COTTONWOOD – Norm Stephens, who played guitar with such country music legends as Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Thompson, died Monday of emphysema at his Cottonwood home. He was 77.
Although Stephens was not a household name, the distinctive music that came from his guitar filled, and continues to fill, countless homes, honky-tonks and concert halls throughout the world.
And his guitar-playing influenced countless musicians, including Haggard himself.
In what was considered a musical match made in heaven, Stephens joined Haggard’s band, The Strangers, after the music icon learned in 2000 that the guitarist, whom he had long admired, lived only a few miles away from him in Cottonwood. Haggard currently lives in Palo Cedro.
“I was kind of flattered that he wanted me to come out and do some work with him,” Stephens said in an article on a Web site that pays tribute to pioneer troubadours – www.pioneertroubadours.com.
Stephens – who loved music, but was not fond of a life on the road and living out of a suitcase – stopped touring with Haggard a few years ago, said his wife of 35 years, Verna.
But he continued to sit in on a few special shows and also recorded with Haggard.
“He had a good life,” said his wife, who noted that he did not tell her of his storied musical past until shortly before they married.
“I didn’t know he was a world-famous guitar player,” she said Thursday.
But Stephens, who had been in ailing health due to respiratory problems, was devastated by the December death of his 53-year-old Redding stepdaughter, Linda Runyon, who was killed after being struck by a pickup while she was crossing Court Street.
That death came about a month after his younger sister, Claudette, died at the age of 70, Verna Stephens said.
“He lost a lot of the fight” to live after their deaths, she said.
Born and raised in Arkansas, Stephens was only 11 years old when he began to learn how to play guitar.
He learned on a cheap guitar one of his older brothers left behind at the family’s Arkansas farm when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
Stephens left the farm after high school and played at dance halls and rowdy honky-tonks in the Southwest.
It was at a beer bar in Big Spring, Texas, that Stephens met Frizzell and they performed together for a few months before going their separate ways.
But their paths would soon cross again.
Stephens was playing at another club in Big Spring in the early 1950s when Frizzell called from Dallas, saying he had just signed a contract with Columbia Records and wanted to know if Stephens wanted to cut some records with him.
“And I thought, well yeah, why not, it’s some extra money, the session money,” Stephens said in a 2001 Record Searchlight article. “No one ever dreamed they’d be overnight hits like they were.”
Frizzell recorded four songs, and two of them – “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got the Time,” and “I Love You in a Thousand Ways” – shot to No. 1 on the country charts.
They were heady times for Stephens, but the U.S. Army cut it short when he was drafted during the Korean War.
After two years in the Army, mostly spent in the Philippines, Stephens returned home and quickly found himself playing in Hank Thompson’s western swing band.
After countless one-night stands, Stephens became weary of life on the road and left the band after about a year.
He moved to Redding in the mid- to late 1950s and worked for a while in logging before he was hired as an engineering aide for the state Department of Transportation.
Later, he took correspondence courses to eventually pass the state tests to become a Caltrans engineer.
Stephens also fronted his own western swing band for a few years in the ’70s, but then set his guitar aside and for decades played music only at occasional family gatherings.
Stephens retired from Caltrans in 1991, but got bored with retirement after 10 years and told friends that he wanted to put together a western swing band to play charity events.
That news eventually reached Haggard, who recognized Stephens’ name from Frizzell’s music
“I was sort of shocked and amazed,” Haggard said in the 2001 Record Searchlight article about Stephens. “It would be like if I was a big-league ballplayer and found out Ted Williams lived down the street and I didn’t know it.”
Haggard made a phone call, and the two men later met at Haggard’s Palo Cedro ranch.
Stephens is survived by his wife; two daughters, Jeri Diane Solus of Lakehead and Karen Reckhardt of Fall City, Wash.; two sisters, Irene Sadowski and Betty Flagg, both of Redding; a brother, Byrl “Pete” Stephens of Miami, Okla,; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Services are pending at Allen & Dahl Funeral Chapel in Redding. Burial will be at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo.
Jim Schultz can be reached at 225-8223 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.