Chet Atkins Dead at 77
While Mr. Atkins was a virtuosic guitarist and sold over 75 million records, it was his work as session musician, label executive, and pater familias to several generations of country musicians and pop stars that literally transformed the music and listening habits of the nation itself.
Chester Burton Atkins was born June 24, 1924 on his grandfather's farm in Tennessee's Clinch Mountains. His childhood was spent in poverty, which, he later claimed, fueled a lifelong sense of insecurity.
His love of music was reinforced early on by a grandfather who was a fiddle champion and his father, who taught music, sang in church, and worked as a piano tuner. His half-brother played guitar, later joining the Les Paul Trio, and his other brother also played guitar.
An asthmatic child, Mr. Atkins claimed to have learned to play banjo on the days his illness forced him to miss school. By nine, he had taken up guitar, having mastered ukulele and fiddle, and began playing parties, roadhouses, and dances imitating the music he had heard on the radio, groups such as The Sons of the Pioneers and The Corn Cobblers.
At the age of 11, Mr. Atkins moved to Columbus, GA, where the drier weather was supposed to suit his condition better. While there, he became enthralled by the finger playing style of guitarist Merle Travis. In an attempt to emulate that style, the young guitarist developed his trademark technique of picking with his thumb and three fingers, never realizing that Travis-style picking uses only the thumb and a single finger. Mr. Atkins said of his playing at this time that he "sounded like two guitarists playing badly."
By the age of 17, he was playing professionally—as a fiddler for the Jumpin' Bill Carlisle-Archie Campbell program on WNOX broadcasting from Knoxville, TN. Soon thereafter he became the station's staff band's rhythm guitarist. Eventually he connected with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, who also broadcast on WNOX, and became part of their touring band.
Mr. Atkins began recording for RCA in 1946. His first hit was the 1949 "Galloping on the Guitar," which became a popular radio theme. He clicked again that year with "Main Street Breakdown," recorded with Anita Carter and Homer and Jethro. In 1950 the Carters and Mr. Atkins were offered a berth on The Grand Ole Opry, prompting him to move to Nashville.
Nashville at that time was not the world-renowned center of country music it was to later become—it was simply another regional recording outlet for RCA among a few other companies. But producer/publisher Floyd Rose was based there and he offered the guitarist regular studio recording work. Mr. Atkins participated in sessions by Hank Williams ("Cold Cold Heart," "Kaw-Liga," "Jambalaya"), the Louvin Brothers ("When I Stop Dreaming"), and Faron Young ("Goin' Steady," "I've Got Five Dollars," and "If You Ain't Lovin'"), among hundreds of others.
RCA executive Steve Sholes became Mr. Atkins' lifelong advocate during the '50s and used the young guitarist as a session leader and talent scout. By 1954 he headlined his own show on WSM and in the same year he released his first album Chet Atkins' Gallopin' Guitar. In 1955 he had two hits, "Mr. Sandman" and a guitar duet with Hank Snow called "Silver Bell."
In 1956, Mr. Atkins advised Steve Sholes to convince RCA to outbid Columbia for Elvis Presley's contract—a move that ended up bankrolling the company for decades. Mr. Atkins played on many Presley hits, starting with his first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel," and continuing through the years with "I Need Your Love," "Tonight," "I Got Stung," and "A Fool Such As I."
He became a crucial component of the loose band of musicians who played on most of RCA's country offerings—a group of players that included pianist Floyd Cramer, drummer Buddy Harmon, bassist Bob Moore, fellow-guitarists Ray Edenton and Grady Martin, not to mention the Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr singers.
He was also an active participant in the Everly Brothers' string of hits from 1957–62, including "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie," and "All I Have to Do is Dream." "Chet was like a father to us," Phil Everly said upon hearing of his death. "We loved him dearly and will miss him."
In 1957 Steve Sholes promoted Mr. Atkins to RCA manager of operations, and he set about convincing the company to build an office and studio in Nashville, which it did at 17th street and Hawkins—the first permanent record-company office on what was to become known as Music Row. Studio B, "the house that Chet built," is now a museum.
The new studio was the scene of countless Atkins successes, starting almost immediately in 1958 with Don Gibson's double-sided hit "Oh Lonesome Me" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." Some musicologists cite that disc as the first true example of what was to become known as "the Nashville Sound"—a sound that utilized new technologies such as overdubbing as well as strings, background voices, and reverb rather than the twanging steel guitars that characterized "hillbilly" music. In moving the sound of country toward the mainstream, Chet Atkins set the stage for today's Nashville, where artists crossover regularly to the pop charts without sacrificing their signature sound.
Mr. Atkins began producing three established country acts, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, and Jim Reeves, taking them to phenomenal levels of success. Arnold recorded "Tennessee Stud," "Make the World Go Away," and "The Tips of My Fingers" with Mr. Atkins. Snow's signature song, "I've Been Everywhere" was an Atkins project, as was Reeves' "Welcome to My World" and hauntingly beautiful "He'll Have to Go." All three artists were eventually elected into the Country Hall of Fame.
Dottie West won the first female country Grammy with the Studio B recording "Here Comes My Baby" and The Browns scored the first national number one record to come out of the studio with "The Three Bells." Homer & Jethro scored the only Nashville recording to ever become a number one comedy hit with the Studio B-recorded "The Battle of Kookamonga."
Meanwhile Mr. Atkins' own career as a guitarist continued with success after success. He was probably the most influential guitarist on earth through his recordings, television and concert performances, signature-model guitar and his series of method books. Beatle George Harrison cites him as an early influence, as do Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler, Guy Van Duser and countless others. "I think he influenced everybody that picked up a guitar," said Duane Eddy.
It's hard to even imagine country music today without acknowledging Chet Atkins' contributions. He signed Waylon Jennings in 1965 (and produced 15 of his hits for RCA). He signed Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, Charlie Rich, Charly Pride, Jerry Reed, Dolly Parton, Guy Clark, Tom T. Hall, Gary Stewart, Steve Young, Ray Stevens, and Steve Wariner.
He also encouraged and supported a new generation of producers, most prominently Bob Fergusson, Felton Jarvis, and Jerry Bradley.
In 1977, Mr. Atkins ended his lifelong association with Gretsch guitars, later developing a signature model for Gibson. In 1981, he resigned from RCA. He joined Columbia as a performer in 1982. About this time, he started signing his autograph, Chet Atkins C.G.P. (certified guitar player). He recorded with a new generation of performers, including Suzy Boggus, Mark Knopfler, Mark O'Connor, George Benson, Earl Klugh, and Larry Carlton. He was a frequent guest on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion and was a popular concert attraction with symphony orchestras. His 1987 instructional video Get Started on the Guitar has outsold any similar offering.
Mr. Atkins was active in promoting music education for the young through the Chet Atkins Music Appreciation Society, which honored him with a four-day Nashville convention every year since 1997. This year's Festival (scheduled to begin July 19) will continue the work of the Chet Atkins Music Foundation Fund, which benefits music education in the Nashville area.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Chet Atkins will be remembered most as a self-effacing "regular" guy—a truly considerate soul who just happened to have been touched with genius. He never rested upon his laurels. "I've never expressed myself musically the way I'd like," he told an interviewer. "I've never been able to sit back and say, 'Wasn't I great? Listen to the one I made in 1958.'"
Fortunately, the rest of us can listen to him with the pleasure he denied himself.