Country music lost an all-time great guitarist when Leon Rhodes, age 85, passed away on Sat. Dec. 9. The country-jazz guitarist played an integral part in arguably the best lineups of Ernest Tubb‘s Texas Troubadours. Rhodes later became a sought-after session player and a member of the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw house bands.
Before joining Tubb’s band, Rhodes livened up Dallas’ live music scene in the 1950s. He joined what became the seminal Texas Troubadours lineup in 1960, performing at different times alongside steel guitarists Buddy Emmons and Buddy Charleton, bassist Jack Drake and future solo stars Jack Greene (drums) and Cal Smith (guitar).
Rhodes split from Tubb in 1966, joining the Grand Ole Opry house band. He remained with the Opry until 1999. During that same time frame, Rhodes also played in the Hee Haw staff band. In both roles, Rhodes helped define the sound and look of rural entertainment for the masses.
On top of his career as a performer, Rhodes built and repaired guitars for a living, working at different times for Gower Guitars, manufacturers of the Leon Rhodes Model flat-top acoustic, and Grammer Guitars.
Staying off the road for these various gigs freed Rhodes up for albums needing an extra touch of twang. His discography as a studio musician includes releases by such stars as Waylon Jennings, Reba McIntyre and George Strait. He even performed on Alvin and the Chipmunks’ Urban Chipmunk album, sharing a few hot licks with a new generation.
Rhodes spent the twilight of his career performing on stage alongside Porter Wagoner, the Whites and Marty Stuart.
In the years since his 2014 retirement, the Country Music Hall of Fame has honored Rhodes and other influential session players of the 1960s with its Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: a New Music City exhibit.
Chris Scruggs, bassist for Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives and grandson of Earl Scruggs, posted a moving tribute to Rhodes on Instagram. “Leon added a level of sophistication to the established style (of the Texas Troubadours) and elevated it into something that was elegant, refined and well spoken… but always with the down-home country twang of his Epiphone Sheraton’s treble pickup,” Scruggs wrote. “He always played with an enormous amount of humility and dignity, and his decades of service to the Grand Ole Opry staff band made radio listeners smile all over the world on Saturday nights.”