Imagine you’re in the country music lover’s Mecca that is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. You’ve gazed in awe at Webb Pierce’s Nudie Cohn-designed 1962 Pontiac Bonneville and Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5 guitar. Then you realize that a living country legend is standing just a few feet away from you. Actually, she was the one who greeted you at the museum entrance. Her name is Rose Lee Maphis.
As The Tennessean reported last year, most folks don’t recognize Rose Lee as she welcomes them to the Country Music Hall of Fame. But at 93 years old, Maphis is one of the best resources on country music history because, well, she lived it. Before Tim and Faith (and even George and Tammy), Rose Lee and her husband Joe Maphis were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music.”
Joe and Rosie
Joe and Rose Lee’s love story has all the elements of a classic country romance. The two met at the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a live country and bluegrass radio show in Virginia where Rose was performing as part of her western group, the Saddle Sweethearts.
Rose was immediately drawn to the tall, handsome fiery guitar picker known as the “King of the Strings.” The couple, often introduced as Joe and Rosie, began performing together regularly on the Old Dominion Barn Dance. Then, at the behest of their friend and fellow musician Merle Travis, the couple moved to California. Together, they were instrumental in the creation of the “Bakersfield sound,” with their song “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and (Loud, Loud Music).”
The song was written by Joe, Rose and Max Fidler on the way back from a Buck Owens show at the Blackboard Cafe in Bakersfield. “Dim Lights” has since been covered by Vern Gosdin, Conway Twitty and Dwight Yoakam and remains a staple in the honky tonks today. Watch Joe and Rosie perform the barn burner below.
Joe and Rose Lee had an undeniable chemistry onstage and off. The couple released a string of duets during the 1950s and 60s, including the gleeful, tongue-in-cheek “Don’t Make Love in a Buggy.”
Music City Roots
Joe and Rose Lee eventually moved back to Nashville. After Joe passed away in 1986, Rose started working as a seamstress in the Opryland theme park costume department.
In “Finding Her Voice: the Saga of Women in Country Music,” Rose reflected on her years in show business. “I don’t miss singing,” she said. “The only thing I miss is the traveling. I probably wouldn’t have gone on with it as long as I did, except it was in Joe’s blood. We were a couple.”
Rose Lee’s time in the sequin and fringe-laden world of the Opryland theme park reconnected her to the entertainment world she’d been a part of for 30 years. That feeling was what drew Maphis to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. There, she was surrounded by treasured country artifacts and the spirit of her beloved Joe. Rose’s own guitar strap was even featured in the long-running Bakersfield sound exhibit.
Maphis remains an integral part of music history and the Nashville community. In 2013, a YouTube video was posted from Rose’s 90th birthday party. The event featured many classic country stars and industry legends sharing their appreciation for her life and career. Rose and Joe’s son Jody is an active Music City musician, having played drums for Earl Scruggs, Johnny Cash and Marty Stuart.
Onstage or at the museum, Rose Lee Maphis will always be Mrs. Country Music.