Dammit, it’s been a rough few days… we lost another one… Yes, I know… the media will be all over Gary Rossington… who can be heard all over “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” (So now the only original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd is the original guitar tech…) But many of us will be remembering the legacy of one of the greatest bass players of all time, but one who flew largely under the radar. He was a first-call session player in studios, a rare “triple-scale” guy who was worth every penny he commanded, and then some. And he was recruited by an all-star list of artists from different genres… a testament to the depth and the breadth of his talents. From country to rock to jazz, Michael Rhodes made complicated seem simple… until others tried to do it. He had those “monkey fingers” that could glide up and down the neck of the bass guitar like a primate climbing a rope, and when playing live, could command the attention of the “instrumentalist nerds” in the crowd to the point of distracting us from the lead singer. Yet he then blended into the background to put the focus back on the artist that he was complimenting. Obituaries will list an unbelievable list of all the artists that he played with, and that will only be the tip of the iceberg.
When I first moved to Nashville in 1984, I went to work for Buddy Lee Attractions, an independently owned booking agency that had a great legacy, and a pretty darn good run from the mid ’80’s until about 2001. (RIP Buddy Lee.) In the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, the agency signed a lot of artists that would soon become staples on country radio… Ricky Van Shelton, Mark Chesnutt, Steve Wariner, Rodney Crowell, Lorrie Morgan, Ronnie Milsap, Neal McCoy, Clay Walker, Terri Clark, Marty Stuart, The Dixie Chicks… and little did I realize then that a common denominator was the studio bass player, Michael Rhodes. But he was also busy playing on the albums of legends such as Tammy Wynette, The Highwaymen, Connie Smith, Alabama, George Strait, and Kenny Chesney, to name a few.
But how I first knew Michael was from the side projects that he loved so much, and played live with in the clubs around Nashville. I had become friends with Elvis Presley’s musical director, Joe Guercio, who was “one cool daddy-o…” yeah, he was from that era… and he would stop by the office from time to time and hang out with Buddy and the gang. I remember him raving about “the best band in Nashville” one day, and it was The Vinyl Kings, a group of triple-scale session cats (formerly “The Del Beatles” until they got a cease and desist letter in the mail one day.) They were a seven-piece group that formed with a love of Sixties Music. The rules were simple… every one got to pick 3 or 4 of their favorite songs from the sixties, and the others had to learn them, no questions asked. And they arguably were the best live renditions of those songs you ever heard, even surpassing the originals… (Cinnamon Girl for example… take THAT, Neil Young!) But their “thing” was that every other song they played was a Beatles song, and b’golly, done as well as the Beatles. Six of the seven members were vocalists, so they could cover “live” what often was only accomplished in the studio. The members were Larry Byron (Steppenwolf,) Larry Lee (Ozark Mountain Daredevils,) Josh Leo (Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefers,) Jim Photoglo (Dan Fogelberg, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) Vince Melamed (Eagles, Fogelberg, Buffet,) Handsome Harry Stinson (Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives,) and… Michael Rhodes. They would only play a few dates a year, in Nashville, and those were usually as a fundraiser for various local causes. I signed them for live representation, but only booked one date on them… for what was supposedly a fundraiser for John Kerry on Martha’s Vineyard (but was probably just a party for the beach elite…) due to the fact the band was always so busy with their own individual musical commitments. The first Vinyl Kings album for me, is one of my most enjoyable listens since “Abbey Road.” And I don’t use fabulous superlatives loosely.
Michael was often the “go-to-guy” on bass for Rodney Crowell, who I booked for three different phases of his career… at Buddy Lee during his country radio stint on Columbia Records, then briefly during my stint as the head of The Agency Group’s Nashville office, and currently (and hopefully until death do us part) in his “Americana Music” phase at New Frontier Touring. But Rodney had side projects too, of which two were “The Notorious Cherry Bombs,” and “The Cicadas.” Yeah… none other than Michael Rhodes on bass. Go on line and check out the Cherry Bombs’ classic “It’s Hard To Kiss the Lips At Night…” video, where the band is featured in the barber shop scenes, and where Michael, whose “look” was a cleanly shaved head, is shown enjoying a good buff. Be sure to listen to both projects when time permits, and let yourself fall into the pocket that Michael created. You’ll be glad that you did.
Around 2012, another all-star band emerged on the Nashville scene… The World Famous Headliners… comprised of another “Who’s Who” of artists, songwriters, session and live players, featuring Big Al Anderson (NRBQ,) Shawn Camp (his own career plus others,) Pat McLaughlin (his own career plus John Prime,) Greg Morrow (show off… OK… Bob Seger) and of course Michael Rhodes. I had to sign them. I booked them to play a “prestigious” showcase for the Americana Music Association, and invited talent buyers from around the country to come and check out the band at the now-defunct Rutledge in Nashville. It was a brilliant set, and the next morning, upon opening my email, I had an offer for the band to play a festival on Vancouver Island. It read something to the effect of “I have never been so compelled to send an offer as I am now, at 2am from my hotel room…” I was excited to present the offer to the band, but as I recall, the conversation went something like “Well, Rhodes will be in Montserrat at AIR Studios with Dave Stewart, and can’t make it.” I only booked one road gig for them, at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, but they were proudly on the roster for awhile. Their two albums are “desert island worthy” and in regular rotation in my car.
We all have moments in life that are indelibly printed on our hard drive, and one for me was in 1988, when I was running an errand in my Toyota pickup, driving west on White Bridge Road, when a song came on the radio (probably Lightning 100) and I had a “Holy Shit Moment” and pulled off the road into the Target parking lot, to listen to “Roll With It” by Steve Winwood. As it turns out, Steve is credited with playing bass on the recording, but he can’t play keyboards and bass live in concert. So who did he recruit to play bass on the “Roll With It Tour?” Duh… To the internet again, and check out Winwood’s “Roll With It” concert from Royal Albert Hall in 1988, and “Roll With It” starts at about the 32:25 mark, with nice shots of Michael at 33:45, 34:03, 35:05, 35:28 and 35:55. Hell, watch the whole show when you have an hour to kill. But hopefully a smile will come to your face when you spot Michael, and sense the joy that he felt when playing live.
It is interesting how people drift in and our of our lives, some peripherally, like Michael was to me. And here I am, writing about my appreciation of his talents, yet I never took the time to take a minute and share my feelings with him. Shame on me, and perhaps a lesson to be learned… to take the time to tell someone how you feel about them while they are still alive, and not when it is too late. Michael passed away on March 4th, which is the only date on the calendar that is also an imperative sentence. May he march forth into that great studio on the other side. But actually, I hope he dethrones whoever is playing in the house band up there, and that one day I get to see and hear him again.
Paul Lohr, 3/6/23