Chester Burton "Chet" Atkins (June 20, 1924 – June 30, 2001),
known as "Mr. Guitar" and "The Country Gentleman", was an American
musician, occasional vocalist, songwriter, and record producer, who
Owen Bradley and Bob Ferguson, among others, created the
country music style that came to be known as the Nashville sound,
which expanded country music's appeal to adult pop music fans. He was
primarily known as a guitarist. He also played the mandolin, fiddle,
banjo, and ukulele.
Atkins's signature picking style was inspired by Merle Travis. Other
major guitar influences were Django Reinhardt, George Barnes, Les
Paul, and, later, Jerry Reed. His distinctive picking style and
musicianship brought him admirers inside and outside the country
scene, both in the United States and abroad. Atkins spent most of his
RCA Victor and produced records for the Browns, Hank Snow,
Porter Wagoner, Norma Jean, Dolly Parton, Dottie West, Perry Como,
Floyd Cramer, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Don
Gibson, Jim Reeves, Jerry Reed, Skeeter Davis, Waylon Jennings, and
Rolling Stone credited Atkins with inventing the "popwise "Nashville
sound" that rescued country music from a commercial slump", and ranked
him number 21 on their list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All
Time." Among many other honors, Atkins received 14 Grammy Awards
and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He also received nine
Country Music Association
Country Music Association awards for Instrumentalist of the Year. He
was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music
Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.
1.1 Childhood and early life
1.2 Early musical career
1.3 Signing with RCA Victor
1.4 Performer and producer
1.5 Later career
2 Death and legacy
4 Industry awards
6 Further reading
7 External links
Childhood and early life
Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, in Luttrell, Tennessee, near Clinch
Mountain. His parents divorced when he was six years old, after which
he was raised by his mother. He was the youngest of three boys and a
girl. He started out on the ukulele, later moving on to the fiddle,
but swapped with his brother Lowell; an old pistol and some chores for
a guitar when he was nine. He stated in his 1974 autobiography, "We
were so poor and everybody around us was so poor that it was the
forties before anyone even knew there had been a depression." Forced
to relocate to Fortson, Georgia, outside of Columbus, to live with his
father because of a critical asthma condition, Atkins was a sensitive
youth who made music his obsession. Because of his illness, he was
forced to sleep in a straight-back chair to breathe comfortably. On
those nights, he played his guitar until he fell asleep holding it, a
habit which lasted his whole life. While living in Fortson, he
attended the historic Mountain Hill School. He
returned in the 1990s to play a series of charity concerts to save the
school from demolition. Stories have been told about the very young
Chet, who, when a friend or relative would come to visit and play
guitar, would crowd in and put his ear so close to the instrument that
it became difficult for the visitor to play.
Atkins became an accomplished guitarist while he was in high
school. He used the restroom in the school to practice, because it
gave better acoustics. His first guitar had a nail for a nut and
was so bowed that only the first few frets could be used. He later
purchased a semi-acoustic electric guitar and amp, but he had to
travel many miles to find an electrical outlet, since his home didn't
Later in life, he lightheartedly gave himself (along with John
Knowles, Marcel Dadi, Tommy Emmanuel, Steve Wariner, and Jerry
Reed) the honorary degree CGP ("Certified
Guitar Player"). In
2011, his daughter Merle Atkins Russell bestowed the CGP degree on his
longtime sideman Paul Yandell. She then declared no more CGPs would be
allowed by the Atkins estate.
His half-brother Jim, was a successful guitarist who worked with the
Les Paul Trio in New York.
Atkins did not have a strong style of his own until 1939, when (while
still living in Georgia) he heard
Merle Travis picking over WLW
radio. This early influence dramatically shaped his unique
playing style. Whereas Travis's right hand used his index finger
for the melody and thumb for bass notes, Atkins expanded his
right-hand style to include picking with his first three fingers, with
the thumb on bass.
Chet Atkins was a ham radio general class licensee. Formerly using the
call sign WA4CZD, he obtained the vanity call sign W4CGP in 1998 to
include the CGP designation. He was a member of the American Radio
Early musical career
After dropping out of high school in 1942, Atkins landed a job at
WNOX-AM radio in Knoxville, where he played fiddle and guitar with the
Bill Carlisle and the comic
Archie Campbell and became a member
of the station's Dixieland Swingsters, a small swing instrumental
combo. After three years, he moved to WLW-AM in Cincinnati, Ohio,
Merle Travis had formerly worked.
After six months, he moved to Raleigh and worked with Johnnie and Jack
before heading for Richmond, Virginia, where he performed with
Sunshine Sue Workman. Atkins's shy personality worked against him, as
did the fact that his sophisticated style led many to doubt he was
truly "country". He was fired often, but was soon able to land another
job at another radio station on account of his unique playing
Jethro Burns (of Homer and Jethro) married twin sisters,
Leona and Lois Johnson, who sang as Laverne and Fern Johnson, the
Johnson Sisters. Leona Atkins outlived her husband by eight years,
dying in 2009 at the age of 85.
Travelling to Chicago, Atkins auditioned for Red Foley, who was
leaving his star position on WLS-AM's
National Barn Dance
National Barn Dance to join the
Grand Ole Opry. Atkins made his first appearance at the Opry in
1946 as a member of Foley's band. He also recorded a single for
Bullet Records that year. That single, "
was fairly progressive, including a clarinet solo by the Nashville
dance band musician Dutch McMillan, with
Owen Bradley on piano. He had
a solo spot on the Opry, but when that was cut, Atkins moved on to
KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. Despite the support of executive Si
Siman, however, he soon was fired for not sounding "country
Signing with RCA Victor
While working with a Western band in Denver, Colorado, Atkins came to
the attention of RCA Victor. Siman had been encouraging Steve Sholes
to sign Atkins, as his style (with the success of
Merle Travis as a
hit recording artist) was suddenly in vogue. Sholes, A&R director
of country music at RCA, tracked Atkins down in Denver.
He made his first
RCA Victor recordings in Chicago in 1947. They did
not sell, but he did some studio work for RCA that year but had
relocated to Knoxville again, where he worked with
Homer and Jethro
Homer and Jethro on
WNOX's new Saturday night radio show The Tennessee Barn Dance and the
popular Midday Merry Go Round.
In 1949, he left
WNOX to join
June Carter with Mother Maybelle and the
Carter Sisters on KWTO. This incarnation of the old Carter Family
Maybelle Carter and daughters June, Helen, and Anita. Their
work soon attracted attention from the Grand Ole Opry. The group
relocated to Nashville in the mid-1950s. Atkins began working on
recording sessions and performing on WSM-AM and the Opry. Atkins
became a member of the Opry in the 1950s.
While he had not yet had a hit record for RCA Victor, his stature was
growing. He began assisting Sholes as a session leader when the New
York–based producer needed help organizing Nashville sessions for
RCA Victor artists. Atkins's first hit single was "Mr. Sandman",
followed by "Silver Bell", which he recorded as a duet with Hank Snow.
His albums also became more popular. He was featured on ABC-TV's The
Eddy Arnold Show in the summer of 1956 and on Country Music Jubilee in
1957 and 1958 (by then renamed Jubilee USA).
Gretsch Country Gentleman, model G6122, 1962
In addition to recording, Atkins was a design consultant for Gretsch,
which manufactured a popular
Chet Atkins line of electric guitars from
1955–1980. He became manager of RCA Victor's Nashville studios,
eventually inspiring and seeing the completion of the legendary RCA
Studio B, the first studio built specifically for the purpose of
recording on the now-famous Music Row. Also later on, Chet and Owen
Bradley would become instrumental in the creation of studio B’s
RCA Studio A
RCA Studio A as well.
Performer and producer
When Sholes took over pop production in 1957—a result of his success
with Elvis Presley—he put Atkins in charge of RCA Victor's Nashville
division. With country music record sales declining; as rock and roll
became more popular, Atkins and Bob Ferguson took their cue from Owen
Bradley and eliminated fiddles and steel guitar as a means of making
country singers appeal to pop fans. This became known as the Nashville
sound which Atkins said was a label created by the media attached to a
style of recording done during that period to keep country (and their
Atkins used the
Jordanaires and a rhythm section on hits such as Jim
Reeves's "Four Walls" and "He'll Have to Go" and Don Gibson's "Oh
Lonesome Me" and "Blue Blue Day". The once-rare phenomenon of
having a country hit cross over to pop success became more common.
Bradley and he had essentially put the producer in the driver's seat,
guiding an artist's choice of material and the musical background.
Atkins made his own records, which usually visited pop standards and
jazz, in a sophisticated home studio, often recording the rhythm
tracks at RCA and adding his solo parts at home, refining the tracks
until the results satisfied him. Guitarists of all styles came to
admire various Atkins albums for their unique musical ideas and in
some cases experimental electronic ideas. In this period, he became
known internationally as "Mister Guitar", inspiring an album, Mister
Guitar, engineered by both Bob Ferris and Bill Porter, Ferris's
Atkins listening as Bill Porter adjusts a mix in RCA's Nashville
At the end of March 1959, Porter took over as chief engineer at RCA's
Nashville studio, in the space now known as Studio B. (At the time,
only one RCA studio was in Nashville, with no letter designation.)
Porter soon helped Atkins get a better reverberation sound from the
studio's German effects device, an EMT plate reverb. With his golden
ear, Porter found the studio's acoustics to be problematic, and he
devised a set of acoustic baffles to hang from the ceiling, then
selected positions for microphones based on resonant room modes. The
sound of the recordings improved significantly, and the studio
achieved a string of successes. The
Nashville sound became more
dynamic. In later years, when Bradley asked how he achieved his
sound, Atkins told him "it was Porter." Porter described Atkins as
respectful of musicians when recording—if someone was out of tune,
he would not single that person out by name. Instead, he would say
something like, "we got a little tuning problem ... Everybody
check and see what's going on." If that did not work, Atkins would
instruct Porter to turn the offending player down in the mix. When
Porter left RCA in late-1964, Atkins said, "the sound was never the
same, never as great."
Atkins's trademark "Atkins style" of playing uses the thumb and first
two or sometimes three fingers of the right hand. He developed this
style from listening to Merle Travis, occasionally on a primitive
radio. He was sure no one could play that articulately with just the
thumb and index finger (which was exactly how Travis played), and he
assumed it required the thumb and two fingers—and that was the style
he pioneered and mastered.
He enjoyed jamming with fellow studio musicians, and they were asked
to perform at the Newport
Jazz Festival in 1960. That performance was
cancelled because of rioting, but a live recording of the group (After
the Riot at Newport) was released. Atkins performed by invitation at
White House for every U.S. President from John F. Kennedy through
to George H. W. Bush. Atkins was a member of the Million Dollar Band
during the 1980s. He is also well known for his song "Yankee Doodle
Dixie", in which he played "Yankee Doodle" and "Dixie" simultaneously,
on the same guitar.
Before his mentor Sholes died in 1968, Atkins had become vice
president of RCA's country division. In 1987, he told Nine-O-One
Network magazine that he was "ashamed" of his promotion: "I wanted to
be known as a guitarist and I know, too, that they give you titles
like that in lieu of money. So beware when they want to make you vice
president." He had brought Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Connie
Smith, Bobby Bare, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, and
John Hartford to the
label in the 1960s and inspired and helped countless others. He
took a considerable risk during the mid-1960s, when the civil rights
movement sparked violence throughout the South, by signing country
music's first African-American singer, Charley Pride, who sang rawer
country than the smoother music Atkins had pioneered.
Atkins's biggest hit single came in 1965, with "Yakety Axe", an
adaptation of "Yakety Sax", by his friend, the saxophonist Boots
Randolph. He rarely performed in those days and eventually hired other
RCA producers, such as Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis, to lessen his
In the 1970s, Atkins became increasingly stressed by his executive
duties. He produced fewer records, but could still turn out hits such
as Perry Como's 1973 pop hit "And I Love You So". He recorded
extensively with close friend and fellow picker Jerry Reed, who had
become a hit artist in his own right. A 1973 diagnosis of colon
cancer, however, led Atkins to redefine his role at RCA, to allow
others to handle administration while he went back to his first love,
the guitar, often recording with Reed or even
Jethro Burns from Homer
and Jethro (his brother-in-law) after Homer died in 1971.
By the late-1970s, RCA decided to remove Atkins from his production
duties and replace him with younger men. He also felt stifled because
the record company would not let him branch into jazz. His mid-1970s
collaborations with one of his influences, Les Paul, Chester &
Guitar Monsters, had already reflected that interest;
Chester & Lester was one of the best-selling recordings of
Atkins's career. At the same time, he grew dissatisfied with the
Gretsch (no longer family-owned) was going and withdrew his
authorization for them to use his name and began designing guitars
with Gibson. Atkins ended his 35-year association with RCA in 1982 and
signed with Columbia Records, for whom he produced a debut album in
Jazz had always been a strong love of his, and often in his career he
was criticized by "pure" country musicians for his jazz influences. He
also said on many occasions that he did not like being called a
"country guitarist", insisting that he was "a guitarist, period".
Although he played "by ear" and was a masterful improviser, he was
able to read music and even performed some classical guitar pieces.
When Roger C. Field, a friend, suggested to him in 1991 that he record
and perform with a female singer, he did so with Suzy Bogguss.
He returned to his country roots for albums he recorded with Mark
Knopfler and Jerry Reed. Knopfler had long mentioned Atkins as one
of his earliest influences. Atkins also collaborated with Australian
guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel. On being asked to name the ten most
influential guitarists of the twentieth century, he named Django
Reinhardt to the first position, and also placed himself on the
In later years, he even went back to radio, appearing on Garrison
Prairie Home Companion
Prairie Home Companion radio program, on American Public
Media radio, even picking up a fiddle from time to time, and
performing songs such as Bob Wills's "Corrina, Corrina" and Willie
Nelson's "Seven Spanish Angels" with Nelson on a 1985 broadcast of the
show at the Bridges Auditorium on the campus of
Pomona College (then
Death and legacy
Atkins received numerous awards, including 14 Grammy awards and nine
Country Music Association
Country Music Association awards for Instrumentalist of the Year.
In 1993, he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Billboard magazine awarded him its Century Award, its "highest honor
for distinguished creative achievement", in December 1997.
Atkins is notable for his broad influence. His love for numerous
styles of music can be traced from his early recording of the stride
pianist James P. Johnson's "Johnson Rag", all the way to the rock
stylings of Eric Johnson, an invited guest on Atkins's recording
sessions, who, when Atkins attempted to copy his influential rocker
"Cliffs of Dover", led to Atkins's creation of a unique arrangement of
"Londonderry Air (Danny Boy)".
Atkins's recordings of "Malagueña" inspired a new generation of
flamenco guitarists; the classical guitar selections included on
almost all his albums were, for many American artists working in the
field today, the first classical guitar they ever heard. He recorded
smooth jazz guitar still played on American airwaves today.
Atkins continued performing in the 1990s, but his health declined
after he was diagnosed again with colon cancer in 1996. He died on
June 30, 2001, at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of
77. His memorial service was held at Ryman Auditorium in
Nashville. He was buried at Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens in
A stretch of Interstate 185 in southwest Georgia (between LaGrange and
Columbus) is named "
Chet Atkins Parkway". This stretch of
interstate runs through Fortson, where Atkins spent much of his
In 2002, Atkins was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame. His award was presented by
Marty Stuart and Brian Setzer
and accepted by Atkins's grandson, Jonathan Russell. The following
year, Atkins ranked number 28 in Country Music Television's "40
Greatest Men of Country Music".
At the age of 13, the future jazz guitarist
Earl Klugh was captivated
watching Atkins's guitar playing on The
Perry Como Show.
Similarly, he was a big influence on Doyle Dykes. Atkins also inspired
Drexl Jonez and Tommy Emmanuel.
Clint Black's album
Nothin' but the Taillights includes the song "Ode
to Chet", which includes the lyrics "'Cause I can win her over like
Romeo did Juliet, if I can only show her I can almost pick that legato
lick like Chet" and "It'll take more than
Mel Bay 1, 2, & 3 if I'm
ever gonna play like CGP." Atkins played guitar on the track. At the
end of the song, Black and Atkins had a brief conversation.
Chet's song "Jam Man" is currently used in commercials for Esurance.
The opening guitar licks to the
Miranda Lambert song "Only Prettier"
sound very similar to Atkins's guitar-picking style.
In 1967, a tribute song, "Chet's Tune", was produced for his birthday,
with contributions by a long list of
RCA Victor artists, including
Eddy Arnold, Connie Smith, Jerry Reed, Willie Nelson, Hank Snow, and
others. The song was written by the Nashville songwriter Cy Coben, a
friend of Atkins's. The single reached number 38 on the country
Steve Wariner released an album entitled My Tribute to Chet
Atkins. One song from that record, "Producer's Medley", featured
Wariner's recreation of several famous songs which Atkins both
produced and performed. "Producer's Medley" won the Grammy for Best
Country Instrumental Performance in 2010.
In November 2011,
Rolling Stone ranked Atkins number 21 on their list
of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".
Chet Atkins discography
Country Music Association
1967 Instrumentalist of the Year
1968 Instrumentalist of the Year
1969 Instrumentalist of the Year
1981 Instrumentalist of the Year
1982 Instrumentalist of the Year
1983 Instrumentalist of the Year
1984 Instrumentalist of the Year
1985 Instrumentalist of the Year
1988 Instrumentalist of the Year
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Inducted in 1973
1971 Best Country Instrumental Performance with Jerry Reed – Me
1972 Best Country Instrumental Performance – "Snowbird"
1975 Best Country Instrumental Performance with Merle Travis –
The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show
1976 Best Country Instrumental Performance – "The Entertainer"
1977 Best Country Instrumental Performance with Les Paul –
Chester and Lester
1982 Best Country Instrumental Performance – Country After All
1986 Best Country Instrumental Performance with Mark Knopfler –
"Cosmic Square Dance"
1991 Best Country Instrumental Performance with Mark Knopfler –
"So Soft, Your Goodbye"
1991 Best Country Vocal Collaboration with Mark Knopfler –
"Poor Boy Blues"
1993 Best Country Instrumental Performance with Jerry Reed –
1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award'
1994 Best Country Instrumental Performance with Asleep at the Wheel,
Eldon Shamblin, Johnny Gimble, Marty Stuart, Reuben "Lucky Oceans"
Gosfield & Vince Gill – "Red Wing"
1995 Best Country Instrumental Performance – "Young Thing"
1997 Best Country Instrumental Performance – "Jam Man"
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
^ a b c Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 10 – Tennessee Firebird:
American Country Music Before and After Elvis. [Part 2]" (audio). Pop
Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
^ "Chet Atkins". Rolling Stone.
^ a b "
Country Music Television
Country Music Television biography". Cmt.com. Retrieved March
^ a b c d e f g Atkins, Chet; Neely, Bill (1974). "Country Gentleman".
Chicago. Harry Regnery. ISBN 0-8092-9051-0.
^ Rush, Dianne Samms (October 23, 1994). "Chet Plays; Gatlin Lives".
Lakeland Ledger. Lakeland, Florida. p. 9C. Retrieved July 6,
^ Atkins, Chet; Neely, Bill (1974). "Country Gentleman". Chicago.
Harry Regnery. p. 52. ISBN 0-8092-9051-0.
^ Halberstam, David (1961). liner notes. Chet Atkins' Workshop. RCA
^ a b c d e f g h i Atkins, Chet; Cochran, Russ (2003). "Me and My
Guitars". Milwaukee: Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-05565-8.
^ Atkins, Chet; Neely, Bill. (1974). "Country Gentleman". Chicago.
Harry Regnery. pp. 61–62. ISBN 0-8092-9051-0.
^ 'Interview of Chet Atkins' on YouTube
^ Freeman, Jon (November 22, 2011). "A Guitarist
Paul Yandell Passes".
Music Row. Retrieved July 6, 2012.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Archived October 14, 2007, at
the Wayback Machine.
^ ARRLWeb: "Mister Guitar", Chet Atkins, W4CGP, SK Archived September
20, 2005, at the Wayback Machine.
^ "Chet Atkins' Widow Dies". Country Standard Time. October 22, 2009.
Retrieved October 29, 2011.
^ a b c "
Chet Atkins Dies" Rolling Stone. Accessed on March 28, 2008.
^ "Opry Timeline – 1950s". Retrieved July 2, 2012.
^ Allmusic entry for Welcome to My World,
Jim Reeves 1996 box set,
Bear Family Records
^ Allmusic biography of Don Gibson
^ Ballou, Glen (1998). Handbook for Sound Engineers. Focal Press.
^ a b c McClellan, John; Bratic, Deyan (2004).
Chet Atkins in Three
Mel Bay Publications. pp. 149–152.
^ Nine-O-One Interview, Nine-O-One Network Magazine, December 1987,
^ a b "Chet Atkins", Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Accessed on March 28,
^ Official Web Site of Chet Atkins. Accessed on August 27, 2014.
^ "Biography – Chet Atkins". Rolling Stone. Accessed on May 10,
^ "Obituary" Archived March 23, 2008, at the Wayback Machine., CNN,
July 2, 2001 Accessed June 21, 2008
^ "Guitars Gently Weep as Nashville Pays Tribute to Chet Atkins". The
New York Times. July 4, 2001. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
Chet Atkins at Find a Grave. Accessed November 24, 2010
Chet Atkins Parkway Bill Resolution". Archived from the original on
January 28, 2005. Retrieved January 9, 2012.
^ "Performing Arts Center, Buffalo State University".
Buffalostate.edu. Retrieved February 27, 2012.
Tommy Emmanuel official website biography. Retrieved September 2009.
^ Billboard, June 3, 1967, p. 41.
^ McClellan, John; Bratic, Deyan.
Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions: 50
Years of Legendary Guitar, vol. 1. Pacific, MO:
Mel Bay Publications.
^ Whitburn, Joel (2008). Hot Country Songs 1944 to 2008. Record
Research. p. 392. ISBN 0-89820-177-2.
^ "Chet Atkins". Rolling Stone.
Kienzle, Rich (1998). "Chet Atkins". The Encyclopedia of Country
Music. Paul Kingsbury, ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Country Music Hall of Fame 1970s
Carter Family (1970)
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Art Satherley (1971)
Jimmie Davis (1972)
Chet Atkins (1973)
Patsy Cline (1973)
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Pee Wee King
Pee Wee King (1974)
Minnie Pearl (1975)
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ISNI: 0000 0000 7358 9814
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