NASHVILLE — Chet Atkins, known around the world as “Mr. Guitar,” will be remembered in a memorial service on Tuesday (July 3) at Ryman Auditorium. Atkins died of cancer on Saturday at his home. He was 77.
In addition to being one of the best-known guitarists in popular music, Atkins was also an architect of modern country music. As head of RCA’s Nashville division since the mid-’50s and the label’s chief of A&R, Atkins was instrumental in fashioning the emerging music industry in Nashville. He was also a keen-eared talent scout, signing artists ranging from Dolly Parton to Roy Orbison.
He also played guitar in pivotal music sessions, from Hank Williams recording dates in the early ’50s to hit-laden sessions by the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. He also — in tandem with Decca Records’ Nashville chief Owen Bradley — developed what came to be known as the Nashville Sound, a pop-leaning strain of country music epitomized by such Atkins-produced landmark hits as Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls” in 1957 and Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” in 1958.
Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, in the small east Tennessee town of Luttrell, which he described as a “whistle stop on the Southern Railway.” His father, James, was an itinerant music teacher and his mother, Ida, played piano and sang. His parents divorced in 1932 and Atkins began playing fiddle and later guitar with his new stepfather, Willie Strevel. Atkins later said that as a child he was so shy as to seem almost autistic, and that the fiddle and guitar offered him an alternate means of expressing himself.
He also suffered from asthma, and in 1936 was sent to live on his father’s farm in Georgia with the hope his health would improve out of the hills. It was then that his life forever changed, when he happened to hear Merle Travis playing guitar live on station WLW broadcasting from Cincinnati. Atkins had listened to Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Lemon Jefferson records and could copy them, but was amazed by the thumb-and-finger-picking style developed by Travis. Atkins developed his own two-finger-and-thumb style of picking — since he couldn’t see Travis picking, he had no idea of how he did it. In later life Travis would autograph a picture to Atkins thusly: “My claim to fame is bragging that we’re friends. People just don’t pick any better.”
His first job after high school was at station WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, as fiddler for the duo Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle. When WNOX’s Lowell Blanchard heard Atkins’ guitar playing, he put him on the station’s daily barn dance show, “Midday Merry-Go-Round.” At the same time, he moonlighted as a jazz guitarist with the Dixieland Swingsters. He moved on to WLW in Cincinnati and the following year joined Johnnie & Jack. He worked briefly at the “National Barn Dance” on Chicago’s WLS. When Red Foley left WLS to host the “Prince Albert Show” on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, he took Atkins with him.
In Nashville, he made his first recording, “Guitar Blues,” for Bullet Records. Again he moved on, this time to KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. The station’s Si Siman gave him the nickname “Chet” and pitched him as an artist to different record companies. After the station fired Atkins for being “too hillbilly,” Steve Sholes of RCA Victor signed him to a recording contract in 1947 as a singer and guitarist. He briefly returned to WNOX, where he worked first with Homer & Jethro and then with Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters. When the Carters joined the Opry and moved to Nashville in 1950, Atkins came along.
He was befriended by early country music pioneer Fred Rose, who developed the Acuff-Rose Publishing company and guided the career of Hank Williams. With Rose’s support, Atkins became one of the “A-Team” of Nashville session players and played on recordings by Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley and appeared on the Opry as a solo artist.
Steve Sholes, who was based at RCA Victor in New York and occasionally journeyed to Nashville to supervise RCA recording sessions, began relying on Atkins as his Nashville surrogate and Atkins began producing sessions. Those early sessions were done with portable recording equipment in rented garages or offices. After RCA decided to build a recording studio in Nashville in 1955, Sholes made Atkins studio manager. Along with Owen Bradley, who was performing a similar function for Decca Records, Atkins became an architect of the country music industry in Nashville. He continued to record and in 1955 had his first hit with a cover version of the pop hit “Mister Sandman” and had success on a duet with Hank Snow on “Silver Bell.”
He shared that fascination with pop music and the crossover appeal with Bradley and the two fashioned what came to be known as the Nashville Sound. They often replaced fiddles and steel guitars with violin string sessions and vocal choruses. The hits followed for such previously harder country artists as Don Gibson and Jim Reeves. He produced such artists as Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold, Skeeter Davis, Bobby Bare, the Browns and Dolly Parton. Atkins later said that the Nashville Sound came about because of a mandate from RCA to “sell records” and he apologized for “anything I did in taking it [country] too far uptown, which I sometimes did, because we were just trying to sell records.” He made history in selling records, with such hits as Don Gibson’s 1958 country and pop smash “Oh Lonesome Me,” which was the first million-selling record produced in RCA’s Studio B in Nashville. Atkins produced the session and played electric lead guitar on it.
In 1965, he signed Charley Pride to RCA and simultaneously had a major hit with “Yakety Axe,” a guitar version of Boots Randolph “Yakety Sax.” When Steve Sholes died in 1968, RCA made Atkins vice president of the Nashville country division.
As he cut back gradually on his producing duties, Atkins began recording with a succession of diverse artists: guitar pioneer Les Paul, British rocker Mark Knopfler, Jerry Reed and Merle Travis. When times changed at RCA and the label was resistant to the idea of Atkins recording a jazz album, Atkins left the label and signed with Columbia as a solo artist.
He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Atkins played the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 and was invited to play the White House by President John F. Kennedy. He performed with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. When Paul McCartney came to Nashville to record, he called Atkins and asked him to set up a recording session for him to cut a song his father had written. Atkins and Floyd Cramer and several other musicians took McCartney into the studio and the result was “Strolling in the Park With Eloise.”
Atkins was named Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year every year from 1967 to 1988. Atkins won 14 Grammys, the most recent in 1997 for Country Instrumental Performance with the song “Jam Man,” and he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Although he could take his pick of honorary titles, Atkins often said he preferred to be referred to as a “c.g.p.” — “certified guitar player.” “That damn ’world’s greatest guitar player’ is a misnomer,” he once said. “I think I’m one of the best-known guitar players in the world, I’ll admit to that. But there are so many damned people now who play the style I play and can play their own, and there are so many people who can play better jazz. But I kind of was the evangelist for that style. For fingerpicking, me and Merle. I think me more than him because he wasn’t making albums.”