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Michael Rhodes Was A Bass Colossus

060119 WMOT 895 Fest
Val Hoeppner
Michael Rhodes, the renowned Nashville bass player who died on Saturday, plays with Rodney Crowell at WMOT's 895 Fest in 2019.

Bass players often blend in near the back of a band, but there was no hiding Michael Rhodes. He was tall, lean and muscular, with a bald head that shone like cue ball when it wasn’t covered with his signature stocking cap. Rhodes often wore swooping scarves and small dark spectacles on stage, adding to his mystique. And when the music got hot, he’d move around like an exotic cat, springing on his long legs and twisting with his endlessly long arms and fingers as he laid down the thickest grooves in Music City.

Rhodes, who died on Saturday at the age of 69, was the dominant bass player of his era in Nashville. In the studio he anchored countless country tracks and hits with formulaic precision and professionalism when called for, but his reputation was made as an in-the-moment musician who played with creativity, craft and palpable passion. When supergroup side projects formed, as tends to happen in a town like this, Rhodes seemed to always be part of them, including The Notorious Cherry Bombs with Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, The Players with guitarist Brent Mason and steel legend Paul Franklin, the Beatles tribute band The Vinyl Kings, and the World Famous Headliners with Al Anderson, Pat McLaughlin, and Shawn Camp.

“He made every musical situation he ever strolled into better, and dug a groove so deep there was no way to mess it up,” said Camp on his Facebook page. “He did not hold back, ever. And when he smiled at ya in the middle of some kind of magic musical moment, you knew he loved you.”

“His time, tone, and pocket were impeccable and not surprisingly his session career took off like a rocket,” wrote fellow bass player and Nashville Musicians Union President Dave Pomeroy, who’s had a closely parallel career since arriving in town about the same time in the latter 1970s. “He had chops for days, but was not a show off, he just wanted you to feel that groove. His discography is ridiculous, look him up and you’ll see.”

It’s true. His vast studio credits on Music Row and beyond easily put him in the historic company of Motown’s James Jamerson or the L.A. Wrecking Crew’s Carol Kaye. He played for J.J. Cale and Dolly Parton in the early 80s, the breakout records of Randy Travis, seminal projects by Reba McEntire, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, and that’s all before 1995. Mixed in with the country stars over the decades were important albums by Steve Winwood, Elton John, Shawn Colvin, Etta James, Michael Bolton, Brian Wilson, and Buddy Guy. While he was chiefly a studio musician, he did tour for stretches of his career, most recently six months out of the year with global blues rock star Joe Bonamassa.

Rhodes was a native of Monroe, LA and regarded himself through his career as “a blue collar worker.” He got involved in music through a teenage surf rock band and lived in Austin and Memphis briefly before settling in Nashville in 1977. He got established as a studio musician helping songwriters cut demos for Tree Publishing. His career coincided with Nashville’s supernova years, when country music became the nation’s dominant radio format and while the city’s music scene grew more diverse than ever before. Rhodes touched it all, from commercial country to Americana and instrumental niches. He was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2019.

My own favorite Michael Rhodes memories come from the early 2010s, when he’d play in guitarist Guthrie Trapp’s instrumental trio with drummer Pete Abbott under the acronym TAR. In that lean and mean format, as Rhodes darted in and around the inventive lines and chords of Trapp, one could hear, feel and see Rhodes’s mastery of harmony, pocket and group dynamics. He was vibrantly alert to any shift in energy, and his deeply chiseled features cracked a wry smile when things started cooking.

“Michael was like a superhero. Ungodly talented, heavy, deep and terrifying,” wrote Trapp on Sunday. “He kicked my ass more than anyone ever has. And I loved every minute of it. He was also a very sweet guy, but zero bullshit. Ever. Many of us learned so much from him and will continue to. He NEVER sacrificed musical integrity for anything and when he showed up, he showed to play like no other.”

Guthrie Trapp "Angeline/Mambo Cheeks"

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org