The world of country music is mourning for the death of a legendary guitarist. Jimmy Capps, a longtime Grand Ole Opry house band guitarist and a member of the Musicians Hall of Fame, died Tuesday at age 81.
The Grand Ole Opry, where Capps played for over 50 years, confirmed the sad news, though no cause of death was revealed as of press time.
In case you don’t recognize the name, you’ll certainly recognize some of the songs he played on: Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.”
“The news this morning about the passing of our dear friend Jimmy Capps has been devastating,” Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys said. “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.'”
The Start to a Career that Spanned to Six Decades
Moving to Nashville in 1958, Capps established a career that spanned to six decades. He worked along with prominent figures in country music like Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, and George Strait.
“The heavenly choir has gained one of the finest players to ever play,” The Oak Ridge Boys, who tapped Jimmy to perform in 1981 hit “Elvira,” wrote in their social media account. “And quite frankly, one of the finest men to ever live.”
The legendary guitarist was born on May 25, 1939, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was raised in neighboring Benson, North Carolina. He started picking at the age of 12 after his parents bought him a Stella guitar.
Capps started working in television and radio, logging nights in local clubs before he was enlisted to play guitar for the duo The Louvin Brothers. Jimmy considered the gig as his “big break.” He, later on, shared, “Thanks to Charlie [Louvin] … I guess I owe my whole career to him.”
Capps added, “That decision made all the difference in my life.”
A Grand Ole Opry Debut That Change His Life
Jimmy Capps, a fan of country music’s longest-running radio program since his childhood, made his Grand Ole Opry debut in December 1958, where he performed “Knoxville Girl” with The Louvin Brothers. In 1967, he finally joined the Opry house band. And for the next five decades, no one in history has performed more on Opry than Capps did.
During his tenure in Opry, Capps gently added “brilliance and class to new and veteran performers alike,” said country singer Brad Paisley.
“My first time at the Opry I remember being struck by the fact that legends like Jimmy Capps blended in without fanfare in the background,” Paisley continued. “All the while, the younger acts were most likely unaware of the fact that the guy strumming a guitar on their song also did that on ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ And ‘Stand By Your Man.’ And ‘Amarillo By Morning.'”
“We will miss this man so much … but I’m so glad I got to be on that stage at the same time he was.”
In addition to his regular gigs at Opry, Capps became a premier studio player in Nashville. According to his biography, Capps would often work on more than 500 recording sessions a year on Music Row.
Fellow member of Country Music Hall of Fame, Ricky Skaggs, described the music icon as a “historic, amazing musician of the Nashville sound.”
“He had forgotten more history about Nashville music and the musicians who played it than most people will ever know,” Skaggs revealed. “A tremendous loss for Nashville and our Grand Ole Opry family.”
The Great Man Behind Legendary Artists
Ever since day one, Jimmy Capps wanted to be “behind the artist.”
“I feel more comfortable in that position,” Capps once said, “and it has allowed me to basically create on my own — unless the artist wanted one particular thing — but most of the time they let you create on your own and try to add something to the song.”
Through the years, his list of performances went on with Conway Twitty’s “Lost In The Feeling,” Reba McEntire’s “How Blue,” and Alan Jackson’s “Here In The Real World.” His official website also said that he had shared studio time with Andy Williams, Ronnie Milsap, and Ray Charles.
“Jimmy Capps played guitar on my very first demo in Nashville in 1971,” country singer Larry Gatlin said. “He told me that night, ‘Kid, you’re going to be a big star, and I’m rooting for you.’ Over the years, he became a dear friend. I miss him already. The world will miss ‘The Sheriff’ Jimmy Capps.”
Eventually, Capps found his way behind the studio controls. He produced albums for The Wilburn Brothers, Charlie Louvin, and Jan Howard, among others. In more recent years, Capps frequently appeared RFD-TV’s popular TV show Larry’s Country Diner as the guitar-playing “Sheriff” as well as on Country’s Family Reunion.
The Country Music Hall of Fame recognized him as one of the most admired “Nashville Cats” players in 2012. Two years after, he was inducted in The Musicians Hall of Fame. The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame also honored him in 2018.
Sixty years after his debut on The Grand Ole Opry, Jimmy Capps celebrated the milestone by releasing his autobiography, “The Man in Back.” In it, Capps shared memories and exclusive stories of working behind country music legends, including Dottie West, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and many more.
The Grand Ole Opry also celebrated Capps’ lifetime achievements and momentous contributions by dedicating a venue rehearsal space called the “Jimmy Capps Music Room.”
“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,” VP and Executive Producer of the Grand Ole Opry, Dan Rogers, said. “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.”
Jimmy Capps & Friends play “Cold Cold Heart”
Indeed, heaven has gained one of the finest musicians in the world, Nashville’s finest and most creative session guitarists in history. Capps is survived by his wife Michele Voan Capps and their three sons. No funeral arrangements have been announced yet by Spring Hill Funeral Home.