Nashville Cats: Salute to Session Player Jimmy Capps

June 16, 2012
Guitarist Jimmy Capps can testify to the importance of word-of-mouth recommendations For example, he recalled when veteran Music Row guitarist Ray Edenton wanted to go fishing one day in 1971, the established musician suggested to a producer that he hire the younger Capps in his place. The session, for singer Freddie Hart, included the recording of Hart’s biggest career hit, the #1 “Easy Loving,” featuring Capps on rhythm guitar. Hart insisted Capps play on his next recording session and the one after that.

“I found out that there’s nothing more important than a recommendation from one of your peers,” Capps said. “That is how my studio career happened. Other musicians and producers were kind enough to recommend me to others, and I owe it all to them.”

Capps recounted this story during an interview and performance as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to musicians who have played an integral role in country music. Hosted by Bill Lloyd, the program surveyed Capps’s outstanding contributions tracing back to the 1950s. Throughout, Capps displayed a soft-spoken, gentlemanly demeanor, buoyed by a wry humor. His fluid, melodic guitar style also was highlighted, through videos and recordings, illustrating why he has been held in such high esteem for more than fifty years.

Known as “the master of smoothness” for the way he makes intricate guitar figures appear effortless, Capps has been active in the music business since his teen years. He graduated from regional bands to national touring musician when hired by the Louvin Brothers in the late 1950s.

“He went on to play on some of the greatest country hits of all time,” said Lloyd in introducing Capps. Besides countless recording sessions, Capps frequently appeared playing behind the stars on television programs. That presence continues today, as Capps co-stars as a guitar-playing sheriff on the RFD Network program Larry’s Country Diner.

A native of Benson, North Carolina, Capps was encouraged by a fiddle-playing uncle. Getting his first guitar at age twelve, Capps “got good quick,” as Lloyd said. Within a year, the young guitarist was performing regularly on a local radio station, sponsored by a store owner for whom he delivered groceries between on-air appearances.

Through his teen years, Capps played in various bands in North Carolina, including backing a vocal duo specializing in Louvin Brothers songs. The job allowed Capps to re-create the guitar work of one of his heroes, Chet Atkins, who had played on many early tracks by the Louvins. That work prepared Capps for his leap to the big-time, when a friend arranged for Capps to audition for the famed country duo.

“I literally had dreamed about working with the Louvins, because Chet played that great guitar behind them,” Capps said. “I was in love with their singing and with the guitar playing.”

Paul Yandell, a thumb-picking guitarist, was in the Louvins band when Capps tried out. During the audition, Yandell asked Capps to play an instrumental. When Capps asked which one, Yandell challenged the youngster by suggesting the Spanish, and decidedly non-country, song “Malagueña.” Capps didn’t know it. Charlie Louvin wryly piped in, “Me and Ira hardly ever sing ‘Malagueña.’ We’re going to hire him.”

The Louvins customarily used their own guitarist on recording sessions, augmented by studio musicians and guided by Capitol Records producer and executive Ken Nelson. On his first session, Capps played lead guitar in a band that included famed Nashville A-Team players Ray Edenton on acoustic rhythm guitar, Buddy Harman on drums, and Junior Huskey on bass. A later Louvins session found Capps playing alongside one of his heroes, guitarist Hank Garland. “I was just a scared nineteen-year-old kid,” Capps said. “He treated me like an equal.”

In 1962, Capps was drafted into the Army, where he performed in a military pop band. After a two-year stint, Capps was hired by Charlie Louvin, by then performing as a solo act after splitting with brother Ira. “I went back to work before I got back to Nashville,” the guitarist said, praising Louvin for his trust in him. “That’s loyalty.”

Later, Capps spent time in Ferlin Husky’s band, the Hush Puppies. At that point, Capps was hired to play each weekday on a morning TV show in Nashville. Television would prove to be a lucrative venue for Capps, who held on-going jobs playing guitar on awards shows and on variety series hosted by such country stars as the Wilburn Brothers, Marty Robbins, the Statler Brothers, Rex Allen Jr., and others. A staff guitarist at the Grand Ole Opry since 1967, Capps also has appeared regularly on various Opry TV telecasts.

The bassist in the band, Lightnin’ Chance, helped Capps get work on demo recordings, increasing his experience as a studio player. That led to a session playing guitar as George Jones cut twelve songs in three hours for a Hank Williams tribute album.

Capps spoke about how singers and producers often knew the material well before starting a recording session. But musicians had to learn the arrangement and their parts on the spot. They also had to be ready for any possibilities. “Back then, all the session guitarists carried eight or ten guitars with them to every session,” he said. “You never knew what you might be asked to do.”

The more he learned about the Nashville studio system, the more Capps respected his fellow session players. “It always amazed me that the guys who came before me-like Jerry Kennedy and Grady Martin and Harold (Bradley) and Bob Moore, Buddy Harman, and Pig (Robbins)-could work with Jimmy Martin in the morning and Brenda Lee in the afternoon,” Capps said. “It was totally different music, but it was the same players. The first thing I noticed about the A-Team is that they played for the song and the artist. I always admired that so much. I looked up to those guys, and I wanted to be one of them.”

Once “Easy Loving” hit, Capps regularly got calls for studio sessions, recording hits in the 1970s with John Denver, Ronnie Milsap, Charley Pride, Charlie Rich, Kenny Rogers, Billie Jo Spears, Mel Street, Tammy Wynette, and others. As Lloyd pointed out, many of Capps’s recordings utilized his acoustic guitar as the driving element in the arrangement on a track.

Asked about working with Pride, a Country Music Hall of Fame member, Capps said, I thought he was a superstar, and he is-still. When he works the Opry, when he walks out on the stage, it’s like Elvis walked out. The people rush the stage with their cameras flashing.”

Capps continued to contribute through the 1980s and 1990s, singling out songs he performed on by T. Graham Brown, John Conlee, Lacy J. Dalton, Terri Gibbs, Alan Jackson, Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire, Oak Ridge Boys, Riders in the Sky, George Strait, and Conway Twitty. “That’s an amazing list,” Lloyd said.

Meanwhile, he has found a new audience of fans through his regular appearances on Larry’s Country Diner, a music-and-comedy variety program on the RFD cable network. Capps portrays a sheriff who happens to be an outstanding guitarist. He often provides musical support for guests, including country artists such as Bill Anderson and Gene Watson. “The producers told me I could be either a mayor or a sheriff,” he said. “I said I think I could be a sheriff, because I like donuts.”

Past retirement age, Capps isn’t close to packing away his guitars anytime soon. “There are different plateaus we’ve moved to, and thank goodness for that,” he said. “I don’t do as many sessions anymore. I was the new kid on the block once, and there are other new kids on the block now, and they deserve a chance. I think there’s a reason for that. But I still get hired to play a lot.”

As for his enduring track record-as a studio musician, an Opry staff player, and a frequent contributor on TV programs-Capps said: “I like to think it’s because I’m a good team player, instead of being a guy who insisted on doing it his way. I wanted to be part of the team.”

Capps ended the program with a performance showing off his awe-inspiring guitar technique, leading a four-piece group that included his wife Michele Capps on vocals. Each of his solos drew a loud round of applause, leading to a show-ending standing ovation.

-Michael McCall