Former Grand Ole Opry Guitarist Spider Wilson Dead at 79

Also Worked in Studio With Dolly Parton, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Others

Longtime Grand Ole Opry staff guitarist James Edward “Spider” Wilson died of complications from cancer Thursday (Feb. 26) in Nashville. He was 79.

A native of Nashville, Wilson reportedly fueled his enthusiasm for music by standing outside an open window of the Ryman Auditorium listening to Hank Williams’ Opry performances.

His big break came when he joined Little Jimmy Dickens’ band in the early ‘50s. He also toured with Ray Price before joining the Grand Ole Opry staff band in 1953.

“We would work with anybody who came in and didn’t have a band,” Wilson explained in an interview for the NAMM oral history program. “Or we would work individually different assignments or just part of (an artist’s) band. You always had to be there and ready to go, you know — a very complex job, really.”

Fellow Opry guitarist Jimmy Capps said in the same NAMM interview, “I always called Spider an ‘elephant man’ because if some artist asked me to work, I’d have to go ask him to hum the intro to it because he’d remember it no matter how far it went back in time.”

“Spider would learn the intros, solos and backup parts on all the current records and be ready to back any artist,” his friend Robert Kramer wrote on the Steel Guitar Forum website. “He had an archival memory.”

In addition to his Opry work, Wilson was also a popular studio musician, recording with such major acts as Price, Marty Robbins, Bill Anderson, Faron Young and Dolly Parton.

His prominence as a player made him a familiar figure on most of the country music television shows originating in Nashville.

In November 2006 — after a 53-year run — Wilson quit the Opry band, saying he was being systematically excluded from playing on the higher-paying televised portion of the historic radio show.

Friends may pay their respects on Sunday (March 1) from 2-8 p.m. at Woodbine Hickory Chapel in Nashville.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.