August and Montana. Thank you.)
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see that. The more time slips away, the deeper into the funk I sink.
I’ve been to a psychiatrist. I’ve been to a psychologist. I’ve been to an old-fashioned physician, too.
Not one of them said anything to the point.
The only applicable answers lie within the unfathomable murk inside my head. Likely the clock runs out before I figure anything out. It’s not like I’m going to live to be 50o.
But I am possessed of a strange optimism. Yesterday I spent an hour outside getting snow-soaked and giddy helping three kids craft a snowman. Our snowman turned out to be kind of shabby and unimpressive, but the exercise did me more good than a thousand doctors.
Kids are good for the soul. I shoulda been a kindergarten teacher. Then I coulda been someone. Instead of a bum. Which is what I am. Sadly.
Had a lot of snow lately. And a lot more snow. And then some more. I like snow. If it hasn’t whitewashed my soul or frozen my demons, it’s a welcome presence nonetheless. In addition to its beguiling aesthetic qualities, I like snow because it throws at least a tiny wrench into the inhuman gears of the capitalist juggernaut.
Bring it on.
If you’ve followed along here at all you can do the math. I’ve become invisible to myself. Where the hell did I get to? But I’ll come out of this.  On my way out, I return to Montana. Five Six goddamn months ago. It’s a shame my gift for squandering time has no market value.
At 50 I seem to be getting worse instead of better. I still look at the world as if I were 20.
To all the people who must suffer for the amazingly elasticity of my immaturity, I apologize.
That said, I go back to Butte.
Land of the Copper Kings.
Sunday, July 14. Montana Folk Festival.
Henry Butler. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.
All free.
Emily Gimble was there, too.

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Emily Gimble belts out a song during the Marshall Ford Swing Band’s main-stage performance on the final day of the 2013 Montana Folk Festival.

It was minus-15 degrees Fahrenheit in Butte in early December.
On July 14, it was considerably warmer. By the numbers, it’s been 150 200 days and 100 degrees since we hid from the sun at the Montana Folk Festival. The temperature soared past 80. The sky was big, bad and blue. A smattering of pillowy clouds did not deflect the intensity of the sun.
I squinted and raised my arm in self-defense. Where the hell was my hat? Idiot. I reached for the sunscreen. Applied it liberally. Then I reached for more.
The Butte festival was a prominent lure for our Montana rendezvous with Blind Charlie Stark. We’d missed Friday and Saturday, but today we’d make the pilgrimage east. An hour drive is a small investment for the chance to see Henry Butler, the great New Orleans piano man, and enjoy a little Cajun spice avec Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. A regular Louisiana two-step in Big Sky Country.
We began the day with coffee at the Club Bar, where we’d frittered away a good bit of the previous night. We chatted with Susan, our affable barmaid.
The Behemoth was still parked across Broadway. It had sat since our Thursday night arrival. Two days hence, I still groped fearfully, reaching for something to grab onto.
Montana was supposed to revive the narrative. Guess I had to do my part, too.
We finished our coffee, said goodbye to Susan and a wonderful, leathery old miner named Speed Kingery and hit the road. Along the way, we stopped in Anaconda, Marcus Daly’s town, and bought supplies.
We made Butte in another half hour. Signs led us to a lot where we caught the festival shuttle. In the distance we glimpsed the outline of the massive reservoir of heavy metal death known as Berkeley Pit. One billion tons of hard-rock ore, the vast majority of it copper, were pulled out this hole in the ground between 1955 and 1982.
Berkeley Pit is a monstrous gash in the earth, a mile long by a half-mile wide and nearly 1,800 feet deep. It is filled halfway up with a poisonous stew of copper, cadmium and arsenic.
Sometime in the next 10 years, the toxic water is expected to seep into the surrounding groundwater and imperil the headwaters of the Clark Fork River.
For $2 you can buy a ticket to go out on the viewing platform and behold one of the great wonders of the unnatural world. You would do well to remember the flock of migrating snow geese that splashed down here 18 years ago and promptly died.
A total of 342 carcasses were fished out of the pit. ARCO, the pit’s overseer, naturally denied responsibility. ‘Twas always thus.
Butte earned its mining bona fides long before Berkeley began heaving up vast fortunes of ore. At the turn of the 20th century, Butte was a raucous, freewheeling boom town, filled with a collection of wide-open saloons and world-class whorehouses.
It was the largest city for hundreds of miles around, and one of the biggest west of the Mississippi.
They called it the “Richest Hill on Earth.”
Immigrants poured in to work in the mines. They came from China and Croatia and Canada and Cornwall and more. They carved out a meager living underground while Daly and his rival plutocrats, William Andrews Clark and F. Augustus Heinze, lived like kings up top. They were the Robber Barons of the west.
But, that’s history. While history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, the raptors of industry always come home to roost.
The principal benefactor of the Montana Folk Festival is Denny Washington, a billionaire industrialist and 21st century copper king himself. His company, Montana Resources LLP, does most of the mining in Butte today.
Shortly after we arrived, blues guitarist Bernard Allison, son of the late Luther Allison, got to rocking a nearby stage  We found seats in the last row, under a tent, besieged nonetheless by the beastly sun.
The Henry Butlers and Steve Rileys lure you in, but the best part of festivals is getting turned on to musicians and bands you hadn’t heard of before. The world is overrun with wonderful musicians, songwriters and bands who toil behind a veil of obscurity. It’s a bottomless trove of possibility for music lovers, and a sad fact for the average musician.

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Henry Butler rocks the main stage of the Montana Folk Festival in Butte.

I mean, how many people do you know who have even heard of Henry Butler? The New Orleans institution was the most famous name on the bill. He is heir to a rollicking piano tradition that stretches from Professor Longhair to Jelly Roll Morton.
He is a monster piano masher, a font of muscular melodies and erudite rhythm.
He’s 64. He’s blind. The world is more or less blind to him.
I’d seen Henry Butler at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans and at the Port Townsend Folk Festival, 2,700 miles from the Faubourg Marigny on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
We bailed on Allison mid-set and strolled through the heart of town in search of the main stage.
For all its economic vicissitudes, 21st century Butte oozes a rough-hewn charm. The honest, pugnacious and bawdy soul of hard-working, harder-living miners animates the place still.
Henry Butler is always worth seeing, no matter where you find him. I insinuated myself front and center and pressed against temporary fencing in order to get a decent shot of Butler.
The lens ring fell from my camera, bounced at my feet and rolled under the mesh fencing. It came to a stop just beyond my reach. I had to wait till after the set to retrieve it, and then only with the help of a cane borrowed from a neighboring fan.
The Marshall Ford Swing Band followed Butler to the stage. They served up a rambunctious dose of Bob Wills-style western swing. They swung sweet and easy, the music infectious as lilacs floating on a spring breeze.
I found it impossible not to smile.
There is, for the record, no Marshall Ford. The band is named after an old Colorado River crossing which also was the original name of the dam that created Lake Travis. The name was immaterial.
Maybe it was the sunshine. Maybe it was the irresistible groove. I dug the Marshall Ford Swing Band. As they swung beneath the immense head frame that bracketed the stage, a stiff breeze ruffled their shirts and tousled their hair.

The Marshall Ford is Greg Harkins (guitar and vocals), Kristopher Lee Wade (bass), James Gwyn (drums) and Emily Gimble (piano and vocals). In concert, they are frequently joined by veteran fiddle player Danny Levin.

The Marshall Ford is Greg Harkins (guitar and vocals), Kristopher Wade (bass), James Gwyn (drums) and Emily Gimble (piano and vocals). They are frequently joined by veteran Austin fiddle maestro Danny Levin.

Chuck and I sat in the grass and sipped sun-warmed beer. Becky and Max were off searching for kids stuff. I asked Chuck if the woman on piano didn’t look a bit familiar.
Turns out we’d met her before. In March of last year, in the foggy hangover of SXSW, we ran into Emily Gimble twice on the same Monday night in Austin. We saw her at the Rattle Inn with fiddle virtuoso Warren Hood’s band. It was Warren who suggested we wander over to the east side of town later to check out the Little Elmore Reed Blues Band at the Legendary White Swan on Austin’s ramshackle east side.
When we got there, Emily was there, too, and Chuck spoke to her for a little bit during a break.
Emily Gimble is some kind of musical Zelig. She seems to be everywhere and playing with everyone. I accosted her after the MFSB set as she hurried to catch a shuttle to the next gig. She smiled and politely gave me her email address.

*****
I told Emily I’d catch up with her later. Later, you see, is my forte. Shortly after Halloween, more than three months and 2,200 miles later, I felt good and ready to send that email.
On the day before Thanksgiving, after several missed connections, the phone rang at Chez 531. It was Emily. She was home in Waco celebrating the holiday with family.
I’m glad she didn’t have time to talk in Butte. Because I didn’t know Emily. Three months gives you time whittle away at your ignorance.
What I didn’t know: Emily Gimble comes by her passion for western swing honestly. She played guitar in a punk band in high school, but she’s got a blue-blood Texas pedigree.
Her grandfather, Johnny Gimble, is a bona fide Texas legend. For years he was a fixture in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. He was in demand as a studio musician. He is the godfather of western swing fiddle.
Somehow I’d missed that.
And I’d dug Bob Wills for a while. If you quizzed me on the revolving cast of characters who populated his band, I might have named Tommy Duncan (singer). Leon McAuliffe (pedal steel), guitarists Eldon Shamblin and Junior Barnard, and maybe, on a good day, electric mandolin wiz Tiny Moore.
I didn’t know Johnny Gimble from Johnny Paycheck. Talk about your musical lacunae.

Now 87, Johnny Gimble is still around, though declining health has deprived him of his musical gifts. But he is still a gentle but towering presence as the patriarch of the Gimble clan.
“He is one of the most talented and one of the sweetest people you’d ever want to meet,” Emily said.
And, she said, he is a gifted storyteller. In a 2010 NPR interview, Johnny Gimble relates an anecdote about Wills’ notorious weakness for booze. Bandmates took turns watching over their leader to make sure he stayed upright. Onetime an unhappy Wills caught Gimble pouring a pint of whiskey down the bathroom sink.
“He hated me forever after that,” Gimble says with dry amusement.
Johnny Gimble’s musical shadow stretches from El Paso to Beaumont, from Amarillo to Texarkana and beyond.
It is too immense for his granddaughter, at least when it comes to the fiddle. She wanted no part of it.
“If I was playing fiddle, I would feel a lot more pressure, because there’s nobody that’s ever going to play like he did,” she said. “From a young age I decided I was not going to do that. He frightened me. I can play mandolin. I’m all right at that. I do enjoy that. All the theory is there, but you don’t have to worry about dragging a bow across the strings.”
And she doesn’t have to sweat comparisons to her grandfather. Music is a family tradition for the Gimbles. Her father is Waco guitarist and bassist Dick Gimble.
“They are my mentors and my heroes,” she said.
Emily Gimble needn’t worry. Talent spills from her pores like water flows downhill. Her voice is remarkably versatile.
She can swing, but it ain’t her only thing. She can swing with breezy insouciance. She can sing the blues, too. Yes she can.
She can summon a lusty soulfulness that sounds like it sprung out of the black earth of the Mississippi Delta.
She evokes Billie Holiday or Madeleine Peyroux on one song, Janis Joplin or Koko Taylor the next.

And then, you know, she can play some keys. Though she’s played in public for just five years, she nonetheless claimed top honors among keyboard players in the Austin Music Awards last year.
Protean talents aside, Emily Gimble is a blue-collar laborer in the hardscrabble economy of the roots-music industry.
She’s a full-time member of two bands. She’s played with the Marshall Ford Swing band for nine years. She’s got five years in with the Warren Hood Band. When nothing else is happening, she tools around Austin, playing as often as she can and with as many players as she can.
If she can get down to the Legendary White Swan on Monday night, she’ll jam with the Little Elmore Reed Blues Band, a revolving cast of blues purists held together by the airtight rhythm section of drummer Mark Hays and bassist Joseph Patrick Whitefield.
“I try to do as many as I can,”  she said. “The lead switches among a lot of different people depending on who’s in town. I don’t know who I’m going to show up and play with, and that makes for good ear practice. It’s probably one of my favorite bands to play with.”
Occasionally she sits in with Peacemakers, another collection of blues junkies who gather at the Evangeline Cafe on Wednesday nights. Then there’s Sunday afternoons at Jo’s Coffee and a new residency with Hood at Strange Brew on Sunday nights.
Is she a musical chameleon or what?
“It’s all me,” she said. “I love it all. I definitely have been getting to the blues a little more. … I don’t know what’s up with that. I’ve always enjoyed singing that way.
“I like mixing it all together. If you play a blues song and you play swing over, it creates a cool kind of thing people don’t expect. I really love soul music, too.”
Her buddy Warren Hood has a family legacy of his own to contend with. Son of the late, beloved Champ Hood, Warren is an unassuming fiddle assassin. A childhood prodigy, Hood left town to attend the Berklee School of Music. He received the String Achievement Award, the school’s top honor.
The easy-going Hood seems perfectly happy to cede the stage to Gimble and give her room to stretch out.
“He’s one of my best friends,” she said. “He’s one of the sweetest, mildest people I know. I’ve hardly ever seen him get upset about anything. He is just not frazzled about anything. He’s a really great bandleader. I’m super-grateful he asked me to be part of his band. Him and Willie (Pipkin) are two of my best my buds.”
Pipkin, the peripatetic Austin guitarslinger who came of age with the South Austin Jug Band, is in the Hood band, too. He is the one who talked Hood into asking Gimble to join the band.
Earlier this year the Warren Hood Band went out on the road in support of Texas singer-storyteller extraordinaire Hayes Carll. They opened for Carll and then backed him during his set.

Night after night, Gimble sang the female lead of Carll’s racy, point-counterpoint duet “Another Like You.”
The climactic line goes to the woman: “I gotta hand it to you; there’s a chance I’m gonna screw you.”
Dick Gimble caught one of their gigs and did not find the line becoming for his daughter to sing.
He told Carll as much. Emily was of course mortified.
“I don’t know how serious he was,” she said. “It completely shocked me and everyone else in the room. Our jaws just dropped to the floor. He was like, ‘Hayes bless your heart, you know that song that you wrote? I don’t really like my daughter singing that.'” Carll’s reaction?
“I honestly couldn’t tell in the moment,” she said. “I think he was a little taken aback. Going on the road with him was a lot of fun. It was such a cool experience. He is so funny.  This year was the most that I’ve ever drank in my life.
“After gigs he likes to go hang out with people who came to the show and drink and listen to their stories. I’m a little bit more of an introvert, but I’ve changed my ways a little bit this past year.”
Is it at all frustrating working and scuffling to carve out a niche in a musical hotbed such as Austin, where you can find a gifted musician on just about any street corner.
“Maybe if you were a guitar player, it would be difficult,” she said. “Being a woman sets you apart in this industry in itself. If you were a guitar player that was playing blues in Austin, you have to be really good to get gigs. Definitely you have to know a lot of different genres and be really good at all of them. And you have to be nice.
“For me, I’m just so thankful I can live there and be part of this musical community; it’s just so inviting and inspiring. I’ve made so many friends and play all kinds of different music and always so many more blessing for any musician who wants to be part of this community.”
At the very least, she has earned the respect of her fellow musicians.
“She is a rare and special talent,” Pipkin told Russ Hartman of AustinDaze in 2011. “Her voice and soul are as timeless as music itself. I’m honored I get to play music with her.”
Gimble says the two are kindred spirits.
“He’s like my brother,” she said of Pipkin. “We just have a lot of the same ideas on life and music. He definitely speaks from his soul all the time. He’s gotten me in almost every band that I play in. He gets me in whenever they need someone to play with the Peacemakers.”
Music is a demanding taskmaster. It occupies most of her time. If there’s a night without a gig or band to sit in with, she’ll wander out to hear a little music. Her ears are always open. Lately she’s been wowed by Mike Barfield’s funk band, which features Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarists Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller, and jazz pianist Kevin Lovejoy.
Her free time, however, is in short supply.
“I’ve been getting a lot of calls for studio work lately; for blues people,” she said. “I don’t really play blues in the traditional sense. I just play what I hear.”
She hears a lot these days. The Peacemakers loaded her down with a stack of traditional blues CDs, including a heaping dose of Chicago blues stalwart Otis Spann.
She hasn’t had much time to listen yet.
Ask about her favorite players, and iconic names such as Art Tatum, Billy Preston, Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk roll off her lips.
Oh, and she likes Dr. John a bit, too.
|”I think I’ve had a crush on him for the past 20 years,” she said. “I used to say that he was my husband, but I got over that. I hope I get to meet him one day.”
Maybe she will at that. Still on the fair side of 30, a world of possibility unfolds before Gimble. Where is she headed?
I coyly asked her about that after we missed each other one day. I thought I was being funny when I sent an email saying I hoped to catch up to her before she did something crazy like move to Nashville or go on “The Voice.”
Turns out she already heard from the Voice.
“They called me last year after they saw me play at the Armadillo,” she said. “They wanted me to come to Dallas for an audition. My mom really wanted me to do it, just because it would be cool to see her daughter on TV.”

Unfortunately for her mom, and fortunately for Austin music fans, she declined the invitation. The Madison Avenue slickness of celebrity-fueled, made-for-TV pageants turned her off.
“You see people who do have talent, I feel like it’s not good for them,” she said. “It just turns you into a Hollywood version of yourself, a caricature of yourself, in a very short amount of time. They have an idea of what you should be, and it’s not normal. It’s kind of nauseating to watch.
“By the end of it they’re singing like Christina Aguilera; that’s not what music is about at all. It’s the opposite of what a musical experience is supposed to be. Let’s figure out how to make you marketable and get you in the right clothes. Don’t worry about learning to play music; just stand up there, shake your butt and sing. It’s disgusting.
“I was kind of like, ‘yuck. No thank you.'”
The blinding lights of celebrity aren’t likely to reflect in her eyes anytime soon. So what. Things are looking up. She bought a new car, a 2007 Nissan Pathfinder, which is a step up from the Ford Escape with 220,000 miles on the odometer.
She’s a working girl, and that’s fine. At least for the moment.
“I’m really enjoying the path that I’m on right now,” she said. “I just really appreciate what I get to do. It’s such a more spiritual and personal thing. I’m happy I get to play music for a living. “

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2 Responses to Montana Folk Festival: Hey there, Emily Gimble

  1. rubewaddell says:

    I hear you, Mr. Matlock. Choppity chop.

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