NASHVILLE — 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 here 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, Mr. Capps was a guitarist on signature hits like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” George Jones’s “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’s “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, Mr. 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 the country singer Freddie Hart to go fishing. Mr. Edenton recommended that the producer George Richey hire Mr. 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 — Mr. Hart asked that Mr. Capps play rhythm guitar on his subsequent recordings.
“That is how my studio career happened,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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, N.C., to Alice (Stevens) and Thomas Capps. His father was a truck driver, his mother a homemaker.
The youngest of three sons, Mr. Capps was raised in nearby Benson, N.C., where he was influenced early on by an uncle who was a champion fiddle player. He received his first guitar at 12 and played on local radio shows throughout his teens.
In 1958 he moved to Nashville to work with the Louvin Brothers when their guitarist Paul Yandell was drafted into the Army. A friend arranged the audition for Mr. Capps, who had previously played guitar for a North Carolina duo that performed the Louvins’ material.
Mr. Capps worked with the Louvins until he entered the Army in 1962. After completing his service he was rehired by Charlie Louvin, who had begun a solo career after parting ways with his brother, Ira.
In 1967 Mr. Capps began working as the regular lead guitarist on the Grand Ole Opry; after becoming an in-demand session player in the early ’70s, he maintained these dual career tracks into the 1990s.
In 2018 Mr. Capps published an autobiography, wryly titled “The Man in Back” in deference to his lifelong career as a supporting musician.
He was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2014.
Besides his son Mark, Mr. Capps is survived by his wife of 12 years, Michele Voan Capps; another son, Jeff; and two granddaughters. (His first wife died before him.)
As much as his tenure with the Louvin Brothers helped launch his career, it was Mr. Capps’s exposure to the Nashville studio system and its so-called A-Team of session professionals that ultimately left its stamp on him as a musician.
“It was totally different music, but the same players,” he said, alluding to the stylistic reach of the sessions he encountered in Nashville in an interview at the 2012 Country Music Hall of Fame event.
“The first thing I noticed about the A-Team is that they played for the song and the artist,” he went on. “I always admired that so much. I looked up to those guys, and I wanted to be one of them.”
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