Phil Leadbetter, reso-guitarist and bluegrass businessman, died today after surviving five bouts with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, taken down finally by COVID-19. He was 59 years of age.
He began playing the Dobro-style guitar as a teenager in his native Knoxville, TN. A career in bluegrass started at 14 when Phil founded the Knoxville Newgrass Boys, who ended up being invited to perform at the White House during the bicentennial celebrations in 1976. While continuing to play locally and regionally, he was studying in college as well, and became certified as a head injury rehab nurse.
Another Knoxville-based group, New Dawn, gave Phil the chance to perform regularly at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. From there he hired on with Grandpa Jones in 1988, followed by a year with country singer Vern Gosdin. But it was bluegrass all the way in 1990 when J.D. Crowe brought him into the New South. There Phil not only played reso-guitar with Crowe, he eventually took over booking for the group until he left in 2001. During his stint, Leadbetter recorded two album with Crowe, Flashback in 1994 and Come On Down To My World in ’99.
After leaving Crowe, Phil served as a founding member of Wildfire with Robert Hale, Curt Chapman, Darrell Webb, and Barry Crabtree. There he remained until departing to be a founder of Grasstowne with Alan Bibey and Steve Gulley, who preceded Phil in death by a little more than a year. He recorded three albums with Wildfire and two with Grasstowne. Steve and Phil had been friends since they were teens, and Gulley’s passing was tough on him.
It was in 2011 that the cancer diagnosis hit, with three rounds of successful chemotherapy as the cancer returned multiple times. For the fourth occurrence, doctors felt that Phil’s best bet would be stem cell replacement therapy, a highly invasive and unpleasant process that involves removing bone marrow and then subjecting the body to such stringent chemo that it very nearly kills you, hopefully killing the cancer as well, and then re-infusing the stem cells to rekindle your natural immune response. After being declared cancer free after that procedure, the lymphoma returned yet again, and he underwent the process yet again.
Even while enduring all this, Phil continued to perform and record as he was able. He worked for a while with Flashback and with Dale Ann Bradley, but the touring life was a bit too much for him. Multiple rounds of chemo can lead to organ damage, and he was suffering from stage 4 kidney failure when he passed, going through regular dialysis while awaiting news on a transplant.
As a solo artist, Leadbetter released three albums: Filibuster in 1999, Slide Effects in 2005, and The Next Move in 2014. He was responsible for the 2020 project, Swing For The Fences by Phil Leadbetter & The All-Stars of Bluegrass, who had also played a number of shows in 2018-19 with a rotating cast of pickers and singers. You will find him on at least a dozen other records as a sideman, including ones from Doyle Lawson, Special Consensus, Steve Gulley, and Darrell Webb.
No one ever loved life more than Phil, a jolly jokester of the highest order, whose deep affection for his many friends in bluegrass was felt by all who knew him. If you met him backstage at a show, you were as likely to find him leaving prank messages on his friends’ phones as you were to see him spinning yarns among a group of pickers.
Among his great comical contributions is a fake movie trailer shot by Ashby Frank while they were both teaching at Bluegrass Camp Germany in 2018. Held in the shadow of the Bavarian Alps, Phil couldn’t resist recreating the opening scenes from The Sound of Music, and fortunately, Ashby had his phone handy.
Frank tells us that Phil nearly fell several times in the process, but that he wasn’t able to stop laughing long enough to ask him to stop.
Alan Bibey remembers him as a true and lasting friend.
“Phil Leadbetter was truly one of my dearest friends. He was an original member of Grasstowne, but we were big buddies way before then. I always looked forward to seeing him because I knew what a great time we would have. After we started Grasstowne, he made me laugh so hard for so long on the way to gigs that I couldn’t sing at all when I got there. In the last ten years, he has been an inspiration to so many including me. He fought so many times and, with the help of Jesus, he won. I know we all mourn his loss and will continue to for a long time, but I know he is rejoicing in Heaven now. We love you my brother and you’ll never be forgotten.”
No indeed. Not by anyone who met him.
Phil was perhaps most proud to see his son, Matt Leadbetter, become a professional reso-guitarist in bluegrass, now working with Dale Ann Bradley. He was deeply attached to his grandchildren as well.
Arrangements have not been announced by the family.
R.I.P., Phil Leadbetter.