June 30, 2001 – Chester Burton “Chet” Atkins was born on June 20th 1924 in Luttrell, Tennessee, near Clinch Mountain. Even though by many considered instrumental in bringing Country music mainstream with the Nashville Sound, Chet’s guitar virtuosity (he also played the mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and ukulele) was recognized with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which makes him eligible in this website’s line-up.
His parents divorced when he was six, 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 traded 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 semiacoustic electric guitar and amp, but he had to travel many miles to find an electrical outlet, since his home had no electricity.
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.
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’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 ability.
Atkins and 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.
Traveling to Chicago, Atkins auditioned for Red Foley, who was leaving his star position on WLS-AM’s 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 Nashville-based Bullet Records that year. That single, “Guitar Blues”, 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 enough”, which in 1957 turned into his favor after the successes of Elvis, when his boss took over pop production in 1957 and Atkins took charge of RCA Victor’s Nashville division.
With country music record sales declining as rock and roll took over, 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 jobs) viable.
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 replacement.
By 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 workload.
By the late 1970s, RCA decided to remove Atkins from his producing 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 & Lester and 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 direction 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 1983.
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 20th century, he named Django Reinhardt to the first position, and also placed himself on the list.
In later years, he even went back to radio, appearing on Garrison Keillor’s 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’ “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 Claremont College).