It was a gift that we still had Rose Lee until 2021. Her history goes back so far that none of her contemporaries are still living. She was literally the last woman standing, until she passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-eight.
A few biographical details: She was born December 29, 1922 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her real name was Doris H. Schetrompf. When she began performing on the radio in the late 1930s in Hagerstown, Maryland, she began using the stage name “Rose of the Mountains.” In the 1940s she was part of a singing group known as the Saddle Sweethearts, and this group worked extensively before winding up at the Old Dominion Barn Dance show in Richmond, Virginia. It was at the Old Dominion Barn Dance where Rose Lee met her future husband and life partner, Joe Maphis.
Joe Maphis at that time already had a reputation as a hot player who excelled on guitar but could also play any instrument handed to him. At the Old Dominion Barn Dance, Joe played acoustic instruments and also did comedy as a character named “Crazy Joe.” He had befriended fellow guitarist Merle Travis in the mid-1940s when both were employed by radio station WLW in Cincinnati. Merle would play a large part in the Maphis’s future when he came out to briefly join the Old Dominion Barn Dance in 1950, where he reconnected with his picking buddy Joe and met Rose Lee for the first time.
When Merle returned to California, he began working on a live country music television show produced by Foreman Phillips. Phillips asked Merle if he knew any good husband-and-wife teams they could add to the cast of the show. Merle recommended the Maphises and Joe and Rose Lee moved to Los Angeles, just in time for Phillips’s B-K Ranch Show to go off the air. The Maphises stayed in California, both Joe and Rose Lee working in Merle’s touring band, and then joined the cast of a new radio show that quickly turned into a popular local television show. That show was Town Hall Party.
Town Hall Party was a huge boost for Joe and Rose Lee Maphis’s career. Joe led the house band and backed up all the famous acts that came through and appeared on the show. His guitar wizardry was seen live on television for three hours every Saturday night, which led to studio work for country acts, rockabilly acts (Wanda Jackson, Ricky Nelson), pop acts (The Four Preps), and even soundtrack work (God’s Little Acre and Bonanza).
Joe and Rose Lee also began making records the moment they landed in California. One song that they wrote on the way back from a loud, smoky gig at the Blackboard Café in Bakersfield became a bona fide country music standard: “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music).” Their song was one of the earliest flickers of what would become the Bakersfield Sound. Joe and Rose Lee kept making records through the years, on Okeh and Columbia Records, Capitol Records, Mosrite Records, and a host of other small independent labels. Joe made records as an instrumental act, Joe and Rose Lee made records as a singing and playing duo, and Rose Lee also made her own solo records as a female singer. Their recorded output is impressive—dozens of singles and dozens of albums over the decades.
While Joe took the lion’s share of the limelight with his blazing lead guitar work, Rose Lee wasn’t just another singer; she was one of the best rhythm guitar players in country music history. Just watch any of the hundreds of old Town Hall Party videos on YouTube, and if you look into the background, you’ll see Rose Lee Maphis playing some aggressive, precise, SERIOUS rhythm guitar. The fact that Rose Lee was a musician on a par with her male counterparts is often sadly overlooked. She was phenomenal on the guitar.
After Town Hall Party ended in 1961, the Maphises moved to Bakersfield for a few years, then followed Merle Travis to Nashville in 1968. Throughout the years, Joe and Rose Lee just kept working. One-nighters, tours, residencies, car lots, churches, flatbed trucks, big country music spectaculars, VFW halls, the occasional television appearance on Hee Haw, Austin City Limits, or The Barbara Mandrell Show—it really didn’t matter what it was, Joe and Rose Lee just kept working, until Joe got lung cancer and died in 1986.
In Nashville, Rose Lee worked in the costume department at Opryland, and later worked as a greeter at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Few people who came in the door at the museum realized that they were in the presence of a honest-to-goodness country music legend, and one of the female pioneers of the genre. As part of the “Bakersfield” concert held by the Hall of Fame in 2012, Rose Lee appeared as a guest artist and sang “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke.” This appearance was supposed to be the “last time,” but as with so many artists whose life revolved around singing on a stage, it wouldn’t be Rose Lee’s last live performance.
August 7, 2021, marked a 100th birthday celebration for Joe Maphis in Joe’s hometown of Cumberland, Maryland. A live music concert was put together featuring myself and Kyle Eldridge and many local artists. Rose Lee was in attendance, despite a recent bout of bad health, along with her son Jody and daughter Lorrie. Asked to sing, she declined, saying that her voice had “no range anymore.” Rose Lee watched most of the concert from a wheelchair at the side of the stage. At the end of the show, she was coaxed into joining the cast of the show for the evening’s finale, a heartfelt version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” After nine decades of performing live on stage (1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s!), this would be the last time. (Thanks again to Greg Larry for making this event happen!)
Rose Lee Maphis passed away on October 26, 2021, just two months shy of her ninety-ninth birthday. Country music lost a true legend, one of the last of the originals.
I would like to add that on a personal level, Rose Lee was one of the kindest and sweetest people I have ever met. She was always supportive and positive and radiated a kind of class and poise that made all the rough old boys sit up straighter and stop using swear words whenever she was around. Rose Lee helped quite a bit with input for my Merle Travis biography, even putting me in touch with Barbara Mandrell to interview for the book. There were many trips to Nashville where I was welcomed into Rosie and Jody’s home as a friend and treated with the greatest of hospitality. I will really miss going to visit “Mrs. Country Music,” and I know I’m not the only one.
I’m just so grateful that I got to know Rose Lee Maphis and consider her a friend. She was the best, and she will be greatly missed. Big hugs to Lorrie and Jody and all the rest of the Maphis family.