Gary Johnston, Missouri Master Fiddler, Dies at 83

By Howard Marshall

Gary Johnston fiddles while Lloyd LaPlant play backup on guitar at a fiddler's convention.

Gary Johnston fiddles a few tunes with Lloyd LaPlant of Great Falls, Minnesota, March 2016. (Photo by Howard Marshall)

Gary Johnston, the champion old-time fiddler from Nevada, Missouri, died December 19, 2020. He was born in 1937 near Lamar (Barton County) and part of a large clan of musicians. Two of his older brothers were also fiddlers, Don and Dean. All “the Johnston boys” were versatile players with deep repertoires who enjoyed various styles of music. (Dean Johnston is featured in the University of Missouri documentary Now That’s A Good Tune and other projects and publications.)

Gary began playing fiddle music as a child. As he often joked, he would tell interested people that when he was a child he thought everybody played the fiddle–and didn’t realize otherwise until he was eight years old (repeated in his obituary; Ferry Funeral Home, Nevada, MO).

Gary was a familiar smiling face at countless jam sessions and fiddlers conventions such as those at Harrison, Arkansas, and the conventions at Bob Walsh’s farm at Cape Fair, Missouri, and those at Compton Ridge that succeeded the Walsh events. A strong old-time dance fiddler, Gary was also a very successful contest fiddler. He was rare among contest fiddlers in his ability to appear to be thoroughly enjoying himself–always with a big smile–even when trying to out-fiddle his friends and peers.

It is marvelous that Gary has two adult sons, Beau and Tad, who are both outstanding fiddlers as well as skilled guitar accompanists for fiddling. In that, Gary was fortunate, and it is good to know that the heritage of Johnston family music is being carried into the future.