NASHVILLE — Chet Atkins' contributions to music go far beyond his mastery of the guitar, though most regard his talent on the instrument as second to none. While head of RCA's Nashville office from 1957 to 1982, Atkins had a knack for spotting young talent and nurturing careers.
"Chet made our dreams possible," said Bobby Bare, one of the artists Atkins championed. "I've had a great life and it was because of my association with Chet. I really don't think I could have accomplished what I did with anybody else but Chet."
Atkins died Saturday at his home in Nashville after a long battle with cancer. He was 77. Family, friends and fans will pay their last respects at 11 a.m. Tuesday during a service at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, with interment to follow at Harpeth Hills Cemetery.
Garrison Keillor will deliver the eulogy for Atkins. Musical tributes will be offered by Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Paul Yandell, Marty Stuart, Pat Donahue and a string quartet. Eddy Arnold and Kevin King also will speak during the service, which will be carried live by WSM-AM.
"I thank God for Chet Atkins," said Charley Pride, another Atkins beneficiary. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame with Atkins, Pride lives in Dallas and was en route to Nashville on Monday to attend the funeral. "I see him as a father figure in terms of what he did for me and how he changed my life. I will never forget it."
Pride broke country music's color barrier in the 1960s and is the only country superstar who is black. Atkins convinced RCA executives in California to offer Pride his first record deal.
Pride praised Atkins for giving him a fair shot without getting hung up on skin color. "When he went out to the meeting [with RCA] he played my music and didn't tell them what color I was," Pride recalled. "He just let them hear my voice and wanted to know what they thought."
Atkins at first billed Pride as "Country" Charley Pride. Later he proved to be one of RCA's most successful acts, recording for the label for 20 years and scoring 29 #1 hits on the Billboard country singles chart.
"I stayed so in awe of Chet," Pride said. "I've been around presidents and a lot of other [important] people, but there only have been two people on this earth that I was nervous around: Chet Atkins and Mickey Mantle. It's because of the respect I have for them."
As a producer, Atkins was instrumental in creating the "Nashville sound" of the late 1950s and '60s. Along with Owen Bradley and others, Atkins broadened the market for country records and helped the country music industry endure the onslaught of rock and roll.
Adding horns, strings, backup vocals and other elements of popular music to country music melodies, Atkins ironed out much of the hillbilly in hillbilly music, making country smooth and more sophisticated.
An essential component of the Nashville sound was the corps of studio musicians known as the A-Team, a small but distinct group of sidemen who played on most recording sessions in Nashville.
A-Team bassist Bob Moore estimates that he worked on 18,000 recording sessions, many with Atkins. Moore praised Atkins for his easy hand in the studio and for having complete confidence in his musicians.
"He would sit in the control room and every now and then he'd come out wanting to change a chord or something," Moore recalled. "He was enjoyable to work with. He took suggestions from us."
"Chet picked really great musicians," Bare said. "He knew they could play, so he let 'em play. He would have a general idea of how he wanted the song to go. If he had a lick or riff in mind, he'd go out and show it to the musicians and then sit back and let them go. He was an expert at staying out of the way."
Bare remained close to Atkins up until his death. He sometimes took Atkins' masterful musicianship for granted.
"I'd just go hang out with him," Bare said. "We would be talking and he would be noodling around on the guitar. I would forget he was the greatest guitar player in the world. Every now and then it would come back to me. He would be playing something on the guitar and I'd say, 'My God!'"
"He was bigger than life, and he so underplayed it," Bare observed. "He was like a bluegrass player. He was there to play and that was it. He would much rather concentrate on playing than entertaining an audience. But he got pretty good at the entertaining part, too."
Session veteran Harold Bradley, a guitar-playing member of the A-Team and now president of the Nashville Association of Musicians, ranks Atkins above all other pickers.
"He's influenced more guitar players than any other guitar player in the world," Bradley said. "When you name guitar players, you think of Les Paul, because he designed the Les Paul [guitar] and was a wonderful player. And you think of Andrés Segovia. But the truth is that Chet was more famous than either of those people. All over the world, wherever you go, they'll know Chet. He represented Nashville in such a wonderful way. We were so lucky to have him."