Country-Jazz Genius, Terrific Texas Troubadour
By Jim Hilmar
Leon Rhodes has worn a lot of hats during his long and successful career
in the music business. He’s played drums, mandolin, bass, guitar, been a
bus driver, an “accountant,” a singer, a songwriter and undoubtedly
he’s held a few other occupations. From his early days on the Big D
Jamboree to his nearly seven-year stint with Country Music Hall of Fame
member Ernest Tubb, to his 20-year gig on “Hee Haw” to his continuing
affiliation with the Grand Ole Opry, Rhodes has seen and done just about
everything the country music business can offer.
A Texas native (from Dallas), Rhodes spent most of the 1960s with The
Texas Troubadours as Ernest Tubb’s lead guitarist. Much of his playing
with Tubbs was in a straight country and classic honky tonk style. But
Rhodes loved swing and jazz music, and when The Troubadours played their
own sets at Tubbs’ gigs, they created a tremendously exciting blend of
country and jazz. The Troubadours lineup that featured Rhodes on lead
guitar, Buddy Charleton on steel, Jack Drake on bass, Cal Smith on rhythm
guitar and Jack Greene on drums, is arguably one of the finest backup
bands in the history of country music.
In addition to being a superb picker, Rhodes has been involved in the
manufacturing and repair/tech side of the guitar business for nearly 30
years. He was a quality control inspector/final assembler for Grammer
Guitars in the late 1960s and went on to do similar work with Gower
Guitars (manufacturer of a Leon Rhodes Model flat-top acoustic) in the
1970s. And he still does an occasional setup for close friends and fellow
Rhodes is a man of sincere faith whose most important role is that of
devoted father and family man. He and wife, Judi, have been married for 33
years. Judi’s a Nebraska native and they met while Rhodes was on tour
with Tubbs. Together they’ve raised four great kids: Tag, Tara, Tami and
Tandy, and Rhodes became a grandfather for the first time in late 1996.
These days, Rhodes stays very busy as one of the staff guitarists for The
Grand Ole Opry, where he regularly plays with two of Nashville’s
all-time great pickers – “Spider” Wilson and Jimmy Capps. And when
he’s not on the Opry, he’s in the studio, backing a variety of
artists. He also happens to be one of the nicest, most down-to-earth folks
in all of country music.
Vintage Guitar: Let’s dive right in. You’re from Dallas,
Leon Rhodes: Yes. I was born and raised in Dallas. My first
professional job playing was with the Big D Jamboree out of Dallas. I
started there when I was 16 years old. I had to audition to get on it.
They needed a guitar player for the Big D Jamboree and they held the
auditions down at Jim Beck’s recording studio on Ross Avenue. This was
the same place Lefty Frizzell did his first recordings, and Ray Price
recorded early in his career there, and so did several other artists who
would go on to become big stars.
I went down, and I was pretty naive about the music business, but I
thought I could play a pretty good boogie-woogie on the guitar. Well, it
came my turn to play and I stepped up and when I got through, I thought
I’d just played the fire out of it. One of the judges looked at me – I
think they could tell I was a bit shy – and said “Leon, that was some
very good guitar playing.” I ducked my head and said “Well thank you,
sir.” The judge said “I’ve got one question – have you ever played
for any dances?” I think he was putting me on, and I said “Yes sir, I
sure have.” And he said “Well, whereabouts?” And I said “In
And I was serious. I was raised in the Pentecostal Church, where they
dance in the spirit. He said “Well my boy, I think we’re going to hire
you.” And that’s how I got my first real professional job, working the
Big D Jamboree at the Sportatorium in Dallas.
When did you pick up the guitar?
I was about 14 years old when my dad bought me a guitar. I have two
brothers – one is four years older than I am and the oldest is 12 years
older than me. Ray [the eldest brother] always had a little
“plunky-plunk” type of guitar around the house and sometimes I’d go
and get it and try and pick out a tune or so. And he showed me a couple a
chords. Actually, my whole family was musical. My mother played piano, my
dad played guitar and french harp.
I really had a desire for the guitar. I ended up playing day and night.
What I know about the guitar I’m sure was God-given. God gave me that
talent because I’ve never had any real problems learning the instrument
and progressing right along. And in my early years, I never really had any
players I looked up to. Back then, I didn’t know anybody that played,
except for my family. Basically, I sat out on the back porch and learned
how to play. Nowadays you’ve got television, audio and videocassettes
you can buy that show you how to do things.
The church was an important influence?
Oh yes. My mother and dad were very religious, and I’ve often said I
went to church nine months before I was even born.
When were you born?
In 1932. March 10 to be exact.
Well, you’re a very young-looking 65.
Well that’s a really nice compliment. Speaking of Junior – I did a
thing with Junior not too long ago. It was a television show called
“Evening Of The Greats.” And Pam Tillis was on the show, as well.
Junior did a couple of Ernest Tubb songs, then he and Pam did a couple of
songs, one of which was also an Ernest Tubb song.
Junior’s got that one called “My Baby Don’t Dance To Nothing But
Ernest Tubb,” and he’s got E.T.’s voice down. The first time I heard
that song I thought that it had to be somebody related to Ernest.
He really does. He sounds more like Ernest than anybody I’ve ever heard.
Kind of scary, isn’t it?
Yeah, really. Junior is a great musician.
I love his stuff. He’s really eclectic. He’ll be playing those
great Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton-type licks and fills, and then
he’ll go and do Jimi Hendrix.
On the Big D Jamboree, you must have backed up a lot of performers.
Shortly after I got on the Big D Jamboree, Lefty Frizzell came on the
scene. His first recording sessions were at Jim Beck’s studio and I was
lucky enough to have been the guitar player on those sessions.
Was this before Lefty signed with Columbia?
I can’t remember for sure, but I don’t think he was with Columbia
Jim’s studio was widely used wasn’t, it?
It was. Then I worked three or four years for Jack Ruby. Do you know who
That’s not Texas Ruby’s father, is it?
No. Jack was the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald.
Oh, that Jack Ruby! That would have been my second guess.
I worked for Jack. He had a club called the Silver Spur. Jack also owned
Bob Wills Ranch House, it was out on Industrial Boulevard in Dallas. Jack
owned the place 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.
So you were in the house band?
Yeah. Actually, at this time I was doing several things to make a little
money. I even played professional fast-pitch softball.
As a matter of fact, I was playing pro ball when I went to work with
Ernest. I was also doing club work at The Longhorn Ballroom. There were
three of us who would work from 2 to about 4:30 p.m. and at night the
regular 10 or 12-piece band would play. On Sundays, I would play guitar
and sing, and with a piano and drums it was just a bit bigger sound than
the small early morning band I played in. And actually, I was playing
drums in the small band, not guitar.
You're a drummer, too!
Yeah, I did play ’em. I worked one time with a group at a pretty rough
joint. We lost our drummer, so I filled in. Luckily, our steel guitarist
was also a guitar player. He played steel standing up and slung the
six-string guitar around behind his back when he wasn’t playing it.
Having him take over the melodic duties allowed me to concentrate on drums
and I ended up on them for five nights a week or so for a while. I got so
I could hold my own.
You just mentioned Ernest. How did you get hooked up with him?
The first time I was aware Ernest Tubb and The Troubadours played at The
Longhorn Ballroom was on a Sunday night. I’d played in the afternoon and
I didn’t know The Troubadours had arrived and the bus was parked out
back. I was on the bandstand playing (with the Sunday night early evening
band) and I noticed this guy dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans
and some boots with his pants stuck down in them and that he’d been
standing there watching us for quite a while.
Finally, in between songs, he walked up to the rail at the edge of the
bandstand and motioned to me. I bent down to talk to him. He said “Hey
can you guys play an Ernest Tubb song and can you pick it on guitar like
Butterball [Paige] would do it?” I told him “Yeah, we’ll play one in
a little bit.”
We started in on another song and I noticed that this guy was really
watching me now – big time. Then he motioned for me again and asked
“When are you gonna play that Ernest Tubb song?” So I went over to the
band leader and said “Hey, this guy down here really wants us to do an
Ernest Tubb song.” The leader said “Man, I can’t do that. Ernest is
playing here tonight.” And I told him “Well, this guy isn’t going to
leave until we do one.” So we did one – just a verse and a chorus and
I did a turnaround and we ended it after another chorus. And I picked it
out like what I thought Butterball or Billy Byrd would do.
Well the guy in the t-shirt turns around and takes off running across the
dance floor. After a few minutes he comes back and he’s got another guy
with him. The band and I took an intermission about that time and he
motioned to me and asked me if they could buy me a drink. I told him
“Well, I don’t drink but I’ll sit and have a cola or something with
you.” He said “Fine. We really want to talk with you.”
So we go and sit, and during our conversation they asked me if I’d like
to move to Nashville and go to work with Ernest Tubb.
(chuckling) For real?
(laughing) Yeah. So I said “Doing what?” And the second guy says
“Playing guitar.” I said “I’m really not the guitar player here.
I’m the drummer.” Then the guy in the t-shirt says “No man –
you’re a guitar player. In fact, you not just a guitar player you’re the
guitar player.” Anyway the guy in the t-shirt was Buddy Emmons and the
other guy was Jack Drake.
Ernest’s bass player?
Right. And I told them “I don’t think so. I’m playing professional
ball and drums with the band in the afternoon and I don’t see how it
Well, Buddy wouldn’t have it that way. He said “No, you’re the
guitar player.” They ended up calling me about four times, and the
fourth time they said they wanted me to go out on a 13-day tour. At that
point, I felt like I might be ready for a little vacation, and I said
“Okay, send me a ticket and I’ll be there.” The long and short of it
is I flew to Nashville for a 13-day tour and I never went back to Texas.
No kiddin’? When did all of this happen?
It was in 1960.
That has to be one of the more unusual auditions I’ve heard of. You
didn’t even know you were auditioning.
No, I didn’t (laughing). In fact, unless Ernest was hiding in the club
that Sunday, he didn’t even hear me play until right before the tour.
Actually, he depended on guys like Buddy and Jack to tell him if a
particular player should be a part of the band.
How long were you with The Troubadours?
Just about seven years. I left just before 1967, not too long after we
recorded the Ernest Tubb’s Fabulous Texas Troubadours LP.
E.T. was renowned for his generosity and willingness to help others in
the business. And I know he was particularly impressed with the 1960s
Texas Troubadours lineup, which happens to be my favorite country backup
band of all time. When did the Jack Greene, Cal Smith, Jack Drake, Buddy
Charleton and Leon Rhodes lineup come together?
Buddy Emmons left the band in about 1962. Then Buddy Charleton came on
board. Of course, Jack Drake had already been with Ernest for quite a
while. Jack Greene replaced Jan Kurtis, I think it was a bit after
Charleton joined. Cal Smith replaced Johnny Johnson on rhythm guitar and
as front man, and this was after Jack Greene joined, sometime in 1963, I
Jan’s from the Pacific northwest, and I think he lives up here now.
Yeah. Jan played on the very first Troubadours album, which we recorded at
Cains Ballroom (for the album On Tour). Jan was a wonderful
drummer. He could play jazz – anything! The ’60s Troubadours were
really lucky to get such great talent. I thought getting a replacement for
Buddy Emmons would have been impossible, but Buddy Charleton was terrific!
And then we got Jack Greene to replace Jan Kurtis.
I love the drumming on the Troubadours’ solo albums. Like “Honey
Fingers,” for example. That’s just terrific, tight drumming.
It sure is. Jack Greene used to say “Leon plays so fast that he’s
always just a little bit ahead of me. When I try to rush and catch him
he’ll go faster. You just can’t catch him.”
You guys ended up with your own recording contract on Decca Records
starting in about 1964 or so. Those are just fantastic records. The
instrumentals knock me out! You were on three of the LPs, right?
Actually, I might have been on four. I was on the Cains Ballroom project,
and next was Ernest Tubb Presents The Texas Troubadours.
Then Country Dance Time.
That’s right. And then there was Hittin’ The Road and Ernest
Tubb’s Fabulous Texas Troubadours, so I guess that makes five
And you were also on the Midnight Jamboree album.
That’s right, but that was before Jack Greene and Buddy Charleton were
in the band.
I’m completely in awe of the playing on those records, as well as the
songwriting. And the recording quality is top-notch, too. Do you have any
favorite tunes on those projects?
They were good records. When we recorded them, we didn’t overdub
anything. What we played in the studio is exactly what you hear on those
records. Nothing has been “fixed.”
A number of tunes, like “Red Top” and “C-Jam Blues” are real
jazz tunes, and others, like Buddy’s “Almost To Tulsa” and of
course, “Honey Fingers,” definitely have some jazz sound and feel to
them. How did you guys get into writing/playing such jazz-flavored
They do have a jazz feel to them, but actually I’ve never really
considered myself a jazz player. And I never concentrated on playing jazz
tunes. All of my background is in country playing of one kind or another.
But I loved (and still love) jazz. I tried to play my guitar where my
notes sounded a bit different – where the other country guitar players
wouldn’t know exactly what I was doing. That way I could get a bit
“outside” of the melody and “outside” of other players’ ways of
thinking. And more than once I had players ask me “What are you
doing?” and “What are you thinking about?”
That must have been interesting, given the constraints of backing
Ernest really preferred you to just stick to the melody. And he liked you
to stick to his style, too. It was interesting because a lot of folks
thought what I played with Ernest was all I could play. But the players
that did know me told a lot of folks “No, what you hear Leon play when
he’s with Ernest is not all he can play.”
Do you have any favorite songs from those albums?
One of my favorites is “Steel Guitar Rag” (from On Tour). Our version
came off so beautiful. I’d had that arrangement since I was a kid in
Dallas, but I’d never played it with a steel player like Buddy Charleton.
Wow! I think it was one of our best instrumental tunes. And of course,
“Honey Fingers.” I still get royalty money for that one. And
“Rhodes-Bud Boogie,” too.
Well you should. Those are killer tunes!
Those three songs are probably my favorites, and the ones the band really
loved to play. We could play our jazz licks on them and we could play as
fast as we wanted too.
I’m also quite fond of the real swing/jazz tunes “C-Jam Blues”
and “Red Top.”
They are real swing/jazz tunes.
And another one I love is the “Texas Troubadour Stomp.” Through the
years I’ve impressed a number of folks when I cue that one up.
Generally, it doesn’t take long before they’re slapping their
foreheads in wonderment. And when I tell them it’s Ernest Tubb’s
backup band, many times I have to show them the album before they believe
me. You’ve got some signature licks and short note patterns that show up
in some form in a number of those tunes.
(laughing) Yeah. Those are things I’ve put together through the years
and have really liked. My feeling was “I’ve got something good
here.” So every once in a while I’ll play it.
A friend of mine recently put out a terrific CD called Travis County
Pickin’ and when they held the release party/performance, one of the
few cover tunes they played was “Honey Fingers.”
Every player I’ve talked to that is really into the country/jazz
style guitar all know that song and they all know about your incredible
solos on it.
I really appreciate those comments. It really makes me feel good.
When you left the Troubadours, did you already have the gig with “Hee
Haw” lined up?
No, I didn’t. Once you come to Nashville and play for a while and the
record producers and publishing companies get to know who you are and what
you can do, you can get in demand to do recording sessions. I quit working
the road with Ernest to do recording sessions, and to get in on more
opportunities for work than I could being out on the road.
And you wouldn’t have to travel.
You and The Troubs worked a huge number of dates each year.
We were driving over 200,000 miles each year. That’s a long way.!
250 to 275 dates a year?
That’s probably not far off.
I’m sure you got tired of roadhouses.
So you ended up jumping into the studio?
I did, and I was doing real well, earning a good living doing sessions.
And then some television work came along. And actually, the week after I
left Ernest I went to work at the Opry. At that time, there was only one
guitar player, and I walked in and was welcomed with open arms. Nearly all
of the artists knew me because we’d either travelled together or been on
tour or package shows. And they were delighted to have me back them on the
Who was the other guitarist at that time?
Spider Wilson. Jerry Whitehurst was the piano player, Junior Huskey was on
bass and Ed Hyde was on fiddle.
This was in ’67?
Another important part of your career was the “Hee Haw” period.
When did you join the “Hee Haw” band?
I started in 1971 and was with the show until ’91.
20 years. That’s a long time. “Hee Haw” got a little too corny
for me at times, but I used to enjoy the guest artist spots where I’d
get a chance to see you and the band do some pickin’. In fact, TNN has
those shows in reruns still.
My favorite segments on that show were when the band got to work with Roy
Clark. Before Roy brought his own band in, we would back him. He’d do a
number of songs each season and we’d back him. And he did some real
He’s a great player!
Oh yeah! He’s a very talented man, a real showman and a great
guitar player. I’m proud to call him my friend.
There’s a whole generation that only knows Roy from the corny
characters he portrayed on “Hee Haw,” and that’s too bad.
Well, Roy is a showman’s showman. A real entertainer.
So, 20 years on “Hee Haw” and you’ve been affiliated with the
Opry since ’67. What about now, with the “Marty Party” show?
Marty is a serious fan of pickers. I’ve known him since he was a little
kid. And he definitely respects the same folks he looked up to when he was
a young boy. He hasn’t forgotten the great players before him. And as
far as talent, Marty has loads of talent.
I’m definitely a fan. He’s my favorite modern country performer,
but I’m puzzled that he hasn’t quite made it into the superstar realm
Yeah, I really like him. He’s a fine young man. I was on the one
“Marty Party” show with him.
I remember that one! I loved hearing “Honey Fingers” when the show
came back from a commercial break.
That “Honey Fingers” thing was Marty’s idea. He said “Leon is
going to play something on my show.” And he asked me what I wanted to
play and I said “How about ‘Honey Fingers’?” And we did it. Marty
also uses me on rhythm guitar when he appears on the Opry. I think he
respects me and just wants me there with him. And I really appreciate
Through the years, you’ve played a lot of guitars and used a lot of
amps. I know The Texas Troubadours got into that Epiphone thing.
I’m definitely an Epiphone man. The Sheraton is my particular favorite
model. I was introduced to it when I joined Ernest. When I first arrived
in Nashville, I was playing a Fender Jazzmaster and prior to that I played
the Telecaster and the Stratocaster. Gibson sponsored Ernest and they told
me they would like me to play a Gibson. We went through Kalamazoo and I
looked over the guitars at the factory and I picked the Epiphone Sheraton.
I really like the neck and I think it is a quality instrument. And
that’s what I’ve played pretty much exclusively until a few years ago
when I went back to the Telecaster. I use the Tele on the Opry and quite a
bit on sessions. To quote Grady Martin, the Tele has “...that shrill
sound that kills Johnson grass when you pick it.” The kind they love in
(laughing) The tone isn’t exactly big and full-sounding, is it?
No, it isn’t.
What are you using for an amplifier these days? I know you used to use
When I was with Ernest, that’s what I had. I had a Standel model with no
reverb. And I liked it better than any amp I’ve ever had. Nowadays, I
think the older Fender amps are probably my favorites to record with. I
also have a Peavey Nashville 400. And on the Opry we have Peavey
In terms of the current scene, do you have any favorite pickers or
musicians in general?
There’s a lot of great players around, but I’m real fond of the
younger guy who played with Merle Haggard – Clint Strong. Clint is a
very good friend of mine and he’s a serious jazz player – a real
“water moccasin” on guitar. He can handle anything thrown at him. And
of course there’s Grady Martin, who’ll always be my hero.
Grady’s awesome! Have you ever played with Brent Mason or Brent
Yeah. I just did a Ricky Skaggs session that Brent Mason was on. He’s a
It sounds like the session work has been pretty good for you through
the years. Who else have you recorded with?
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, to name a few.
And actually, I did a fair amount of work with Jimmy Bryant when he moved
Yeah. I never knew Jimmy before that. I met him when he moved here and we
just kind of fell in love with each other, hit it off real well. We had
always admired each other’s playing but had never met. I was working at
a little place called The Roadway Venture Inn on Sunday and Monday nights.
Jimmy would wander in all the time and sit in the front row, make up paper
wads and throw ’em at me every time I’d take a real hot chorus
I told him “Okay, you get up here now and play a little bit and I’m
gonna throw things at you.”
What did you and Jimmy work on?
Jimmy got involved in producing albums and sessions. Every time he was the
leader on a session, he would call me. One time, I arrived at a session he
had called me on and he wanted to play a three-part guitar harmony
section. Me and Jimmy on guitars, and Buddy Emmons – he always called
Buddy, too – on steel guitar. Before the session, Buddy set up right up
between Jimmy and me. Emmons was tuning and then he started playing some
real hot licks. All of a sudden, he stopped, dropped his bar and looked
over at Jimmy and then over at me. He pushed his chair back, got up and
said “No, no. No, no.” And then he walked out!
Now that’s a good story! Did you and Jimmy ever record any
Unfortunately, we didn’t. We never got into that. It seemed like we were
always busy with other people’s projects and time just flew right by.
As big a fan as I am of instrumental music, since the Beatles there
hasn’t been a very strong mainstream market for it. There’s always
been a strong-but-small niche market and actually, instrumental music has
been making a bit of a comeback in recent years, but it’s definitely not
like the ’50s and ’60s, when Speedy and Jimmy and you and The Troubs
were putting out such great stuff. And folks would go to dances and
anticipate getting up to “cut a rug” to tunes like “Rhodes-Bud
You’re right. I’ve often thought that as popular as Ernest was, The
Troubadours had a lot of fans, too. We used to kid E.T. and tell him “E.T.,
we had as many fans here tonight as you.” Not true, of course, but we
did have a lot of them.
How was E.T. to work for? Was he as good as they say?
E.T. was one of the finest men I’ve ever known and a great guy to work
for. Here’s one story that’ll show what kind of man Ernest was.
We played Madison Square Garden and we only did 10 minutes – it was a
big package tour thing. One of my jobs, including doing most of the
arranging and sometimes driving the bus, was to settle up with the
promoters, get Ernest’s money and keep it until the next day. Our fee
that night was $2,000. I went in to the promoter and he told me “Leon, I
hate to tell you this but we didn’t crack the nut tonight. We didn’t
make enough money to pay all of you. What I’m doing is giving everybody
half of their due in cash and then I’m post-dating a check to make up
the difference. Is that all right with you?” I told him “No sir. I can
only do it if you’ll date the check today. I’ll be glad to hold it for
as long as you want.” He said “No, I want to post-date it.” I told
him “How about you don’t give me any money or any check and when you
get the full $2,000, just send it to the office in Nashville.” He said
“Are you serious? You’d do that for me?” I said “Sure. I trust
We shook hands and I left. Well, the next morning I had to face Ernest,
and I was beginning to think maybe I’d done the wrong thing. I went down
and he was sitting on a little stool eating Post Toasties and milk. I sat
beside him and said “Good morning, Ernest. Me and you gotta talk.” He
said “What is it, son?” I said “I didn’t get you any money last
night.” He said “Is that right?” And I told him exactly what
happened. He took a couple of chews on his cereal and he looked at me and
said “Son, you did right.” And that’s all he ever said about it. He
was an honest and trustworthy man.
You did end up coming out okay on it, right?
Leon Rhodes, Johnny Johnson, Ernest Tubb,
Jack Drake, Buddy Emmons and Bun Wilson (kneeling in front)
Photo courtesy Buddy
A Selected Leon Rhodes Discography
Leon Rhodes, who spent much of the 1960s in Ernest Tubb’s great backup
band, The Texas Troubadours, is a terrific guitar player. Ernest was so
impressed with Leon and the rest of this group of Troubadours that he
helped them get their own recording contract. As part of this
exceptionally fine Troubadour band (Buddy Charleton on steel, Jack Drake
on bass, Jack Greene on drums and Cal Smith on rhythm guitar) Leon
recorded three albums (beginning in late 1964) that included some very
fine instrumental tunes and vocals. He became adept at a variety of styles
(straight country, western, and western swing) including my personal
favorite musical hybrid: country-jazz. And much of the instrumental
material he recorded with The Troubadours features exceptionally fine
examples of country-jazz guitar. Here are a few of my favorite examples of
Leon’s superb playing:
Ernest Tubb Presents The Texas Troubadours (released in early
1965). The debut Troubadours LP includes several terrific instrumentals,
including the “Pan Handle Rag” (one of my favorite versions of this
classic steel guitar tune), “Rhodes-Bud Boogie” and the ultra cool
“Texas Troubadour Stomp,” which features some great close harmony work
from Leon and Buddy, and two fine solos from Leon.
Country Dance Time (released in late 1965). Stellar cuts include
“Red Top” (the Lionel Hampton tune) and Duke Ellington’s “C-Jam
Blues.” Both “Red Top” and “C-Jam Blues” feature wonderful
country-jazz arrangements/playing. “Twilight Over Texas” shows
Leon’s tasty western/ballad capabilities. And I can’t say enough about
the engineering/stereo mix on this record. Superb!
Ernest Tubb’s Fabulous Texas Troubadours (released in late 1966).
“Honey Fingers” is a standout track on this great LP. Leon takes two
solos and they feature some jaw dropping/forehead slapping country-jazz
guitar work. Other notable tracks include “E.T. Blues” (very catchy),
“Cool It”, and “Take That.” All feature Leon’s tasty fills and
Here’s some specific details on Leon’s recorded work with The Texas
45 RPM SINGLES
Decca 31699 “Pan Handle Rag”/“Rhodes-Bud Boogie”
Decca 31770 “Cains Corner”/“Honky Tonks And You”*
Decca 31837 “Leon’s Guitar Boogie”/“Highway Man”*
Decca 32065 “E.T. Blues”/“Walking The Floor Over You”
Decca 32121 “Honey Fingers”/“Gardenia Waltz”
Decca 32185 “Almost To Tulsa”/“Oklahoma Hills”*
33 1/3 RPM STEREO ALBUMS
Decca DL 74045 Midnight Jamboree
Decca DL 74321 On Tour
Decca DL 74459 Ernest Tubb Presents The Texas Troubadours
Decca DL 74644 Country Dance Time
Decca DL 74681 Hittin’ The Road
Decca DL 74745 Ernest Tubb’s Fabulous Texas Troubadours
Rhino CD R2 70902 Ernest Tubb Live, 1965
Rhino CD R2 70718 Legends of Guitar - Country, Vol. 1 (1 track -
For more information on Leon, Buddy Charleton, and the rest of The
Troubadours, see the September, 1994, “SPOTLIGHT” column, which
profiles the Troubadours debut LP Ernest Tubb Presents The Texas
** A special ‘tip-of-the-Stetson’ to my pal and VG colleague
Dave Kyle for his important role in getting this project going. Many
thanks, Dave! **
Leon in full Texas Troubadours stage attire with his cherry red
Epiphone Sheraton, circa 1965. Photo courtesy of Leon Rhodes.
This article originally appeared in VG’s Jan. ’98 issue and
is reprinted here with the express permission of the author. All
copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine.
Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
For more articles like this each month, subscribe
to Vintage Guitar magazine.
Ernest Tubb Presents
The Texas Troubadours
Texas-born Country Music Hall of Fame Member Ernest Tubb is one of the more important figures in the history of country music. Influenced by the legendary singing brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest (known by friends, fans and peers as "E.T.") wrote and sang a lot of songs about drinkin' and cheatin'. He helped define an entire category/style of country songs: honky tonk. Songs he wrote or performed, like "Walking the Floor Over You", "Slipping Around", "Warm Red Wine" and "Drivin' Nails In My Coffin" are quintessential honky tonk. He became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry circa 1942 and this added to his already substantial popularity. He used this popularity to help champion the use of electric instruments on the Opry - and in country music in general. (Although E.T. wasn't the first artist to use electric instruments on the Opry, his popularity as well as his adamant insistence helped break Grand Ole Opry management's resistance to the presence/use of electric instruments.) E.T. also helped convince the recording/music industry to use the term "country and western" music rather than "hillbilly" music - a term a lot of folks found less than complimentary. Ernest was also one of the most generous stars in country music. He unselfishly used his fame and influence to help people like Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Loretta Lynn, Jack Greene, Cal Smith and many others.
E.T. attracted a regular group of very fine backup musicians. His 1950's Texas Troubadours included Billy Byrd (of Byrdland guitar fame) on guitar. And by the late 50's, Buddie Emmons was playing steel guitar for the Troubadours. Through much of the 1960's Ernest had an exceptionally fine Troubadour line-up. (It certainly was my favorite.) It included Jack Greene (on drums), Cal Smith (master of ceremonies on rhythm guitar), Jack Drake (brother of steel guitarist Pete Drake, on bass), Leon Rhodes (on lead guitar) and Buddy Charleton (on pedal steel guitar). (Even the Troubadours singing bus driver, Johnny Wiggins, got a little spot in the act.) This was quite a unit! (Jack Greene and Cal Smith would eventually go on to become major country stars in their own right, each with several #1 records.) E.T. was so impressed with these guys that he gave them a short solo set on nearly every show. And he helped get them signed to Decca Records as a "solo" act. (I'm sure glad he did!) This line-up recorded 3 albums for Decca. (An additional album was recorded in the late 60's with a slightly different line-up and is also quite good.) All of these LP's contain a mixture of vocals and instrumentals. While most of the vocals are in the "decent to pretty good" category, "pretty good" doesn't begin to describe the instrumentals. They're TERRIFIC!
As you can probably surmise from the title, this month's "SPOTLIGHT" LP, Ernest Tubb Presents The Texas Troubadours, is the Troubadours debut "solo" album. This very fine LP features 6 vocal tracks and 6 instrumental tracks. And the instrumental tracks feature some excellent playing by all of the Troubadours - and Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton in particular. (On the cover of the LP, Leon is on the bottom row on the right and Buddy is in the top row, second from the left.) These guys could really cook! (I think they're one of the best guitar/steel guitar tandems ever.) "Cains Corner" is a nice moderate tempo tune that features that close harmony twin guitar style that I can't get enough of. Leon and Buddy both contribute some fine short "breaks" on this one. There's a short section featuring some cool muted picking and some fine "stick" work by drummer Jack Greene. (Very tasty stuff!) The "Twelfth Street Rag" features Leon all the way. This version begins at a very brisk tempo and right near the end of the song, breaks into a seriously silly tempo. (This rivals Jimmy Bryant's version on his LP The Fastest Guitar In The Country.) Leon plays the last verse or so in that great old "banjo chord" style. It's very cool sounding. He throws in a couple of his signature single note "licks", a bunch of neat double-stops and the whole thing roars to a close. (Insane!!) Of the hundreds of different recordings of Leon McAuliff(e)'s classic "Pan Handle Rag", the Troubadours version is one of my all-time favorites. This thing features some superb steel work by Buddy. Buddy gets a great tone on this one and Leon chips in with a very tasty fill. And I love the close harmony guitar work! Decca Records thought enough of this tune to release it as a 45 RPM single (backed with "Rhodes-Bud Boogie" - on Decca 31699).
The "Texas Troubadour Stomp" is a "no holds barred" burner! Everyone shines on this one. There's a very cool "slippery sounding" segment that features Leon and Buddy once again locked in very close harmony. (A couple of segments sound like "bop" to me.) And the "breaks" by Leon and Buddy are SUPERB - textbook examples of my favorite musical hybrid: country-jazz. (Yee-haw!!) "Rhodes-Bud Boogie" sounds like it's right out of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant's songbook. It's a great boogie with an intricate chromatic section that features still more fine tight harmony work. And more textbook country-jazz fills and solos. "The Waltz You Saved For Me" is another steel guitar showcase for Buddy Charleton. His beautiful tone and expression are the highlight of this song. Leon plays a nice, simple solo (very much as if he was backing E.T.) utilizing some tasty tremolo picking.
A "tip-of-the-hat" to the engineers who worked on this project: The sound on this LP is exceptional - with very fine stereo imaging. The instruments fill the spectrum with drums and bass placed slightly right of center. The steel and lead guitars are placed at center for dual lead/twin harmony passages with occasional "panning" for other passages. The rhythm guitar is heard primarily left of center, and also what sounds like a six string bass (doubling the standard bass line) - a common technique at that time. I also enjoy the judicious amount of reverb. (I think it sounds "BIG" and "SPACIOUS".) You can very clearly hear all of the instruments and the sound is crystal clear. (I've never been a fan of what I call "radically panned stereo". You know, the kind where all of the vocals come out of one channel and most or all of the instrumental backing comes out of the other. It doesn't sound natural to me. If it's too "radical", I'd rather listen to a good mono recording.)
To the best of my knowledge, nothing from this month's "SPOTLIGHT" LP has been re-issued on compact disc. (Too bad! How about it Decca? How about re-issuing all 4 of the Troubadours LP's??) However, don't despair. One way to hear Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton on compact disc (without E.T.) is to listen to the incredible track "Honey Fingers", from the CD Legends of Guitar - Country, Vol. 1 (Rhino CD R2 70718). This features some TREMENDOUS country-jazz soloing from Leon. (This version is in mono. I prefer the stereo version.) Or - if you want to hear Leon and Buddy (and the rest of the Troubadours) backing E.T., a great "live" CD is Ernest Tubb Live 1965 (Rhino CD R2 70902). Two tracks on here are instrumental ("Pan Handle Rag" and "Rhodes-Bud Boogie") and feature some ultra-fine playing by Leon and Buddy.
On vinyl, I highly recommend the other 3 Texas Troubadours "solo" LP's. The stereo releases are:
Country Dance Time (Decca LP DL 74644) This LP features Buddy Charleton's classic steel guitar tune "Almost to Tulsa". Other stellar cuts include "Red Top" (the Lionel Hampton tune) and Duke Ellington's "C-Jam Blues". "Red Top" and "C-Jam Blues" feature wonderful country-jazz arrangements/playing. (There's a great stereo mix on this record too!)
Ernest Tubb's Fabulous Texas Troubadours (Decca LP DL 74745) The previously mentioned "Honey Fingers" is a standout track on this great LP. (Leon's two solos BURN!) Other notable tracks include "E.T. Blues", "Cool It", "Take That" and Buddy's beautiful version of the "Gardenia Waltz" (tremendous tone and feel on this one).
The Terrific Texas Troubadours (Decca LP DL 75017) This LP (with a slightly different Troubadour line-up) features Buddy playing a supercharged version of Buddie Emmons "Buddie's Boogie". (Smokin'!! There's some pretty cool drum work on this one too.) Other songs feature some very hot fiddle playing by guest artist Wade Ray.
* Ernest Tubb Presents The Texas Troubadours is available in stereo on Decca LP DL 74459 or in mono on Decca LP DL 4459.
A final note: I'm not sure what all of the 1960's Troubadours are up to these days but I do see Jack Greene on the Opry from time to time. (Usually as the host of the televised portion.) Occasionally I see Leon Rhodes as part of the Opry staff band and he may even take a solo or two. Buddy Charleton was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1993. He runs a music store in Maryland and I believe his most current CD is called "Playing Silk".
COPYRIGHT © 1994 BY J.E. HILMAR
Jim Hilmar is a long time
writer/columnist for Vintage Guitar Magazine (he wrote the popular
"SPOTLIGHT" column for 9 years) and a radio DJ as well. Leon
Rhodes is one of his big guitar influences and back in 1997, he
He also profiled Leon and fellow Texas Troubadour Buddy Charleton in the
September 1994 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine.
Through the years he's had the pleasure of interviewing/profiling players
like Brent Mason, Hank Garland, Roy Lanham, Roy Nichols, Norm Hamlet,
Buddy Emmons, Phil Baugh and many more. He also became friends with great
players like the late Speedy West and Larry Collins (and sister Lorrie).
In his radio 'career' he's been the regular host/producer of 2 programs:
Frettin' Fingers ("The Guitar Music Show") and Country Junction.
Frettin' Fingers features great guitar music (in many genres) from the
1930's through the present and Country Junction features great songs from
the golden age of hillbilly music (in my opinion - from the late 1940's
through the early 1960's). Frettin' Fingers always has a set (or more) of
great hillbilly, western swing, rockabilly, country-jazz and if my
audience out here in Western Washington State is any indication - there's
a market for songs from the golden age of hillbilly music.