Artist Profiles: Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains. He was a disciple of the legendary guitarist Merle Travis (Chet named his daughter Merle). Together with Merle Travis and Doc Watson he made up the trinity of country guitar. Chet was able to record with his hero before his death.

Chester Burton Atkins was born June 2, 1924 on a farm near Luttrell eastern Tennessee about 2 miles northeast of Knoxville. Chet Atkins’ origins were humble. Suffering with asthma throughout his youth he was a sickly child who nonetheless had to face working his family’s farm when his parents separated. He was only 1 at that time. But his father was a music teacher and song-leader with a number of traveling evangelists and his brother Jimmy -13 years older than Chet- was himself an accomplished guitar player.

Chet’s first instrument was a ukulele strung with wire from a screen door which he was able to get music out of for only short periods of time before the soft steel strands broke. Chet moved to Georgia when he was 1 to live with his father hoping the climate would be easier on his asthma. By this time he was playing a Sears Silvertone guitar which inexpensive as it was at least did not rely upon scrap metal for strings.

He left high school at age 17 knowing he wanted to pursue a career in music. In fact he admits that his childhood adversity was a significant motivator in driving him to be “the greatest at what he did.”

A series of performance slots on a number of radio stations as well as the popular Old Dominion Barn Dance often ended in Chet’s dismissal largely because he was already a sophisticated well-versed musician working for employers who wanted nothing but simple twangy “hillbilly” guitar.

His big break came when a gig with the legendary Carter Family led him to the Grand Ole Opry where his talents were finally appreciated. Chet became a sought-after session player working on records by some of the great pioneers of both country and rock’n’roll including the Everly Brothers and a kid from Tupelo Mississippi named Presley.

When he became RCA Records’ Manager of Operations Chet convinced the label to build an office and studio on Music Row in Nashville spearheading the music industry’s migration to Music City.

He was the main architect of the “Nashville Sound “which saved commercial country by marrying the music to pop sensibilities. His legacy to the industry he helped found and the culture he defined is undeniable. Upon leaving RCA Chet continued his highly successful career as a recording artist when he signed with Columbia Records where he remained till his death.

Chet Atkins is country music. He has played with Maybelle Carter Homer &Jethro Hank Snow Elvis Presley Eddy Arnold Jerry Reed Les Paul Ray Charles Hank Williams Sr. Kitty Wells Faron Young Lester Flatt &Earl Scruggs the Louvin Brothers Ernest Tubb Marty Robbins Webb Pierce Johnnie &Jack George Morgan Wanda Jackson George Jones etc. He has produced albums by Patsy Cline the Everly Brothers Floyd Cramer Waylon Jennings Skeeter Davis Skeets McDonald Porter Wagoner Charlie Pride Charlie Rich Hank Locklin Roger Miller Roy Orbison Don Gibson Bobby Bare etc. As a talent scout Chet helped sign Willie Nelson Dolly Parton Guy Clark Steve Wariner Tom T. Hall Connie Smith Dottie West and countless others.

A historical meeting between Chet Atkins and Doc Watson two of the 20th century’s most influential American guitarists was documented in 1980. Released for the first time on CD Reflections was an artifact for the ages and should be inspiration for guitarists for generations to come.

Chet while humble about his place in the world of music and obviously at peace with both himself and his plans for the future made it clear that he and his guitar had a lasting romance that shows no signs of abating. “There may come a day when I can’t play anymore ” Chet said “but otherwise I’ll be playing as long as I live. I could never put the guitar down ” he concluded laughing. “It might forget who I was.”

Atkins recorded more than 75 albums. In the years before his death he collaborated with many artists representing diverse genres such as Mark Knopfler Paul McCartney Eric Johnson George Benson and Earl Klugh.

Chet Atkins died of cancer on Saturday June 3, 2001 at this home in Nashville. He was 77 years old.

There were rumors started just a few months after Chet’s passing about a collection of unreleased solo guitar recordings Chet had made in his home studio. Chet’s Grandson Jonathan his engineer Mike Poston and longtime friend and sideman Paul Yandell all went down into Chet’s home studio. What they found were 28 cuts of Chet playing solo guitar arrangements some newly arranged solo performances of some of Chet’s favorite songs some songs that had never been recorded in any form. It was a special solo project Chet had undertaken himself over a 10 year period beginning in 1982. The recordings became available in 2003 under the title: Chet Atkins: Solo Sessions.

Selected discography:

A Master and his Music (Sony Legacy)
Essential Chet Atkins (Sony Legacy)
Guitar Legend: The RCA Years (Sony Legacy)
19 Original Albums, 10 CD boxed set
8 Classic Albums (Real Gone Music)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.

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