Every now and then, great men come in smiling, unassuming forms. Lin Phillips was just such a man. He lost his fight with cancer in September 2009, but before he passed he told his wife, “I don’t want people putting on their suits and ties, going to church and boo-hooing over me.” He wanted music. He wanted people to have a good time. And that’s just what they did.
Phillips, who was born in 1955, was a well-liked guitar player with innate talent. He began playing guitar at the early age of 10, but he didn’t learn how to properly tune his guitar until much later. When asked, he said, “It came out of the box that way,” and thereafter tuned his guitar in a fashion that unfailingly baffled other players. Scot Marshall, a friend of 25 years, said, “I loved watching the looks on other guitarists’ faces when he’d play.”
Phillips, survived by wife, Cathy, and four children, Nick, Elliott, Joshua and McKenna, played all genres of music—he would laugh at what he called “musical prejudice.” From jazz to blues, from hard rock to country, he could play it all. He played with greats like The Motifs, Carlos Montoya, the Wray Brothers and Herb Ellis. Cathy describes him as “totally schizoid” because he could switch from one style to the next in a moment. He could play like Slash or Eddie Van Halen. He could make it sound like pedal-steel, and he learned how to play in a fashion that sounded like more than one guitarist was onstage.
Though he played professionally all over the country—and was a Reno legend—he also loved playing for kids. With his friends, he’d perform at local schools doing musical storytelling: folk tales, Dr. Seuss and the history of American jazz.
Friend and band mate Jeff Leep, says, “He had incredibly big ears,” and would absorb everything. He’d take the melodies from cartoons like The Flintstones and interject them into his playing for the kids. And they loved it.”
Phillips came home from a series of chemo and radiation treatments before he died, and asked Marshall to practice with him for a studio session the following week. His hands were shaky, and he could hardly play his guitar. But Marshall says, “He didn’t give up. I watched him progress from one day to the next, from not being able to play to getting almost back to 100 percent. He’s my hero.” His final recording project was a collection of songs for his father.
When Phillips passed, his family and friends organized the Inaugural Lin Phillips Memorial Jam, and more than 300 people showed up. Leep describes it as being like a high school reunion. “All these people showed up who hadn’t seen each other for years. It was great.” There were musicians and friends from 60 to 18 years old, playing all styles of music.
After the first jam, friends and family members plan on doing it every year. They’re asking for a small donation to go to Moms on the Run, because Lin, according to Cathy, “was always about the other guy.” It’s open to the public, and moving forward they want to open it up as an opportunity to remember other local musicians who have passed.
“Lin would dig it,” says his wife with a smile.