Chet Atkins: 1924 to 2001
It’s hard to believe that Chet Atkins, a name synonymous with Nashville, ever had a problem with the place, but in 1950 he did. He was in Springfield, Missouri, at the time, working on KWTO with Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, when WSM offered them a job in Nashville with one caveat: no Atkins. Local guitarists, they explained, didn’t want the competition. Ezra Carter, Maybelle’s husband, stood firm: no Chet, no Carters. When WSM gave in a few months later, Atkins, after years of moving between radio stations, finally found a home.
When he died June 30 after a long struggle with cancer, media obits covered the salient points: guitar virtuoso, recipient of multiple Grammys and CMA Instrumentalist of the Year Awards, architect of the Nashville Sound and of Nashville’s overall development as a recording center. In truth, that legacy was as complex as Chester Burton Atkins himself. A lifetime of achievement notwithstanding, the poor, shy, asthmatic kid from Tennessee’s rural Smoky Mountains was never far away. Charming one time, self-depreciating the next, one of the great masterminds of modern Nashville was also one of its greatest enigmas.
No individual did more to shatter the longtime stereotype that country instrumentalists could barely tune, much less play with flair and finesse. It was no small irony that he accomplished this by infusing broader guitar influences into the bedrock fingerpicking style he adapted from Merle Travis. The playing of Les Paul, Django Reinhardt and the woefully underappreciated George Barnes all echoed through Atkins’ wild, raffish early records. The Travis-like fury of “Canned Heat” and the aggressive, Djangoesque swing of “Main Street Breakdown” epitomize the fire; “Country Gentleman” reflected a stately dignity. Like Les Paul, Atkins freely used electronic effects in pre-transistor days. The proto wah-wah “Boo Boo Stick Beat” may sound tame today; it was revolutionary at the time.
He certainly inspired generations of guitarists — Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, Leo Kottke, George Harrison, Brian Setzer, Scotty Moore, Jerry Reed and Mark Knopfler being the most obvious. It’s no secret the Ventures adapted guitarist Johnny Smith’s jazz instrumental “Walk! Don’t Run” from a 1957 Atkins recording, or that Harrison slipped Atkins-like licks into Beatles tunes such as “I’m A Loser”. There were two Chet Atkins guitar lines, the first marketed by Gretsch, the second by Gibson. The original candy-apple red Gretsch CA 6120 is now a rockabilly icon.
One of Nashville’s most in-demand studio guitarists in the 1950s, Atkins left his mark on dozens of records by, among others, Hank Williams, the Carlisles and the Everly Brothers. Some of his most inspired moments, however, appeared on obscure records, such as his roaring break on Ray Batts’ 1952 Bullet recording of “Bear Cat Daddy”. Atkins also used his guitar to “sign” some of his most memorable Nashville Sound productions. His keening, eloquent intro to Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls”, an incisive solo on Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me”, and the glassine curtains of notes behind Gibson on “Didn’t Work Out, Did It” are as vital to his legacy as his own records.
The scores of LPs he recorded became his primary platform. Collections of country and pop tunes, folk ditties, light classical fare, Latin music, film soundtracks and current hits often reflected a relentless quest for precision that some fans viewed as bland, oppressive perfection. He made no apologies for it. Referring to his early work in 1993, he told me that early on, he “played with a lot of fire because I didn’t know any better.”
The old fire, however, was merely repressed. Recording with other formidable guitarists — Knopfler, Jerry Reed, Les Paul, Doc Watson, Liona Boyd — unleashed the hungry, eager-to-dazzle picker of old. When he chose to rip loose on a solo track such as the charging 1976 “Cascade”, only the stereo mix separated it from 1947. His final album, The Day The Fingerpickers Took Over The World with Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel in 1997, was one of his finest.
Atkins’ legacy as a producer is every bit as monumental and complex. He hadn’t planned to become a producer, but his close relationship with his RCA A&R man Steve Sholes led him into it. When New York-based Sholes couldn’t make it to Nashville, he had Atkins supervise sessions. Early on, Sholes saw Chet’s gift for working with musicians in the studio, made the guitarist his protege, and in 1954 appointed him manager of RCA’s Nashville recording facility. As Atkins’ stature grew, Sholes remained his top ally at corporate headquarters. His support was pivotal to Atkins’ role in developing the Nashville Sound of the late 1950’s.
Everyone knows the Nashville Sound was a defensive move, a response to the whipping that country record sales took as rock ‘n’ roll surged in the wake of Elvis (who, ironically, Sholes had signed to RCA). The goal was simple: to create records that appealed to pop record buyers disillusioned by rock, without losing the core country audience.
In the right place at the right time, Atkins also had a qualification that few noticed. His friend, fellow Nashville Sound architect Owen Bradley, was a capable arranger who led local big bands for years; and, country roots notwithstanding, Atkins was also a child of the Big Band Era. Its songs and arrangements heavily influenced his recorded repertoire and left an equally profound impact on his production style. He substituted the Jordanaires or Anita Kerr Singers for fiddles and steel guitars, and worked with session musicians to create unique arrangements on the spot.
From then on, producers, for better or worse, took control of repertoire and arrangements. The paradigm broadened country’s reach beyond anyone’s expectations, cementing Nashville’s place as a worldwide recording center and Atkins’ role as a starmaker with exquisite taste. Generations later, his best work with Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Bobby Bare, Connie Smith, Eddy Arnold, and Skeeter Davis remains timeless and fresh.
As he made stars, a flair for reinvention emerged. He transformed Reeves from successful Texas honky-tonker to smooth balladeer. Don Gibson went through three recording contracts as a raw country singer before Atkins streamlined him into a powerhouse with “Oh Lonesome Me”. Atkins reinvented Eddy Arnold, a star of the ’40s and ’50s, as a countrypolitan icon in the mid-’60s with “What’s He Doing In My World” and “Make The World Go Away”. Jerry Reed rode the cusp of obscurity until Atkins brought his fellow fingerpicker to RCA and merged his piquant songwriting and bombastic vocals into a tough, Presleyesque sound. That particular relationship was symbiotic; many of Reed’s witty guitar instrumentals showed up on Atkins albums.
The Nashville Sound did its job too well in the end. What was once fresh gradually became formulaic and dull. Some pilloried Atkins as an Iago, betraying country’s roots in favor of safe, watery fluff. While no producer has a flawless track record, some of the worst, sappiest excesses came from lesser lights at various labels who lacked the musicality of Atkins or Bradley. As the controversy turned white-hot in the mid-1970s, Atkins himself mea culpaed for taking things too far “uptown.”
Not that he always played it safe. While it’s a given he put RCA’s ass on the line signing Charley Pride, few recall his 1960 signing of Gary Burton — a jazz vibraphone legend today, a 17-year-old unknown at the time. He did likewise with doomed jazz guitar virtuoso Lenny Breau and the decidedly offbeat John Hartford.
His relationship with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson also spawned misunderstandings. Painting Atkins as the Nashville Establishment figure thwarting the outlaws’ quest for creative freedom doesn’t capture the entire picture. They, too, were offbeat longshots when Atkins signed them. He tried them in various settings, but for once, the Atkins magic failed. It’s true he opposed them recording with their touring sidemen, but many of their worst conflicts were with other RCA Nashville producers and the company’s corporate culture. Neither ever blamed Chet, by then an RCA vice president.
By the 1970s, that corporate culture was getting to Atkins as well. The leash from New York shortened considerably after his mentor Steve Sholes’ sudden death in 1968. Administrative demands took their toll, as did a 1973 cancer scare. Both of these things bolstered his resolve to cast all that aside and get back to picking. When he cut all ties with RCA in the early ’80s, he left aware of what he’d accomplished. From then on, he did what he chose, producing on rare occasions, recording what suited him, and doing more live performing in the last two decades of his life than he had since taking the RCA job.
Chet Atkins set out to make his living with his guitar, and he did, becoming a musical fountainhead for several generations. He never intended to become a producer, but he did, creating music for the ages and solidifying a genre threatened at the time with irrelevancy if not extinction. No doubt a monument will soon adorn his gravesite. His statue and Chet Atkins Place in downtown Nashville are nice touches. But Atkins’ greatest legacies are Music Row itself, his own music, the epochal records he produced, and the inspiration he leaves behind.