NASHVILLE — Leon Rhodes, whose lead guitar was an integral part of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours in the 1960s, and could be heard for decades as part of the Grand Ole Opry and “Hee Haw” staff bands, died Saturday morning at his Nashville area home. He was 85.
He played with blinding speed and unbelievable accuracy, and for years on stage and in the studio, Tubb would call out his dazzling solos with a drawled, "Aww, here's Leon."
"Leon Rhodes can play circles around most guitar players," Vince Gill told The Tennessean in 1999.
Rhodes was born on Mar. 10, 1932, in Dallas. He began learning to play his older brother's guitar at a young age. His family couldn't afford to get Leon his own guitar, so, Rhodes remembered during a program at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, he sold his bed in order to buy one.
It paid off. By the age of 16, he was a musician on The Big D Jamboree, a country music program on Dallas radio station KRLD-AM.
Rhodes recorded with Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price in Texas during the 1950s before Tubb hired him to be the lead guitarist in the Texas Troubadours in 1960.
For nearly seven years, Rhodes played alongside steel guitarist Buddy Charleton, bassist Jack Drake, drummer Jack Greene, and front man Cal Smith. That configuration of the Texas Troubadours was Tubb's greatest. “They were what every hillbilly band at the time wanted to be, but wasn’t,” said Eddie Stubbs, a DJ for WSM-AM in Nashville and Grand Ole Opry announcer.
After Rhodes exited the Troubadours in late 1966, he became a member of the Opry staff band; he remained part of that band until 1999. After that, he continued playing on the show with Porter Wagoner and The Whites.
"In my opinion, Leon was one of the greatest country guitarists of all time, and one of the finest jazz men to ever take the stage in a cowboy suit," wrote Chris Scruggs, one of Marty Stuart's Fabulous Superlatives, on Instagram on Saturday. "Leon added a level of sophistication to the established style 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. 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."
He also worked as a session musician, appearing on recordings by Loretta Lynn, George Strait, Reba McEntire and more, and spent more than 20 years as part of the "Hee Haw" band.
He retired in 2014. That year, he also was honored as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Nashville Cats series, which showcases musicians who have played important roles in country music history.
Rhodes is survived by his wife Judi — the couple would have celebrated their 53rd anniversary in January — eight children, 25 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
Visitation is Monday and Tuesday at the Hermitage Funeral Home and Memorial Gardens with a service to follow Tuesday.
Follow Juli Thanki on Twitter:@JuliThanki