CHESTER BURTON 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 along with 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' 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 ,
Among many honors, Atkins received 14 Grammy Awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award . He also received nine Country Music Association awards for Instrumentalist of the Year. He was inducted into the Rock 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 have electricity.
Later in life, he lightheartedly gave himself (along with John
Marcel Dadi ,
Tommy Emmanuel ,
Steve Wariner , and Jerry
Reed ) the honorary degree CGP ("Certified
His half-brother Jim, was a successful guitarist who worked with the
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' 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.
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 singer 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 , where 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' 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 ability.
Jethro Burns (of
Homer and Jethro
Travelling to Chicago, Atkins auditioned for
Red Foley , who was
leaving his star position on WLS-AM 's _
National Barn Dance _ to join
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
Nashville-based Bullet Records that year. That single, "
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"> Atkins's Gretsch Country Gentleman, model G6122, 1962
In addition to recording, Atkins was a design consultant for Gretsch
, which manufactured a popular
PERFORMER AND PRODUCER
When Sholes took over pop production in 1957—a result of his
Atkins used the
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
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' 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
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' 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 workload.
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,
Atkins continued performing in the 1990s, but his health declined after he was diagnosed again with cancer in 1996. He died on June 30, 2001, at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, ten days after his 77th birthday. His memorial service was held at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. He was buried at Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens in Nashville.
A stretch of Interstate 185 in southwest Georgia (between LaGrange
and Columbus ) is named "
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.
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 charts.
In 2009, 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 its list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Further information: 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 and Jerry_
* 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
* ^ _A_ _B_ _C_ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 10 – Tennessee
Firebird: American Country Music Before and After Elvis. " (audio).
Pop Chronicles _.
University of North Texas Libraries .
* ^ _A_ _B_ "
Country Music Television biography.". Cmt.com.
Retrieved March 28, 2008.
* ^ _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). iner notes. _Chet Atkins' Workshop_.
RCA Victor LSP-2232.
* ^ _A_ _B_ _C_ _D_ _E_ _F_ _G_ _H_ _I_ Atkins, Chet; Cochran, Russ
(2003). "Me and My Guitars". Milwaukee: Hal Leonard. ISBN
* ^ Atkins, Chet; Neely, Bill. (1974). "Country Gentleman".
Chicago. Harry Regnery. pp. 61–62. ISBN 0-8092-9051-0 .
* ^ \'Interview of Chet Atkins\' on
* Kienzle, Rich (1998). "Chet Atkins". _The Encyclopedia of Country Music_. Paul Kingsbury, ed. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 26–27.
_ Wikimedia Commons has