With his unique guitar-picking style, Chet Atkins (1924-2001) produced music from country to jazz in a career spanning over 50 years, making him the most recorded solo instrumentalist in country music history. His talent for finding and nurturing new recording stars and introducing new sounds earned him a second career as a record company producer and executive.
Chet Atkins was born Chester Burton Atkins on a farm near Luttrell, Tennessee, a small town about 20 miles north of Knoxville, on June 20, 1924. His parents, James Arly Atkins and Ida Sharp Atkins, each had children from a previous marriage. The family was large and poor. With a father who was a music teacher, piano tuner, and evangelist singer, a mother who played piano and sang, and siblings who played instruments, Atkins was surrounded by music from birth. At the age of six he played his first instrument, a ukulele, replacing broken strings with wire pulled from a screen door. Three years later he began playing a Sears Silvertone guitar and a fiddle along with his siblings and their stepfather, Willie Strevel. He and a brother played at local gatherings, throwing a hat on the ground into which listeners were encouraged to toss spare change. They were quite successful with this during the Depression years of the 1930s. Atkins idolized his talented half-brother, Jim, who was 13 years older. Jim Atkins was a guitar player on network radio and later performed with guitarist Les Paul. The younger, budding musician was influenced by what he heard on radio and records, including the songs of country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.
However, despite the music and large family, Atkins had a difficult childhood. He was an extremely shy and asthmatic child. Music became a way for him to express himself in those early years. He referred to his childhood in eastern Tennessee in a letter to friend Garrison Keillor, writing, "Those were some of the worst years of the old man's life, don't you know. But even the bad ones are good now that I think about it." James and Ida Atkins divorced in 1932. In hopes that a different climate would improve Atkins' asthma, he was sent to live with his father in Columbus, Georgia, in 1936.
Developed a Unique Style
Atkins' move to Georgia widened his musical sphere, bringing him radio programs from Knoxville and Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York City. As a boy he listened to guitarists on a crystal radio set he had assembled by himself and tried to imitate them. Cincinnati's station WLW is where he first heard and tried to copy Merle Travis playing guitar. In doing so, Atkins developed his own style. Because he could not observe Travis, only listen to him on the radio, Atkins couldn't see that Travis played the guitar with his thumb and just one finger. So, as Atkins told Bill Milkowski in Down Beat magazine, "I started fooling around with three fingers and a thumb, which turned out to be this pseudo-classical style that I stuck with." His admiration for his hero never waned. Atkins named his daughter Merle. When he signed an autograph for Travis years later, he wrote, "My claim to fame is bragging that we're friends. People just don't pick any better." This signature thumb and finger guitar-picking style Atkins created not only influenced future musicians, but led Atkins to design guitar models, collaborating with the Gretsch Guitar Company, and later with Gibson.
While still in school, Atkins began performing on radio stations. At the age of 17 he quit high school to enter the music field. Atkins returned to Tennessee and landed his first job at radio station WNOX in Knoxville, fiddling for the duo of Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle. He later played on the daily barn dance show. Atkins was also moonlighting as a jazz guitarist. Though management and other artists recognized his talent, this tendency to mix jazz with country, along with absences due to asthma, got him fired often from radio stations during the 1940s. Restless by nature, Atkins moved to Cincinnati's WLW and then to Chicago's WLS "National Barn Dance." He was there just a short time before country star and host Red Foley whisked him off for a stint at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. That same year, 1946, Atkins made his first recording, "Guitar Blues," for Bullet Records.
Atkins left Nashville again, this time for station KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, where Si Siman nicknamed him "Chet" and promoted his artistry to record companies. The station eventually fired him, thinking his sound too polished for country music audiences, but Atkins was attracting fans. About this time, a woman saw him perform in a roadhouse. She wrote: "He sat hunched in the spotlight and played and the whole room suddenly got quiet. It was a drinking and dancing crowd, but there was something about Chet Atkins that could take your breath away." While in Cincinnati, he met Leona Pearl Johnson, a singer, who with her twin sister Lois, performed on station WLW. Atkins and Leona married a year later, July 3, 1946, when Atkins was 22 years old. They would remain together for the next 50 years, until the guitarist's death in 2001.
Hired by RCA
Impressed by Atkins' talent, RCA Victor recording executive Steve Shoal set off in search of the guitarist. He finally tracked him down in Colorado and offered him a contract. From his early RCA recording sessions came attention-getting numbers like "Canned Heat," Bug Dance," and "Main Street Brakedown." He sang on some of these recordings, many of which Atkins later tried to destroy. In 1949, along with performers Homer and Jethro, Henry Haynes and Kenneth Burns, he recorded "Galloping Guitar," which became Atkins' first big success. It was this year, too, that the industry dropped the derogatory term "hillbilly" in reference to country music. Not confident about a career in recording, Atkins continued performing on radio and stage.
The 1950s brought more exposure and a big career boost when the Carter family and Homer and Jethro invited Atkins back to the Opry stage. Country music publisher Fred Rose also befriended Atkins and involved him as a session player on some of the '50s top hits. He played with country music's great singer-songwriter, Hank Williams, on such big hits as "Cold, Cold Heart," Kaw-liga," and "Jambalaya," and on "Release Me" by "the first lady of country music," Kitty Wells. After years of listening to different styles of music and experimenting with his own, Atkins helped pioneer the era of rock and roll, playing on early rock records like Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Wake Up Little Susie" by the Everly Brothers.
RCA management's decision to not only feature Atkins as a solo performer but to use his talent as a session player proved lucrative for him and the company. Recording executives noticed how Atkins' suggestions helped other performers succeed, and they put him in charge of recruiting new talent. He found and nurtured talents who became top-of-the-chart country singers, including Don Gibson, Waylon Jennings, Bobbie Bare and Dottie West. His own stardom increased with the release of two albums in 1951. His hit version of "Mr. Sandman" in 1955 showed his knack for interpreting music written by others.
Increased Country Music's Audience
Atkins played a major role in popularizing country music by finding talent and producing hits for many great names, including Don Gibson, Skeeter Davis, Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed, Eddy Arnold, and many others. RCA made Atkins manager of their new Nashville recording studio that opened in 1957. As a producer with an eye for talent, Atkins succeeded in signing future stars, including singer-songwriter-musicians Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, who both became diversified entertainers with crossover record hits and starring movie roles. Just as Atkins continued to adapt his own style to changing trends, the country music industry now needed to do the same to compete with the popularity of rock and roll. RCA named Atkins as their division vice president for country music in 1968. He helped to attract a wider audience by producing a more modern sound, using string arrangements instead of the traditional fiddles and steel guitars. He and Owen Bradley of Decca Records are credited with this style of orchestration, later called the "Nashville Sound."
During the 1960s, Atkins signed on singer-songwriter Bobby Bare and encouraged Bare's flair for "recitation" songs, which mixed singing and speaking. Results included "Detroit City" and "500 Miles Away From Home," both of which hit not only the top of country charts, but also pop music's top-ten lists. As radio, television, and Opry host Ralph Emery relates in his book, 50 Years Down a Country Road, Atkins trusted Bare's musical and recording know-how "to such an extent that Chet did the unthinkable in those days. He allowed Bare to produce his own records. That was the beginning of the so-called Outlaw Movement of the 1970s." Along with the growth of 'outlaw' music, the gap between country and pop music narrowed in the 1970s. Performers were using more electric guitars, and country music gained more urban audiences.
Career Continued to Flourish
At the age of 49 in 1973, Atkins became the youngest artist ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He had already performed at the White House for President Kennedy and the Newport Jazz Festival in the previous decade, and went on to perform in diverse fields when he played classical music with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra and recorded with Paul McCartney. He played with legendary guitarists Doc Watson, Les Paul, and his lifetime idol, Merle Travis; with British rock star, Mark Knopfler; and with contemporary country singer-guitarist, Suzy Bogguss. Compact discs containing Atkins' older numbers still pleased music critics, while some of his recordings aired on progressive and new age music radio stations. Appropriately dubbed "Mr. Guitar," the title of his 1960 album release, Atkins earned recognition as Country Music Association's instrumentalist of the year nine times between 1967 and 1988, and as Cash Box magazine's top guitarist many times throughout the 1960's and 1970's. Atkins remarked to Rolling Stone magazine, " … 'world's greatest guitar player' is a misnomer. I think I'm one of the best-known guitar players in the world, I'll admit to that." If a title was used, he preferred: "c.g.p" for certified guitar player.
In 1982, after more than 30 years with RCA, Atkins left the label and joined Columbia Records. He released his first album with Columbia the same year, "Work It Out With Chet Atkins." He continued recording and releasing albums during the 1980s and 1990s, touring the United States, Africa, and Europe with his music. At age 72, Atkins started doing club dates, performing with bass, drums, and even a little singing. In an interview at Caffe Milano, he said. "That's my favorite thing, I guess, to play for an audience, because it's such a challenge. … You got to get out there and do it right … I think I'm a better musician than ever because my taste has improved."
While managing to promote both country music and rock and roll, Atkins' own recordings, ranging across the musical spectrum, garnered 14 Grammy awards. The Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Atkins in 1993 by the organization that presents the Grammy awards cited his "peerless finger-style guitar technique, his extensive creative legacy documented on more than 100 albums, and his influential work on both sides of the recording console as a primary architect of the Nashville sound." A street in Music Row in Nashville is named after him, and a downtown statue of Atkins with his guitar was erected in the year 2000.
A Farewell in Nashville
Twenty years after being treated for colon cancer, Atkins underwent surgery in 1997 for a benign brain tumor and to repair damage caused by a stroke. He continued working, releasing an album of contemporary artists singing country classics the following year. However, complications from his cancer led to Atkins death at his home in Nashville on June 30, 2001. Atkins was buried at Harpeth Hills Cemetery in Nashville, leaving his wife Leona, daughter Merle, two grandchildren and a sister. His life is described in two Atkins' books, one put out near the end of his life, Just Me and My Guitars, and his 1974 autobiography, Country Gentleman.
At a memorial service held at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, original site of the Grand Ole Opry, radio host, author, and longtime friend Garrison Keillor delivered a heartfelt eulogy. To an audience of over a thousand, he described Atkins as a man who loved doing shows but liked to be alone backstage to enjoy the quiet and calm; a restless man; a musician with a mind of his own; and a great storyteller. He was an inspiration to others, but also admired other performers' works and went out of his way to tell them so. "He was the guitar player of the 20th century," Keillor continued, describing Atkins as the perfect model of a guitarist: "You could tell it whenever he picked up a guitar, the way it fit him. His upper body was shaped to it, from a lifetime of playing: his back was slightly hunched, his shoulders rounded… ."
Keillor's tribute and the picture he painted of the legendary guitarist seemed an altogether fitting image to leave with Atkins' legions of fans and for the generations of fans yet to come.
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