NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jimmy Capps, a versatile guitarist who played on some of the biggest country hits of the 1970s and ’80s and was a member of the Grand Ole Opry’s house band for more than five decades, died in Nashville on Monday. He was 81.
His son Mark confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.
Known among his peers as the “master of smoothness” for his seemingly effortless technique, Capps was a guitarist on signature hits like 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.”
He also contributed the filigreed acoustic guitar figure to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and the gutbucket electric guitar riff to the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira.” All five of those records reached No. 1 on the Billboard country singles chart; “Elvira,” “The Gambler” and “Stand By Your Man” were major pop hits as well.
According to his website, Capps played on more than 500 recording sessions a year at the peak of his career, many of them under the supervision of renowned Nashville producers like Billy Sherrill and Owen Bradley.
His big break as a session musician came in 1971, when the otherwise indefatigable rhythm guitarist Ray Edenton took a day off from his studio work with country singer Freddie Hart to go fishing. Edenton recommended that producer George Richey hire Capps to replace him on the session, which yielded the No. 1 country hit “Easy Loving.”
Pleased with how the record turned out — “Easy Loving” was a pop hit as well — Hart asked that Capps play rhythm guitar on his subsequent recordings.
“That is how my studio career happened,” Capps explained in an interview at an event honoring him at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012. “Other musicians and producers were kind enough to recommend me to others.”
In addition to his prolific legacy as a studio guitarist, which also included work with Ray Charles, Julie Andrews and George Strait, Capps was lead guitarist at the Grand Ole Opry, playing a regular schedule of shows there on the weekends for more than 50 years.
He also appeared often on television in support of other musicians and had a recurring role as a guitar-playing sheriff on “Larry’s Country Diner,” a musical variety show that has been seen on the RFD Network since 2009.
James Dixon Capps was born on May 25, 1939, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Alice (Stevens) and Thomas Capps. His father was a truck driver, his mother a homemaker.