Beloved veteran country session musician and longtime Grand Ole Opry house band guitarist Jimmy Capps has died at age 81. A spokesperson for the Opry confirmed the news to Billboard, though no cause of death was revealed at press time.
The Musicians Hall of Fame member began his career with the Louvin Brothers in 1958, kicking off a more than half-century career that included laying down iconic licks on such country standards as Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira,” Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and “The Rose” by Conway Twitty.
Along the way, according to a bio on his official site, Capps, born on May 25, 1939, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, averaged 520 recording sessions a year as well as countless performances with the Grand Ole Opry house band, which he joined in 1967. Known for his deft acoustic guitar playing, Capps’ name was often mentioned alongside such fellow Nashville guitar legends as Chet Atkins and Grady Martin. With a wide-ranging resume, Capps’ session work took him from recordings with such contemporary country stars as Alan Jackson, to work with Junior Brown, Andy Williams, Ray Charles, k.d. lang, Tom Jones and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
In a statement to Billboard, Dan Rogers, VP and Executive Producer of the Grand Ole Opry said: “Jimmy helped define country music for more than one generation of fans. His musicianship will live on every time somebody somewhere plays ‘The Gambler,’ ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ or countless other recordings on which he played. He was an absolute fixture on stage and backstage at the Opry. I personally reveled in walking around the corner from my office before showtime and seeing the namesake of the Jimmy Capps Music Room holding court with his smile and his guitar, talking with longtime friends and newcomers alike. The difficult part of being so close-knit at the Opry is that losses like this cut deep. While the Opry will never be the same, it’s better for Jimmy Capps having played his part in it for more than 60 years.”
Capps played lead guitar on the long-running Opry radio shows until his death, backing guest artists and serving as a kind of ambassador for country, according to a number of remembrances from friends and fellow artists provided to Billboard.
“I’m deeply saddened by the news of the passing of my dear friend, Jimmy Capps. Jimmy was maybe the kindest and most considerate person I knew in the music business,” said Charley Pride. “A pro’s pro, he played an important role in many of my recordings and every Opry performance we ever played together. Rozene and I send our sympathy and heartfelt prayers to Michele and all of Jimmy’s family.”
The Oak Ridge Boys’ Joe Bonsall added, “In a time of darkness Jimmy was always a light. Like everyone else in Nashville Jimmy was a part of our music and our career and our lives!!! This will take a while to process… the Oak Ridge Boys will sure miss The Man In Back … Until the DAY.”
Crystal Gayle recalled the first time she met Capps, at which point he was already a fixture in Nashville as one of the city’s great guitar players. “I worked with Jimmy many times and I got to know him and his wonderful wife Michele even better these last several years at the Opry,” she said. “Jimmy was always ready with a smile, a kind word and a great guitar lick. I can’t imagine the Opry without Jimmy Capps. These crazy times are much sadder this morning.”
Check out some of Capps’ performances below.