Several years ago, I was given a copy of a Texas-swing show, held at the Houston Livestock Show, featuring Johnny Gimble and a host of other talented musicians. I remember the first time I listened to that tape, hearing Johnny swinging like never before on "Don't Let the Deal Go Down." All of the sudden, he said, "Take one Randy and show 'em how a champion does it!" This guy was good; no, better than good. He was great! He was fiddling in the vintage Gimble style but with a few twists and turns that set him apart from other swing players. I had to find out who this guy was and where he had been hiding!
Randy Elmore, from Cleburne, Texas, a little town just south of Fort Worth, has been playing music since he asked his dad for a guitar for Christmas in 1963. He played guitar for a couple of years, learning chords from his uncle. "Then, Dad came home one day and asked me if I wanted to play a fiddle. I guess I was game for anything with strings on it. Fiddle soon became my main instrument."
Randy had family ties to fiddle music. "My two uncles played both guitar and fiddle. My grandpa played, too, but I never got to hear him play. I just remember all of the family get-togethers and the music. They were some of my favorites times."
Who has influenced your fiddling?
Norman Solomon and Bill Gilbert were my first teachers. Bill introduced me to Norman. Bill was real good at giving me the basics of the tune with good, basic bowing and then Norman would work from there. Norman never gave formal lessons, he'd just show me a few things whenever he was available. He never took any money for the lessons, either. Bill had me come over once a week for a couple of years, around 1966-67. I started learning from Vernon Solomon, Benny Thomasson, Louis Franklin, Major Franklin and several others. I found out that most of these great fiddlers liked to show young people things, but not on a regular basis. If one guy was too busy to show me something, I'd just call another. If you were lucky, you could get two or three lessons a week! I always had to be careful not to play one person's version of a tune for another because they'd try to change it. There was never any music or charts to learn from. It was all by ear, and usually not even taped on a recorder. Benny and Norman always talked more about bowing than any of the other fiddlers. I started competing around this time, 1966-67. Contests back then were so much fun. They always had jam sessions after the contests. I learned a lot about fiddling just playing guitar for the good fiddlers.
I know you play all styles of music, but you certainly have a knack for western swing. What is it about western swing that appeals to you?
For me, western swing has just always been more interesting to me than most other styles. I spent my high school years playing strictly contest fiddle music. After high school, I joined Warren Edward's band. It was a western swing band, so I got introduced to swing music right away. The thing that got my attention was the amount of freedom you had, as compared to the fairly straight melody breaks in most country bands. Swing music really improved my musical knowledge. I learned about augmented and diminished chords and other things that help no matter what style of music I am playing. I even found out I could learn a lot from the clarinet players. They are in the same register as the fiddle and usually played some pretty swingy stuff. I spent years on the road, playing country fiddle. I was with Red Steagall from 1975 to 1980. I spent one year, 1984, playing with Reba McEntire. I fiddled with Mel Tillis from 1985 to 1992, the last three years being at his theater in Branson, Missouri. As country music changed, swing seemed to fit more with the sound these performers were after. And Johnny Gimble's help on several of George Strait's recordings didn't hurt! Now, most fiddlers are emulating the sound that was really developed years ago, but has just recently become somewhat popular. Like I said, it just seems more interesting to me. I really enjoyed playing with Mel [Tillis]. His sound was a lot like Spade Cooley's. It was much more orchestrated than most other performers, with three or four fiddles. You very seldom got to take a break on your own.
With all that experience, how would you describe your fiddling today?
Well, I have been a free-lance musician since 1993. I do radio and television commercials, playing pretty much whatever they want. I get most of my calls for cowboy music recording sessions, demos and country recordings. I even get a chance to play top 40 and classical once in a while. I like to think of myself as a musician who plays whatever kind of music I feel like playing. My musical experiences have really helped me to be a more rounded musician.
How do you "work up" tunes?
One thing I do in western swing music, whether I am learning a new tune or writing a tune or just re-working one, is I learn the entire tune in double stops. It helps my intonation and also helps me know the harmony in case there is more than one fiddler, which is common around here. It makes me use all of the first four positions and eliminate open strings. I listen to a lot of clarinet players, too, like Benny Goodman and a great player from around here named Buddy DeFranco. I get a lot of ideas from them. I also get easily inspired by Johnny Gimble and Buddy Spicher. Buddy probably plays more double stops than any fiddler alive today. Last year, I played a session with him where I played two parts above and he played two parts below. This way, we covered everything in one take-it helped eliminate the need to over-dub. Gimble likes to play with one guy taking the lead and then he will straddle the lead, with one part above and one part below the lead. This is more like the old Bob Wills sound. But, back to your question, I generally try to keep up on every type of music I have ever played. That way, I have a lot to draw from when I am working up a tune.
[Tim Hodgson is a two-time National Men's Champion Fiddler who has placed in the top five at the Grand Nationals seven of the last eight times entered and is a four-time Idaho State champion. Tim performs with the Bar J Wranglers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, singing Sons of the Pioneers style western music.]
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Randy Elmore's tunes "Waltz of the Winds" and "Blues for Papa," purchase the Summer 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]