Influential, versatile and well-traveled country-music sideman Leon Rhodes has died at age 85.
Best known in Nashville as a longtime guitarist in the Grand Ole Opry staff band, Rhodes was also a regular on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, was in the house band on TV’s Hee Haw and performed in the road bands of Ernest Tubb, Porter Wagoner and Marty Stuart. His passing on Saturday was noted on that night’s broadcast of the Opry.
Raised in Dallas, Rhodes was playing guitar by age 14. At age 16, he began performing on the Big D Jamboree and at sessions in Jim Beck’s renowned Dallas recording studio for Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell and more. He also became a regular musician in clubs such as the Longhorn Ballroom and nightspots owned by Dallas entrepreneur Jack Ruby.
Leon Rhodes joined Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours band in 1959. While with the ensemble, he wrote and recorded “Honey Fingers,” which became his nickname.
He joined the Opry’s band in 1967. The country variety series Hee Haw launched in 1969. Rhodes spent nearly 25 years in the show’s house band.
He also made the transition from stage musician to recording-studio professional. During the ensuing decades in the studios of Music Row, he backed hundreds of artists.
Rhodes can be heard on records by Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Roy Clark, Crystal Gayle, Mel Tillis, Sammi Smith, Gene Watson, Jean Shepard, Larry Gatlin, Dottie West, George Morgan, John Denver, Moe Bandy, Roy Orbison, Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire and George Strait, among others.
He won a Super Picker Award from NARAS in 1976. His allmusic.com profile dubs him, “one of the seven wonders of country-music guitar playing.”
He left the Opry staff band in 1999 when the show purged its veteran musicians in favor of newer talents. Rhodes began touring in Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmasters troupe. Later, he toured backing Marty Stuart and appeared regularly on the star’s Marty Party TV show.
Although best known for his country guitar style flavored with jazz elements, Leon Rhodes had many other abilities. He could also play drums, bass and mandolin; sing lead; repair and/or build guitars; drive a tour bus; play professional-level fast-pitch softball; be a tour accountant or work a variety of jobs required of a traveling or session musician.
In later years, he often returned to the Opry to back Wagoner, The Whites and others stars. Rhodes retired in 2014.
Leon Rhodes is survived by his wife Judi, by daughters Diane Williams, Tonja Polk, Tara Story, Tammy Scragg and Tandy Raynes and by sons Todd, Leon and Tag. He is also survived by 25 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be at Hermitage Funeral Home & Memorial Gardens, Monday, December 11, 2017 from 4-8pm and Tuesday, December 12 from 11-1pm with services to follow. Memorials may be made to Alive Hospice.org.
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