Chet Atkins Biography
Chester Burton "Chet" Atkins (June 20, 1924 – June 30, 2001) was an influential guitarist and record producer. His virtuoso picking style - inspired by Merle Travis, Django Reinhardt, George Barnes and Les Paul - brought him admirers both within and outside the country scene. Atkins produced records for Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves, Jerry Reed, Connie Smith, and Waylon Jennings. He created, along with Owen Bradley, the smoother country music style known as the Nashville sound, which expanded country music's appeal to include adult pop music fans as well.
Chet was born on June 20, 1924, in Luttrell, Tennessee, near the Clinch Mountains, and grew up with his mother and two brothers and a sister, he being the youngest. His parents divorced when he was six. He started out on the ukelele, later moving on to the fiddle, but traded his brother Lowell an old pistol and some chores for a guitar when he was nine. Forced to relocate to Georgia to live with his father due to a near-fatal asthma condition, Chet was a sensitive youth who made music his obsession.
The stories have been told about the very young Chet who, when a relative would come to visit, and if that relative played a guitar, would crowd in and put his ear so very close to the instrument that it became difficult for that person to play. This was an early demonstration of his affinity for the instrument that would later become his life, and that he would take around the world, stunning packed concert halls from Nashville to the Boston Pops. Thus he became an accomplished guitarist while he was in high school.
The stories are told of how Chet would use the restroom in the school to practice, because it gave better acoustics. While the other boys in school shot craps, Chet would busy himself practicing, absorbed in the world of his guitar. Chet was self-taught, and later in life gave himself (along with Tommy Emmanuel, Jerry Reed and John Knowles) the honorary degree "CGP", standing for "Certified Guitar Player". 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 utilized 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. The result was a clarity and complexity that became his unmistakable sound.
After dropping out of high school in 1942, he landed a job at WNOX radio in Knoxville. There he played fiddle and guitar with singer Bill Carlisle and comic Archie Campbell as well as becoming a member of the station's "Dixieland Swingsters," a small swing instrumental combo.
After three years, he moved to WLW 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 due to his unique playing ability.
Travelling to Chicago, he auditioned for Red Foley, who was leaving his star position at the WLS National Barn Dance to join the Grand Ole Opry. Atkins made his first appearance at the Grand Ole 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 as it did, a clarinet solo by Nashville dance band musician Dutch McMillan with Owen Bradley on piano. He had a solo spot on the Opry for a while but when that was cut Atkins moved on to KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, and despite the support of executive Si Siman, soon was fired for not sounding country enough.
While working with a Western Band in Denver, Colorado, Atkins came to the attention of RCA Victor. Si 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 to Denver. He made his first RCA recordings in Chicago in 1947. They did not sell. He did some studio work for RCA that year but had relocated to Knoxville again where he worked with Homer and Jethro on WNOX's new Saturday night radio show the Tennessee Barn Dance and the popular Midday Merry Go Round. Still, it was a hard way to make a living for a family man for by then he had a wife and daughter. He even contemplated tuning pianos as a sideline. In 1949 he left WNOX to join Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters back at KWTO. This incarnation of the old Carter Family featured Maybelle Carter and daughters June, Helen and Anita. Their work soon attracted attention from the Opry. The group relocated to Nashville in mid-1950. Atkins began working on recording sessions, performing on WSM and the Opry.
While he hadn't yet had a hit record on RCA 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 artists. Atkins's first hit single was "Mr. Sandman," followed by "Silver Bell," which he did as a duet with Hank Snow. His albums also became more popular. In addition to recording, Atkins became a design consultant for Gretsch, who manufactured a popular Chet Atkins line of electric guitars from 1955-1980. Atkins also became manager of RCA's Nashville studio eventually inspiring and seeing the completion of the legendary Studio 'B'. This studio was the first studio built specifically for the purpose of recording on the now famous 'Music Row'.
When Sholes took over pop production in 1957 - a result of his success with Elvis Presley - he put Atkins in charge of RCA's Nashville division. It was then that Atkins, Owen Bradley, and Bob Ferguson seeing country music record sales in tatters as rock and roll took over, came up with the idea of eliminating fiddles and steel guitar as a means of making country singers appeal to pop fans. This became known as 'The Nashville Sound' which Chet said was a label created by the media attached to a style of recording done during that period in an effort to keep country (and their jobs) viable. Atkins used the Jordanaires and a rhythm section on hits like 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. He and Bradley 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 but adding his solo parts at home, refining it all until the result 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", also the name of one of Atkins's albums. His trademark "Atkins Style" of playing, which was and is very difficult for a guitarist to master, uses the thumb and first two - 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 actually 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 which led to them being asked to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. That performance was canceled, however, due to rioting. Atkins performed by invitation at the White House for presidents Kennedy through George H. W. Bush.
Before his mentor, Sholes, died in 1968, Atkins had become vice president of RCA's country division. 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. But Atkins's hunch paid off. Ironically, some of Pride's biggest fans were from the most conservative country fans, many of whom didn't care for the pop stylings Atkins had added.
Atkins's own biggest hit single came in 1965, with "Yakety Axe," an adaptation of his friend saxophonist Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax." He rarely performed in those days, and eventually had to hire other RCA producers like Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis to alleviate 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 pop hit "And I Love You So." He recorded extensively with close friend and fellow picker Jerry Reed, who'd become a hit artist in his own right. A 1973 bout 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 Homer & Jethro's Jethro Burns (Atkins's brother-in-law) after Homer died in 1971.
By the end of the '70s, Atkins's time had passed as a producer. New executives at RCA had different ideas. He first retired from his position in the company, and then began to feel stifled as an artist because RCA would not let him branch out into jazz. 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. He left RCA in 1982 and signed with Columbia Records, for whom he produced a debut album in 1983. While he was with Columbia, he showed his creativity and taste in jazz guitar, and in various other contexts. 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 with taste and distinction. He did return to his country roots for albums he recorded with Mark Knopfler and Jerry Reed. On being asked to name the ten most influential guitarists of the 20th century, he named Django Reinhardt to the first position on the list, and placed himself at fifth position.
In later years he even went back to radio, appearing on Garrison Keillor's Prarie Home Companion, and even picking up a fiddle from time to time.
Atkins received numerous awards, including eleven Grammy Awards and nine Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year awards. While he did more performing in the 1990s his health grew frail as the cancer returned and worsened. He died on June 30, 2001 at his home in Nashville.
Atkins was quoted many times throughout his career, and of his own legacy he once said: