Article in Spotlight
about Roy Lanham

Country and western guitar virtuoso Roy Lanham is destined for a place in history alongside such heavyweights as Chet Atkins, Roy Clark and Les Paul, not to mention Charles Ford.

You know who Charles Ford is? He's the gunslinger who shot his boss, the notorious Jesse James.

Lanham's got a prestigious notch on his six-shooter, too. He shot Roy Rogers.

Rogers is Lanham's boss, and the two were together in concert in an auditorium in Scotland. It was standing room only that night, and the crowd was loving every minute of Rogers' western show.

Then came the finale, "Roy did this big finish with a moving target, and his guns were suppose to be loaded with plastic bullets," Lanham recalled, "But somebody mixed up the bullets and Roy got my gun with the blanks. I shot him full of plastic."

Rogers was actually wounded, but he struggled through the show before being rushed to the hospital. He was in agonizing pain, but the king of the cowboys doesn't fall easy. He was back on stage the next night.


Roy on stage

Even more amazing, Lanham was back with him. "Roy understood that it was an accident," Lanham said, "He's really the greatest guy in the world."

No matter what Rogers might have thought, not even at gun point would he ever sack the best cotton-pickin' guitarist he's ever had. Lanham didn't sing at all that well, but he didn't have to. As an instrumentalist, he was too good for words.

And he still is. At 59, Lanham is on call whenever Rogers needs him, which is nearly half of the year. Most of the gigs are rodeos and country fairs around the nation.

But they also do television appearances together. Last December, Lanham and Rogers were on the popular Barbara Mandrell show. Lanham wasn't home to see the taped show, however. He was working a job in Ventura with the Frank Umbro band where he plays between road trips.

Lanham doesn't need the money, but he says he needs to keep his chops ready at all times. He never knows when the phone will ring and he'll have to be strumming for Rogers' backup group, the Sons of the Pioneers. Or maybe he'll get called to work in a Hollywood recording studio.

About the only things he enjoys as much as the guitar are his wife of 36 years, Marianne, and his mobile home on the shores of a man-made lake in Camarillo Springs. The couple moved there four years ago from Simi Valley.

Marianne Lanham concurred.

In the same mobile home park just off Highway 101 live three of the finest country and western pickers around. Right next door to Lanham is Dusty Rhodes, who was a guitarist in the Whippoorwills band when Lanham joined 40 years ago.

Down the road a ways is Red Rowe, a part-time guitarist who was better known as a radio personality with his own morning show on CBS in Hollywood for years. "I joined Red's show in 1956m" Lanham recalled. "We still get together and jam."

Lanham is somewhat of an enigma in the world of popular music. He talks with a Southern drawl, and his vocabulary is replete with words like "shucks" and "dad-blame."

But he plays jazz riffs like a man who might prefer idioms like "cool" and "far out."

No one can quite figure Lanham, who is one of the most versatile guitar players in the country. He's probably best known for his work with the Sons of the Pioneers during the past 30 years. But any country musician will tell you that putting Lanham in a band that plays simple cowboy songs is like driving a Ferrari to the laundry.

His virtuosity as a straight guitarist never surfaces unless he's away from the country scene. "I really like playing jazz," Lanham said. He can do that around town.

Unfortunately, he's not crazy about the money jazz usually pays. So he doesn't ever take his job with the Sons for granted.

Besides, no matter what kind of music he plays, Lanham throws himself into it, while maintaining a nice even temperament on the bandstand. His life is as harmonious as a major chord. "I guess I've always felt this way," he said.

Born Jan. 16, 1923, in Corbin, Ky., about 30 miles from the Tennessee border, Lanham knew at age 5 he was going to be a guitar player. When he was 16, he went on the radio in Knoxville, Tenn., with comic Archie Campbell, now a regular on the syndicated "Hee-Haw" show.

By the time he was 19, Lanham had been featured with such bluegrass legends as Flatt and Scruggs, Homer and Jethro, and Chet Atkins.

His personal and professional life took a turn for the better in Atlanta when, on a night off, he happened to catch the Whippoorwills' act.

Rhodes was playing lead guitar in the group (named after the opening line, "When Whippoorwills call," from the song "My Blue Heaven"), and Marianne was the singer.

Lanham quickly joined the band and married the vocalist. After several stops along the way, the group landed in Hollywood.

Lanham still calls himself a "utility man" who plays guitar, bass guitar and even does a little gospel singing. But his guitar work and general knowledge of music was so strong that he soon became the musical backbone of the Whippoorwills.

On the West Coast, the lucrative recording business opened up to Lanham. "I've been on 12 million-seller records," he said. Among those golden oldies are such historic hits as "Honky-Tonk Stranger," Loretta Lynn's first smash.

Lanham was also featured on the Ventures' gold single "Walk Don't Run" and played on demo recordings of the hits "Cab Driver" and "Somethin' Stupid". He also worked several sessions with Dorsey Burnett.

Although mostly a backup player in the studios, Lanham got to show off his expertise on two albums for Dolton Records that Featured other great musicians -- backing him up for a change.

In 1952, the Whippoorwills became Roger's main backup band. Later, they changed their name to the Sons of the Pioneers.

Lanham figures that if he combines income from regular work with Rogers, local gigs with Umbro and royalties from the Sons' new promotion, he should be well off financially.

His health is a bit more uncertain. Two years ago, he underwent bypass surgery for clogged coronary arteries. Last year he suffered a minor stroke that seemed to scare him more then anything else.

But the Lanhams have survived bigger traumas. Two of their five children met early deaths. One drowned in the family swimming pool at 18 months. Another died at age 18 of cancer.

Lanham has somehow gotten over that and has been able to grin at the shadow of his own demise. Why not? He said he still feels great, even if he does tire just a bit quicker than he used to.

And he's had to give up smoking, drinking and "tearing up the place," all of which were his favorite pastimes back in the early days.

But listen to him play, Lanham still controls that guitar as if he invented it, which, of course, he didn't. All he did was help perfect it.

Leo Fender, who did help in the development of electric guitars and still has his name on millions of them, to this day relies on Lanham as a sort of one-man consumer testing center.

Lanham has been known to play gigs around town on a guitar model that nobody has ever played before.

Fender sends them to him to try out. "I had a seven-string model last week," Lanham explained.

So why the extra string? That's what Fender wanted to find out. Would one extra string, timed up an octave higher then the middle string, sound any better?

Lanham hasn't decided yet, Fender will just have to wait.

Picture caption,

More comfortable with a guitar strap around his neck than without one, Roy Lanham of Camarillo is so familiar with the instrument that he tests guitars for manufacturer Leo Fender. He has played them in concert and on records more then half a century with some of the best country musicians in the world.

Taken from:
   Spotlight
   Ventura County (Calif.) Star Free Press
   Fri., Feb. 12, 1982
   By Tony Joseph

Main Index Button

contact us