He is one of the seven wonders of country music guitar playing, the Collosus of Rhodes. Guitar players seem to have established a holy trinity of country guitar in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are Doc Watson, Leon Rhodes, and Grady Martin. As a member of what is considered the classic lineup of Ernest Tubb & the Texas Troubadours, Rhodes already had a secure place in the genre's history, but factor in his countless recording sessions for other country legends and nearly four decades of action in the Grand Ole Opry house band and you have a guitarist whose presence and influence are simply massive. Of course, the Opry is "right proud," as they would say in Tennessee. In 1999, he was treated in a very special way after years and years as a fixture on the Opry stage -- he was fired. It was part of a shift in musicians dictated from management, the need for young blood and all that. Not everyone on the country scene was thrilled with this move, which also involved kicking Buddy Harmon and his drum set off-stage, displacing a drummer who as a statistical double of porn star John Holmes claims to have played on 10,000 sessions. "Leon Rhodes could play circles around anyone in Nashville" was a typical comment reflecting the Opry's management skills and respect for the music's history. The easy-going guitarist was diplomatic but also emotional in a statement that could bring tears to one's eyes, particularly if accompanied by the right sort of pedal steel solo: "I understand that the boss man wants to make a change, and there's really nothing that I can do about it except accept it," Rhodes said. "I just don't want to leave the staff band. I want to wear the coat, I want to be in the picture. I think that's what's broke my heart." Rhodes first joined Tubb's already hot band in 1960, putting a stop to a game of musical chairs that had been going on in the lead guitar spot. Steel guitar whiz Buddy Emmons was actually playing lead as a stopgap when Rhodes was hired. In relief, Emmons sat back at his main axe and the two men instantly established a superb level of sympathetic interplay, breezily tossing honky tonk and bebop licks back and forth as if they were fragrances for the listener to sniff on a spring morning. In a sense, though, the great Emmons was just a warm-up for Buddy Charleton, who joined the band on steel in 1962, consolidating a lineup that also included drummer Jack Greene and Cal Smith, who would later enjoy his own solo career. This is considered the ultimate version of the Texas Troubadours. In his late twenties when he climbed into Tubb's band, Rhodes already had a dozen years of professional experience behind him. He was considered a natural musician as a child and at 16 was on the staff band on the Big D Jamboree broadcast. In the '50s, his picking was an essential part of the sound of records by Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, and other greats. He is said to have worked constantly, not only as a guitarist but also as a drummer and vocalist on the Dallas club scene. He also toured in this period with artists such as Sonny James and Buddy Griffin. Even with a schedule packed as fully as this sounds, music was actually still a sideline for him. He actually preferred pitching professional fast-ball softball, and played for a team that twice scored highly in world tournaments. When Tubb came upon him, he was playing mostly drums in the band of Dewey Groom and balked when offered the lead guitar slot in the Troubadours, apparently telling Emmons "I ain't no guitarist."
This "ain't no" picker has played on dozens of great country albums by artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Jean Shepard. In other words, the existence of a country record collection without a Leon Rhodes guitar solo in there somewhere is an impossibility, pure and simple. Such studio work and the Opry bandstand were where Rhodes went when he left Tubb in 1966, unfortunately not under the best of circumstances. Tubb apparently didn't want the Opry to be who would get his departing guitar genius and tried to block the venue from hiring him, almost resulting in a lawsuit. When the dust settled, Rhodes found he was much happier playing the Opry and recording in Nashville then touring with Tubb. For one thing, he started making much more money. When artists such as the late John Denver or B.J. Thomas want a good country sound, they called Rhodes. The logic of this didn't even escape the Chipmunks, who squeaked him a gig when creating their country-ish Urban Chipmunk album. Thanks to the Opry, the great guitarist now has more time than ever to take on assignments such as this. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi