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One of the flashiest country guitarists of the 1950s and 1960s, Joe Maphis was known as The King of the Strings. He was able to play many stringed instruments with great facility. However, he specialized in dazzling guitar virtuosity.
Maphis was born in Suffolk, Virginia. Joe's family moved to Cumberland, Maryland in 1925 when his father Bob Maphis got a job with the B&O Railroad. Joe's first band was called the Maryland Rail Splitters. He also played in the local (Cumberland) Foggy Mountain Boys as well as The Sonnateers before Maphis hit the road in 1939. He played across Virginia until he landed a regular gig on the Old Dominion Barn Dance broadcast live on radio WRVA-AM and aired in 38 states. In 1944, Joe went into the U.S. Army. His musical skills landed him a gig entertaining the troops around the world. Maphis was discharged from the Army in 1946. On his return to the states, he began playing on WLS radio in Chicago. In the late 1940s he returned to Richmond, Va. and the Old Dominion Barn Dance until the early 1950s. While in Virginia, he met singer/guitarist Rose Lee Schetrompf, his future wife. Maphis and Schetrompf, of Clear Spring, Md., were married in 1953. Maphis' recording career took off after he was invited to come to Los Angeles in 1951 by Merle Travis. He made two LPs with Travis, recorded for countless country and pop stars and worked on many themes for television programs and movie soundtracks. Later based in Bakersfield, California, he rose to prominence with his own hits such as "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)" as well as playing with acts like Johnny Burnette, Doyle Holly, The Collins Kids, Wanda Jackson, Rose Maddox and Ricky Nelson. "Dim Lights" has become a honky-tonk standard with numerous artists recording versions on the tune. Maphis discovered Barbara Mandrell in the early 1960s. Before launching her own career, Mandrell toured with Joe and Rose playing pedal steel. Maphis's playing was an influence on such greats as Merle Travis, Jimmy Bryant and Chet Atkins. He was known for his use of a double-neck Mosrite guitar, specially built for him by Semie Moseley, which was a boon to Moseley's fledgling career as a guitar builder. This guitar can be now viewed at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville; it has two six-string necks, with the shorter neck tuned an octave higher than standard.
Maphis was a band member and featured soloist on Town Hall Party television broadcasts in southern California during the 1950s and a regular guest on the Jimmy Dean television show in the 1960s. Joe and his wife Rose Lee performed on Austin City Limits in 1984.
Maphis was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1985. He passed away on June 27, 1986. His guitar hero was Mother Maybelle Carter, matriarch of the Carter Family. Maybelle's daughter June Carter Cash and June's husband Johnny Cash so admired Maphis' guitar playing that Maphis is buried in a Hendersonville, Tennessee cemetery next to Maybelle, her husband, Ezra Carter, and her daughter, Anita Carter. The Cashes personally chose the spot, buried Maphis and covered his grave themselves.