The father was a self-taught fiddler from South Carolina, who moved to Austin with the influential Uncle Walt's Band in the 1970s. The son studied violin and was selected as a guest soloist of the Austin Symphony while still in high school. Warren Hood, born in 1983, would come home from his lessons to hear his dad sawing an old fiddle tune in the kitchen. "Well, what did you learn today?" Champ Hood would ask and the kid, who must have looked about 8 when he was 15, would play him the first movement of a concerto they were practicing in school. Warren Hood grew up hearing that his father was the best damn musician in Austin, but here he was, teaching the old man a few things.
Emily Gimble also showed musical promise at a young age, when she'd jump onstage and play with her grandfather Johnny Gimble, a living legend of country fiddle (that's him on "Faded Love" with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys). Originally a fiddler, then a pianist, she rejected her family's music in middle school, switched to guitar and even played in a punk band. But the piano called her back like a true love.
These two former prodigies wanted what couldn't be taught, the thing Champ and grandpa had learned through decades of playing honky-tonks and beer gardens: deep souls filled with music — the groove to go with the technique. The kids knew that if they just kept playing, eventually they would fall into it.
Which takes us to Warren Hood Band, a melodically fulfilling album you might not expect from someone who left a rising band in 2002 to study jazz at the Berklee College of Music. Just released on NYC-based Red Parlor Records, WHB carries the vibe of the Lovin' Spoonful or a fiddle-driven The Band into present-day Texas. The album was produced with a mission to push the band beyond its swing music roots by Charlie Sexton during rare furloughs from his employ as guitarist on Bob Dylan's Neverending Tour.
The Warren Hood Band brings this album to The Kessler Theater on Friday. They've opened three previous shows at the venue, and each time general manager Jeff Liles was approached by audience members in awe. "'Who the hell is that guy? Where did he come from? How old is he?' — that kind of thing," Liles says. "And the same could be said for Emily Gimble. When people hear that voice or the way she plays piano, they seem flabbergasted to learn that these musicians are actually from Texas and have existed somewhat under the radar for the last few years."
Since Gimble, 28, joined the 9-year-old band (then called Warren Hood and the Goods) four years ago, she's still a junior partner, but she just about steals the LP with "Pear Blossom Highway," a song with a complex melody from Hood. Like her idol Billy Preston, whose "Nothing From Nothing" is a WHB live staple, Gimble can sing anything and play as good as she walks.
The third official member of the group (backed by the hired rhythm section of bassist Nate Rowe and drummer Corey Keller) is electric guitarist Willie Pipkin, 36, a former teammate of Hood's in the SAJB and an unavowed Jimmie Vaughan junkie. You add those piercing blues licks to Gimble's hillbilly Western soul mix and Hood knew he had to step up vocally. That fiddle virtuosity will only take you so far, so Hood works on his singing much more than his playing these days.
"A singer can touch you much more than an instrumentalist," says Hood, who comes off as less a violin virtuoso than a charming singer/songwriter on the new LP. Hood's been singing tunes by Uncle Walt's Band, including the customary set closer "The Last One To Know," his entire 15-year career. But the new album's version of "Motor City Man," written by Warren's godfather Walter Hyatt in 1972, is vocally richer, fuller, than when a young Hood would shyly step to the center of a packed Momo's on Sunday nights.
"I just turned 30, just got married and just released my first real album," says Hood, who wedded the former Ashley Moore, a Hockaday girl who graduated from Harvard with a degree in education and now works for McGraw-Hill, on June 2. "It just really feels like a new beginning for me."
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"Motor City Man" also has a new beginning, quite literally, as Sexton wrote a new intro to replace Champ Hood's old fiddle opener. "When Charlie suggested it, my first thought was 'My mother's gonna hate that,'" Hood says with a laugh. Elizabeth Haynes and Champ Hood split up when Warren was a year old, but remained close through Champ's passing from cancer in 2001. "Charlie wrote all these new intros because he likes the tracks to start off with some mystery, not revealing much. Then the song blossoms out of the intro."
"Blossom" is a word that fits the Warren Hood Band, whose two lead singers have leapt in potential the past few years. The eternally boyish Hood has evolved into a formidable band leader and frontperson. And Gimble is, seemingly, everyone's favorite singer in Austin. In the Warren Hood Band the sultry-singing piano thumper covers everything from Western swing standard "Old Fashioned Love," which she's been singing onstage since she was 6, to Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain," which she learned from a mix CD Marcia Ball gave her. Like her ever-smiling grandfather, Emily Gimble exudes humility and seems to find her greatest joy playing with other musicians. Ten years ago, Gimble was too shy to take piano solos when she came to Austin from her home in Crawford to play with her father and grandfather. Now she'll go toe-to-toe with the best of them. "I was always intimidated by great players, but Papa told me that it's not a competition," Emily recalls. "Solos are just for having fun and expressing yourself, and after that I kinda loosened up."
It's obvious to everyone who sees the Warren Hood Band that Gimble will one day move on and front her own band. But right now she's happy to be in the piano chair, with three or four vocal turns per set, with one of the hottest roots bands to come out of Austin in years. It's working. There's no hurry to change it up.
"She's a Gimble," Hood says, when asked if he had concerns she might go solo. "She's gotta have a fiddle in the band."