Celebrating 60 years onstage as a Union Musician
When you hear the four-bar acoustic guitar intro to the classic Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler”—one of the biggest songs in country music history—you are hearing the work of guitarist Jimmy Capps. And when you hear the six string in songs such as “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, “Elvira” by The Oak Ridge Boys, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones, and “How Blue” by Reba McEntire, that is also Jimmy.
Jimmy’s image may be low-key, but his prolific career has earned him a place as one of the most accomplished and respected guitarists in the history of country music. His recent autobiography, titled The Man in Back, details an illustrious career few can boast of, all from the back of the stage. That’s the way he prefers it—as the backbone of the band, making the front person sound great.
“I love that position; there’s not as much pressure as the man or woman up front. He or she sells the tickets, I’m there to support,” explains the Nashville Local 257 member, who is also a member of the Musicians Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, a “Nashville Cat” in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a member of the Grand Ole Opry band for the past 60 years.
“From day one I wanted to be behind the artist. I feel more comfortable in that position, 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.”
“What I love about Jimmy is that he is modest and humble, even though he is a great musician,” says Local 257 President Dave Pomeroy. “He has outlasted so many great performers and players in his 60 years at the Opry, which will never be equaled.”
Jimmy started playing at age 12 when his parents bought him a Stella guitar. “The strings were an inch high off the fret board. It played hard. You could only play C and G chords,” Jimmy writes in his book. “The further up the neck you went, the more your fingers hurt. It was a cheap guitar, but I thought it was the greatest thing in the world.”
Jimmy practiced every day (and even slept holding his guitar) and played hoedowns with his uncle who played fiddle. By age 13, Jimmy got his first paying job on a radio show in his hometown of Benson, North Carolina. When he was 16, he became part of a television show called “Saturday Night Country Style.” By the time he was a junior in high school, he played gigs nearly every night. He loved music and hated school so much that he got his principal’s and his parents’ blessings to quit school.
“I’m amazed they let me quit school; I don’t know how I got away with that,” Jimmy says. “I wouldn’t recommend quitting school. It worked for me, but I wouldn’t recommend it. As a kid you think you can do anything. I knew what I wanted to do, and my parents backed me up. It was my dream to do the Opry.”
Just a few years later, at age 19 and while playing as a member of the Louvin Brothers’ band, Jimmy had his dream come true. “To this day I can still remember what it sounded like when I walked into the Ryman [Auditorium],” he writes. “This was where any country guitar player dreamed of being.”
That was in 1958. Jimmy played the Opry from then on, with The Louvins and other artists, and became a regular member of the Opry staff band in the 1960s. But that has been only one facet of his long career.
If you listen to music, there is a good chance you have heard Jimmy play guitar. He has worked with a cross-section of artists, from Chet Atkins to Garth Brooks to Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. He’s backed Ray Charles, John Denver, and Andy Williams. In addition, he has played on dozens of No. 1 songs and records, on songs used in movies, and has worked as both a session and touring guitarist.
“All in all, the Opry’s been a foundation for income and for pleasure,” Jimmy says. “I get a lot of pleasure working with up-and-coming artists and with traditional artists.”
On December 21, 2018, Jimmy celebrated his six-decade anniversary on the Opry stage at a special concert and was honored with the announcement that night that the Opry rehearsal room had been named in his honor: the Jimmy Capps Music Room. “I kind of look down at the floor so I don’t have to look at it,” he says with a laugh. “I appreciate it very much and especially the respect that goes with it.”
“I’m pro union, I really am, and always have been.”
Jimmy also hit the 60-year mark in 2019 being an AFM member. “I just thought it was an honor back then,” he says of his decision to join in 1959. “I thought it was an honor to be in the same union that my musical heroes were in: the Grady Martins, the Hank Garlands, the Buddy Harmons, and Harold Bradley, who later on became president of our local. They knocked down all the brush and the bushes and we came in on paved roads … they had already fought for things that I was able to use and make my life better.” Jimmy the pension plan and wage scales are important and he always recommends to younger musicians to join.
Jimmy is active in his local and has served for more than two decades on both the Local 257 Executive Board and as chair of the Emergency Relief Committee. The Emergency Relief Fund helps members in financial need due to medical issues that prevent them from working. “It’s helped many musicians through the years,” he says. “It helps give them some relief. It’s really been a good thing and I am so proud to be a part of it.”
In addition to union membership, his advice to young musicians is to have a good attitude about the work. “Attitude is 75% of it,” he says. “Get along with your fellow pickers, and your peers will be the keys to the kingdom; they’ll recommend you to other people. I think that has helped me through the years as well: having a good attitude. You’re there for the artist, you’re there for the song, and you need to do your very best for those two items.”
After more than 60 years as a professional musician, Jimmy says he still gets up every morning eager to get to work. “It’s been that way all down through the career I’ve had. Every day is different, and that’s just it: You get up wanting to do what you love. And not everyone is blessed with being able to do a job that they love. But I have been.”
To learn more about Jimmy, visit his website. To hear Jimmy play live, head on down to the Opry.