TOTFA Stories

Bill Gilbert ~ Father of the Texas Old-Time Fiddler's Association

Bill GilbertBill Gilbert, that left-handed fiddler from Millsap, Texas, was born March 23, 1935, to Troy and Opal Gilbert. The sound of a fiddle is one of the first things he remembers. His father was an active country-swing fiddler who played for many dances around the area where he lived and often Bill was put to bed on a pallet behind the amplifiers where one of these dances was taking place. By age seven, Bill was playing right-handed guitar accompaniment and sometimes played with his father in the band. A couple of years later, he was bitten by the "fiddle bug" and began sneaking a few private sessions with his father's fiddle. Soon after that, Bill surprised his dad with a rendition of "Rubber Dolly," left-handed style! The fact that he plays guitar and bass right-handed and the fiddle left-handed may seem strange to a lot of people, but it is perfectly natural for him. That's how mixed up he is and if you don't believe it, watch him pat his foot sometime!

Bill received his first fiddle as a gift from his parents soon after he began playing, and Red Steeley made him a left-handed chin rest. Bill now plays a Steeley fiddle, and his own first fiddle is being used by his sons, Bart and Chris, who Bill hopes will carry on the tradition of fiddling in the Gilbert family.

The summer Bill was thirteen, he and a neighbor boy, Theo Miller who played guitar, hired out as a two-piece band to play Saturday night dances at a community gathering place near their homes. This was Bill's first experience playing out on his own, and his main recollection of it is "that you sure have to fiddle a lot in a band that size!" Bill continued to play with local country-swing bands at musicals and dances throughout his high school years and played with The Sunset Playboys while attending Tarleton State College and with The Aggie Ramblers at A&M.

In 1958, with graduation behind him, Bill returned to the ranch at Millsap and settled into the role of rancher, husband, father. The fiddle remained in its case for longer and longer periods of time. Finally it was silent altogether only to be replaced by the horrible amplified sounds made by a beginner steel guitar player as Bill endeavored to master that instrument! However, his interest in the steel did not last too long and after a couple of years, it was delegated to the depths o the closet.

Bill joined the faculty of the Santo Independent School District as a Science teacher in 1964. Strangely enough, it was this action which revived his interest in music and in breakdown-style fiddling in particular. He renewed an old acquaintance with B. F. Chestnut who was a member of the Santo School Board at that time and was also interested in fiddling. Though B. F. is now well-known as a fiddler, he played guitar then. He and Bill began getting together about twice a week for practice and Bill's efforts to learn breakdown fiddling began in earnest. He learned a few tunes from records and started going to every contest he heard about trying to learn more. Trouble was, he didn't find out about many; one at DeLeon the first year with Alvarado added the next year. It was a frustrating period. He knew the music he wanted to learn was being played at contests somewhere but he couldn't find out where! Finally Bill called Norman Solomon, an excellent fiddler who sometimes came out to fish in the Brazos River which borders the ranch, and asked if he would play some tunes and let him tape them to learn by. Norman agreed and invited Bill over that very afternoon. Most learning fiddlers get excited at the prospect of new tunes and after taping and listening to the tunes played by Norman with Betty on piano, Bill was very excited. So excited in fact, that he was about three miles down the road before he realized that in saying good-bye to them, he had placed the tape on top of the car and left it there. A glance back down the road verified that it was no longer atop the car for it could plainly be seen lying all over the highway! Fortunately it was not broken but only a great deal of patience in rewinding restored it to its former state without damage. Bill has enjoyed many helpful sessions with Norman since then bit it is doubtful, unless he happened to look out his window that day, that even Norman has known until now just how proud Bill was of that tape!

As time passed, Bill did find out about more contests and in going to them, became friends with many fiddlers who have helped him along the way, accompanists who have spent many patient hours in practice with him, and loyal fans of Texas fiddling who have always been on hand with words of encouragement when they were needed. It is the friendship of all these people that Bill values most in the word of fiddling.

From a 1970's newspaper article.