Rose Lee Maphis, early star of Country music TV, dies at 98

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Rose Lee Maphis, early star of Country music TV, dies at 98
She and her husband, Joe (“Mr. and Mrs. Country Music”), helped give birth to a West Coast music scene later associated with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NASHVILLE, TENN.- Rose Lee Maphis, a singer and guitarist who, with her husband, Joe, was a mainstay of the early years of live country music television, died Tuesday at her home here. She was 98.

Her son Jody said the cause was kidney failure.

Billed as “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music,” the Maphises rose to prominence in the 1950s as members of the cast of “Town Hall Party,” a pioneering TV barn dance seen on KTTV in Los Angeles. On the strength of Maphis’ exuberant stage presence and her husband’s dazzling guitar work, the couple — often in matching Western-wear suits — helped give birth to the unfettered West Coast country music scene later associated with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

The Maphises achieved early acclaim with “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music),” a twanging barroom lament released by Okeh Records in 1953.

“Dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music / It’s the only kind of life you’ll ever understand,” Joe Maphis sang, admonishing the song’s wayward wife as Rose Lee Maphis added sympathetic harmonies on the chorus. “Dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music / You’ll never make a wife to a home-loving man.”

“Dim Lights” became a honky-tonk standard and has been recorded by Conway Twitty, Flatt & Scruggs, New Riders of the Purple Sage and others. Though credited as one of its writers, Maphis always insisted that the composition was solely her husband’s. He wrote the song, she said, while driving home one night from Bakersfield’s renowned — and notoriously smoky — Blackboard Cafe.

The Maphises recorded throughout the 1950s and ’60s, but given their commitment to performing on regularly scheduled broadcasts, they never really had the chance to promote their releases at radio stations or in live venues across the country. Instead, they concentrated on TV and radio work, appearing with country stalwarts such as Tex Ritter and Merle Travis and rockabilly insurgents such as Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson.

The couple met when they were both appearing on the WRVA radio show “Old Dominion Barn Dance” in Richmond, Virginia, in 1948 and had been dating by the time they moved to California in 1951, at the urging of Travis. They married when Joe Maphis’ divorce from his first wife became final in 1952.

Moving to the West Coast proved inspiring for them both. They were especially energized by the differences between the dance halls of California and the venues they had played in the East.

“There was a real separation between the music on the West Coast and in Nashville,” Rose Lee Maphis said in a 1998 interview with Vintage Guitar magazine. “On the West Coast, people danced, and bands had drummers.”

“All the people getting up and dancing while you were performing, that was strange to us,” she said. “West of the Mississippi, people danced. East of the Mississippi, they watched and listened.”

Doris Helen Schetrompf was born Dec. 29, 1922, in Baltimore. Her parents, Stanley and Margaret (Schriever) Schetrompf, were farmers.

Doris began playing the guitar at 15; two years later, she was hired to play on a local radio show in Hagerstown, Maryland, where she grew up. She acquired her nickname there, after the show’s announcer introduced her as “Rose of the Mountains” because of her habit of wearing flowers in her hair.

After graduating from high school in 1941, she attended business college, worked various jobs and teamed up with three other young women to form the Saddle Sweethearts, a Western-style group that toured with Gene Autry and the Carter Family.

Despite their relative success, the Sweethearts had all but called it quits when Maphis and another member of the group were invited to join “Old Dominion Barn Dance,” where Joe Maphis was a founding member. Before long, he and she had moved to the West Coast and joined its burgeoning live country music TV scene.

Known as the “King of the Strings,” Joe Maphis, who often played a double-neck Mosrite guitar (which he had helped design), also became a first-call session musician. He appeared on recordings by Rick Nelson and on the soundtracks of movies such as “God’s Little Acre” and “Thunder Road,” both in 1958.

The couple had three children between 1954 and 1957, beginning a period of domesticity that by 1968 would have them moving to Nashville, where they began performing at the Grand Ole Opry.

By the early ’70s, she had all but dropped out of the music business. She eventually took a job as a seamstress at the theme park Opryland USA, where her youngest son, Dale, was working as a musician.

Besides her son Jody, who is also a musician, Maphis is survived by her daughter, Lorrie Harris, and a granddaughter. Dale died in 1989 in an automobile accident. Joe Maphis died of lung cancer in 1986 at 65.

In the early 2010s, after five decades out of the limelight, Maphis volunteered as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Not long after she began, the museum mounted an exhibition on the Bakersfield Sound that she and her husband had helped shape, including a video of them singing “Dim Lights.”

Few of the museum’s visitors made the connection between their host and the exhibit, which also included her Martin D-18 guitar, until one female patron asked her about it.

“She came back downstairs when she was through with her tour,” Maphis told The Hagerstown Herald-Mail. “She asked, ‘The guitar that’s up there, is that your guitar?’

“She saw my nametag. I told her ‘Yes.' She was the only one who ever did that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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