Revered Bassist Michael Rhodes Dies At 69
Michael Rhodes, born in Monroe, Louisiana, passed away at his home in Nashville, Tennessee the morning of March 4th. He was 69. An esteemed bass player, Rhodes was one of the most elite musicians of the last four decades. Having played on iconic recordings and touring with some of rock, blues, jazz and progressive country music’s biggest names, he was inducted into the Musician’s Hall of Fame in 2019.
Having taught himself to play guitar at 11, he was drawn to the funky, swampy rhythms of Louisiana and Texas’ strong musical hybrids and began playing professionally shortly thereafter. Switching to bass, he drifted to Austin during the rise of the Outlaw movement in the early ’70s, then Memphis where he found a gig with Allan Rich, Charlie Rich’s son, in the mid- ’70s.
It was a short jump to Nashville. In 1977, he joined local rock band the Nerve and became part of the house demo band at Tree Publishing, where future Country Music Hall of Fame members Bobby Braddock and Harlan Howard, as well as Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Curly Putnam, provided a deep dive into classic – and enduring – American songcraft.
As Rhodes told Nashville Arts of that era of his life, “It was a great crash course in the art of playing the song, and what was needed for a song.”
That sensitivity to a song’s emotional and musical touchpoints, as well as his blues and jazz grounding, made him the first call for the biggest superstars and tastemakers across myriad genres. He played on Shawn Colvin’s Record and Song of the Year Grammy-winning “Sunny Came Home,” Lee Ann Womack’s Country Music Association Single and Academy of Country Music and BMI Awards Song of the Year “I Hope You Dance,” Ashley Cleveland’s Grammy Best Rock Gospel Grammy-winning You Are There, Joe Bonamassa’s Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy nominee Live at the Greek and Larry Carlton’s Best Pop Instrumental Album Grammy nominee Take Your Pick.
One of the most recorded musicians in the world, Rhodes recorded frequently with Willie Nelson, Etta James, Mark Knopfler, Alan Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Brian Wilson, Joss Stone, Dolly Parton, the (Dixie) Chicks, J.J. Cale, Wynonna, Merle Haggard, Randall Bramlett, Amy Grant, Hank Williams, Jr, the Highwaymen, John Oates, George Strait and Kenny Chesney, as well as on projects for Bob Seger, Dave Stewart, Keith Whitley, Joan Baez, Lionel Richie, Burt Bacharach, Aaron Neville, Johnny Cash, Lonny Mack, India.Arie, Buddy Guy, Grace Potter, Billy Joe Shaver, Ruthie Collins, Michael McDonald, Dan Penn, Jennifer Holiday, John Fogerty, Elton John and Joan Osborne.
He had the rare distinction of playing on both LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood’s versions of Dianne Warren’s “How Will I Live,” which competed against each other in 1997 on the charts and at the Grammy Awards. His versatility and sensitivity to performers allowed him the ability to be part of both recordings.
As an in-demand touring musician, Rhodes played on and toured for Vince Gill’s landmark 4 disc Album of the Year Grammy nominee These Days, as well as being part of Steve Winwood’s acclaimed live band beginning with the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s massive Roll With It Tour. A frequent member of Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell’s road bands during the ‘80s and ‘90s, Rhodes joined Crowell in both the Cicadas with Steuart Smith and Vince Santoro and the roots supergroup Notorious Cherry Bombs, a reprise of Crowell’s California rock band that included Gill, producer Tony Brown, Richard Bennett, Hank DeVito and Eddie Bayers.
But for Rhodes, though the Notorious Cherry Bombs received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group, the bands he was in closer to home held a special place in his heart. Whether the Players, an A-Team of session players that included Bayers, Hobbs, Brent Mason, and Paul Franklin, the Fortunate Sons with Gary Nicholson, the World Famous Headliners with NRBQ’s Al Anderson, Shawn Camp, Pat McLaughlin and Greg Morrow, the Vinyl Kings with Jim Photoglo, Vince Melamed, Larry Byrom, Larry Lee, Josh Leo and Harry Stinson and TAR, a power trio with guitarist Guthrie Trapp and drummer Pete Abbott. Indeed, he was slated to play his regular gig with Pat McLaughlin’s band mere days before he passed.
Rhodes shared multiple bands with guitarist Kenny Greenberg since 1979. Greenberg remembered, “When he played, that’s when he felt free. He loved to improvise, and there was a real lightness to him when he played. He had an intenseness and agility as musician, but a real freedom when he played.”
His impeccable musicianship, passion for life and curiosity about people made him a source of enrichment for those who encountered him. With his lithe frame, he had walked the runway for designer Yohji Yamamoto and appeared in GQ and Paris Vogue, and supported many across various challenges and thrilling moments of their own lives. A generous human being who showed up where he was needed, he explained to an interviewer, “There are teachers everywhere. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll find someone.”
Michael Rhodes is survived by Lindsay Fairbanks Rhodes, his wife of more three decades, a son Jason Rhodes and daughter Melody Wind Rhodes, and Lindsay’s sons Van and Weston Hayes; grandchildren Cayman Rhodes, Cora Rhodes, Wylder Rhodes, Kingsley Rhodes, Jenna Nicole Hillman and Ryley Bruce Hillman.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks – in the spirit of Michael’s life – that donations be made to the Music Health Alliance, which provides aid to musicians who need various kinds of healthcare, support and help navigating various health-related systems. Checks may be sent to Music Health Alliance, 2737 Larmon Dr, Nashville, TN, 37204 or through their website: MusicHealthAlliance.com.
Memorial arrangements are pending, but will be provided at a future time.
For now, the family encourages you to really listen to a piece of music that matters to you. Michael listened to John Coltrane before he passed. Because, as his wife Lindsay offers, “He really loved jazz and John Coltrane, all those guys. It fed him, always.”