Leon Rhodes, who came to fame in the 1960s as lead guitarist in Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, died Saturday (Dec. 9) at the age of 85. As much at home playing jazz as country and pop music, Rhodes also distinguished himself as a guitarist for the Hee Haw and Grand Ole Opry staff bands.
Rhodes was born March 10, 1932, in Dallas, Texas. He got his first guitar when he was 14 and two years later was hired to play in the Big D Jamboree band. It was at about this time that he did his first work as a session musician, initially playing on some of Lefty Frizzell’s early recordings at Jim Beck’s fabled studio.
In a 1998 interview for Vintage Guitar, Rhodes related that while still in Dallas he worked “three or four years” for Jack Ruby, the club owner who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President John Kennedy.
“He had a club called the Silver Spur,” Rhodes recalled. “Jack also owned Bob Wills Ranch House . . . after Bob had owned it, and I moved down there to play. That club, which Dewey Groom eventually bought and named The Longhorn Ballroom, was so big it didn’t work very well for Jack or for us, so we went back to the Silver Spur.”
Rhodes was playing a set at the Longhorn the afternoon before Ernest Tubb was to go on that night when a patron asked if he and the band could play a song in the Tubb style. They did, and the patron — who turned out to be Buddy Emmons, Tubb’s steel player — immediately invited him to move to Nashville and work with Tubb. At first Rhodes declined, but eventually agreed to do a 13-day tour with Tubb. He wound up playing for him for the next seven years, often doing well over 200 days a year on the road.
In 1967, Rhodes left the Troubadours and soon after went to work with the Grand Ole Opry house band. All the while, he continued to do recording sessions for such artists as B.J. Thomas, Connie Smith, the Gatlin Brothers, Sammy Davis, Jr., Paul Anka, George Strait, George Jones, Roy Clark, Julie Andrews, Crystal Gayle, Loretta Lynn, Sammi Smith, Gene Watson, the Osborne Brothers, Jean Shepard, Dottie West, George Morgan, John Denver, Moe Bandy, Roy Orbison, Marie Osmond, Jimmy Dickens, Ricky Skaggs and Buddy Emmons.
From 1971 to 1991, he appeared on television in the Hee Haw band. He and other legendary players were fired from the Opry band in 2003 when new management decided to update the Opry’s look and sound in the hope of attracting a younger audience.
Details of Rhodes’ funeral have not been announced.