NASHVILLE — Despite their grief, Chet Atkins’ friends, colleagues and fellow musicians found eloquent ways to express their profound affection and respect for “Mr. Guitar” during a 50-minute service in his honor Tuesday (July 3).
Atkins, 77, died at home here Saturday. His funeral took place in Ryman Auditorium, where he appeared frequently on the Grand Ole Opry during its 1943-74 tenure there. A semicircle of floral arrangements, a guitar on a stand and a trademark white fedora graced the Ryman stage. Atkins’ silver casket arrived at 9:15 a.m.
The service began with Connie Smith singing the traditional gospel song “Farther Along” accompanied by a string band that included her husband, mandolin player Marty Stuart.
Eddy Arnold, who recorded for RCA during Atkins’ tenure as producer and executive there, said, “I’ve lost a friend, a cohort and a fellow artist in Chet Atkins. We won’t ever see the like, the talent, in one man. If you ever heard of any man, anywhere, who had it all, it was this man.”
During his emotional tribute, Arnold discussed Atkins’ 56-year marriage to his wife, Leona, and his talents as a producer and musician.
Guitarists Steve Wariner, Paul Yandell and Vince Gill followed Arnold, playing a medley of tunes in the thumb-and-finger-picking style Atkins made famous.
“Prairie Home Companion” radio host Garrison Keillor, a longtime Atkins friend and admirer, began his eloquent eulogy with a riotously funny letter in which Atkins discussed returning to East Tennessee, playing concerts and aging.
As guitarist Pat Donahue played behind him, Keillor recalled the night in 1946 when Atkins made his debut with Red Foley on the Ryman stage. Atkins played unlike other guitarists, Keillor said. “This one hunched down over the guitar and made it sing, and made a melody line that was beautiful and legato.”
He reviewed Atkins’ life, from his unhappy childhood and early exposure to music to his ascendance as one of the world’s premier guitarists. Keillor also recalled Atkins’ personal qualities and quirks.
“He knew stories about a lot of people in this room that are not in your press packets,” Keillor said, drawing laughter from the mourners.
“He was a great giant and maybe the greatest,” Keillor added, characterizing Atkins as “the guitar player of the 20th century, the model of who you should be and what you should look like.”
“It’s just incredible what he saw in people early on in their lives,” Stuart said of Atkins before picking up his mandolin and playing the Skeeter Davis hit, “End of the World,” which Atkins produced.
Kevin King read a chapter from a new Atkins book, Just Me and My Guitars, in which Atkins seemed to offer a final word on his career. “The players come and go,” he wrote, “but the music lives on and eternity will take care of the rest.”
The artists and friends who filed by Atkins’ casket after the service included Ralph Emery, Porter Wagoner, Jack Greene, Bill Ivey, Harold Bradley, Charley Pride, Gill and Yandell, Atkins’ guitar-playing partner for 24 years.
Interment followed the service at Harpeth Hills Cemetery on Highway 100.