Chet Atkins

How the "Certified Guitar Player" Shaped Modern Music and How Georgia Helped Shape Him

Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins

Just a few months ago the most eye-catching items in this particular room of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum were Tammy Wynette’s sequined gowns. The curators have since given the space a complete makeover, and the wardrobe items in the room now have been reduced to a conservative black tuxedo. Mick Buck, the museum’s curatorial director, explains the reason: “Because Chet wasn’t exactly a clothes horse, even though he was always well dressed.”

The Chet he’s speaking of is, of course, Chet Atkins, the subject of an exhibit titled Certified Guitar Player, as well as a companion book and an ongoing series of performances, interviews and film screenings. Appropriately enough, the room has been transformed into guitar central.

Follow the chronological flow of the way things are setup and the first guitar you’ll come upon is, quite literally, Atkins’s first guitar, an obviously well-loved Sears Roebuck Silvertone whose bridge is askew due to a make-do repair job. This was the guitar he had in his hands during the adolescent years he spent in Georgia, as he developed his playing skills and his aspirations of putting them to use as a famous professional guitarist.

Atkins, as everybody well knows, made good. The exhibit about him tells the story of a famous professional guitarist whose musical imagination was so broad, almost from the start, that not only country, but pop, jazz and other musically sophisticated styles fell well within its reach, and whose influence—as a player, producer and record executive and a person—extended in a thousand different directions.

Offers Buck, who, incidentally, did his graduate work at the University of West Georgia and spent a summer interning at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, “The [Atkins] family was really, really instrumental in helping us flesh out the exhibit to try and present a really well-rounded portrait of Chet, not just as an artist but also as a human being.”

Atkins’s daughter Merle Atkins Russell credits her mother, Leona, with filling scrapbooks with years and years’ worth of photos, show bills, letters and the like, which Russell was glad to share with the museum. “We were camera bugs back then, thank goodness,” she reflects. “And thank goodness people still wrote letters.”

Chet-Atkins-with-sister-Niona-and-brother-Lowell-1935

Chet Atkins with sister Niona and brother Lowell, 1935 – Courtesy of Merle Russell and the Estate of Chester B. Atkins

And from this assemblage of Atkins facts and artifacts, the argument can reasonably be made that Georgia is second only to Tennessee in shaping his storied life and career.

Down on the farm

Atkins was born in 1924 in the tiny East Tennessee town of Luttrell. His family may have been poor, but they were rich in music, frequently gathering for picking parties at the homes of friends and relatives. His older half-brother Jim was kind enough to give him some pointers on guitar.

When Atkins was around 11, the ragweed in Tennessee was aggravating his asthma so severely that his mother Ida feared for his wellbeing and sent him to live with his father Arley (they’d divorced and each remarried) on a 200-acre farm near Columbus, Ga. There, without the constant musical community he was accustomed to, Atkins intensified his focus on practicing the guitar and even lugged his Silvertone with him to Mountain Hill School; he liked what the natural reverb of the boys’ bathroom did for the sound of his playing.

Says Michael Cochran, who co-authored Chet Atkins: Me and My Guitars and contributed an essay to the Hall of Fame and Museum’s bookon Atkins, “In Tennessee, Chet was one of many who played an instrument. …In that context, Chet was the little guy who would crowd up and put his ear against the sound hole to the point that he became a nuisance. …Whereas when he got carted off to Georgia, he didn’t have any friends, he didn’t have anybody’s house to go to for a music party. He wasn’t getting invited anywhere. He just sunk into that world of the guitar, and at that time the fiddle, too. A result of that was that he became known for that.

“In Tennessee, he was just another Atkins kid. Maybe somebody would have said, ‘Hey, that kid’s gonna be good some day.’ But, still, he was just a voice in the chorus. When he started taking his guitar to school, he was still Chester, of course [Chet came later], but that’s when he first began to establish his sovereign identity as a musician and as a guitar player.”

In her recently published memoir From the Hills of East Tennessee, Atkins’s younger half-sister, Billie Rose Shockley, mentioned that her brother had made a rudimentary crystal radio with a friend back in Luttrell. “When the crystal wore out,” she writes, “they would buy another one. Everyone thought it was a miracle that the radio worked. …No one else that we knew of around us had a radio back then.”

But the radio Atkins had access to on the Columbus farm enabled him to tune in to stations far and wide and hear things he’d never been able to hear before, like the singing thumbstyle guitarist Merle Travis, whose jaunty playing style became an immediate influence.

“He tried to teach himself to play like Merle Travis,” Buck says, “and since he couldn’t see Merle playing, he assumed that Merle was playing with his thumb and two fingers, since that’s a fairly complex-sounding style.” After all, there were no instructional DVDs back then. “Actually, Merle just played with his thumb and his index finger. But Chet basically developed a thumb and two finger style based on what he was hearing.”

No less important, though it’s been given less attention over the years, was the fact that Atkins could listen to his brother Jim performing with the Les Paul Trio on Fred Waring’s popular NBC radio program. Says Cochran of Jim Atkins, “He really was the quintessential crooner. If Bing Crosby hadn’t already existed, he could’ve been Bing Crosby. …The songs they played, they were not “Wildwood Flower”; they weren’t little three-chord songs. They were complex, the melodies and chord structures.”

So here was a kid from the backwoods hearing his own flesh and blood really get somewhere in the big city playing not-remotely-backwoods music. “That must have just lit the afterburners on Chet’s imagination for himself about what he could potentially do,” muses Cochran.

Radio wilderness

Besides practicing obsessively, Atkins was already tinkering with guitar technology. Though electric guitars were still in their infancy, he managed to electrify his and cobble together an amplifier. There was just one problem, says Cochran: “When he put together that pickup for the guitar and that amp, he had to take it to church to plug it in, because that’s where the electricity was.”

Before Atkins left Georgia for the final time in his mid-teens and returned to Tennessee to pursue a music career, he got his very first taste of radio work backing a preacher who had a 15-minute program on a Columbus station. As Shockley reminisced in her book, “He wrote home and told Momie [sic] about it. He had never been on the radio before, and he was so scared and nervous that he said, ‘I want to dedicate this song to my father and Daddy.’”

Chet Atkins at WNOX Knoxville c. 1945 - Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Chet Atkins at WNOX Knoxville c. 1945 – Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

By the late 1950s, it would seem like almost everything Atkins touched turned to gold, but that certainly wasn’t the case during his early days in radio. He spent a good part of the ’40s bouncing from station to station, starting out at Knoxville’s WNOX, then heading to Cincinnati’s WLW, Raleigh’s WPTF, Nashville’s WSM, Richmond’s WRVA, Springfield’s KWTO, Denver’s KOA, back to Knoxville and—as a sideman for Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters—to Nashville, this time to stay.

Along the way, Atkins was expanding his horizons. He pored over all the records WNOX had on hand by gypsy jazz master Django Reinhardt and Spanish chamber guitarist Andres Segovia, and played in pop orchestras as well as string band settings. It was during this period that Si Siman at KWTO started calling him “Chet” instead of “Chester,” a slicker, snappier moniker Chet immediately embraced. But the reality was that Atkins’s progressive playing also got him fired from more than one station. Says Buck, “He said that sometimes he was let go because his playing wasn’t country enough, or maybe it was too country depending on the station or the program or the program director.”

Steve Sholes at RCA Victor in New York decided to sign Atkins after Siman sent him the guitarist’s demos. There were a few unsuccessful early attempts to fashion Atkins into the next Merle Travis, singing and all. But the first single of Atkins’s to even begin to get anywhere was “Galloping on the Guitar”—an instrumental that earned its title—recorded in 1949 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta since RCA didn’t yet have recording facilities in Nashville.

The Nashville years

It wasn’t long after Atkins made his permanent move to Nashville with his wife Leona and their only daughter that he fell into co-writing with Boudleaux Bryant—born in Shellman, Ga. and raised in Moultrie—whose hot fiddling he’d heard years before on Atlanta’s WSB. They started out writing jingles together (the manuscript of a Martha White Flour jingle of theirs, “Good Gracious It’s Good,” is on display in the exhibit) and moved on to instrumentals—like the Atkins signature “Country Gentleman”—and a couple of vocal ballads that became hits for Eddy Arnold and Red Foley.

Around this time, Atkins was getting more and more session work as a guitarist; there was no question that he was in his element working up arrangements in the studio. The unintended side effect was that Sholes—who was also his label head—began asking him to pull double duty. And so, Atkins came to be both picker and producer. “I think Chet probably enjoyed it in the beginning,” Cochran muses, “but what he was really doing was making himself valuable to the label.”

Chet Atkins at Studio B in Nashville, circa 1960. Photo courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Chet Atkins at Studio B in Nashville, circa 1960. Photo courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Atkins had his first hit as a producer with Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” in 1958. By then, his own recordings were taking off, too. He’d churn out albums—three a year—sampling a dizzying array of styles, some rootsy and plenty not. There’s a reason he’s not only in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, too, in the sideman category.

None other than George Harrison wrote the liner notes for 1968’s Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles. The signed notes from Harrison are in the exhibit, and so is a letter from Hugh Hefner congratulating Atkins on winning Playboy’s Jazz Poll, which just goes to show many listeners considered him a jazz guy.

Russell says her dad would, from time to time, consult her about the musical tastes of the teenage demographic: “Sometimes he would ask me to come down and listen: ‘Would you like this as a young person?’ And he listened to everything, he heard everything.”

She can recall the precise moment when it dawned on her that her dad was a towering musical figure. “I was probably in the second or third grade,” she says, “when somebody at school—in fact, I think one of the teachers—asked me about my father: ‘And is it true that he plays on the radio? And is it true he’s on television? And is it true this and that?’ And I went, ‘Well, yeah.’ And I thought, ‘God! That’s my father.’ And all of a sudden it was a big deal to me. I was really impressed.”

And rightfully so. Atkins was doing impressive stuff. He took in musical styles from all over the map, and interpreted them with tastefulness and precision. On a single album—Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions—he glided from traditional folk to pop to classical material. Rick Kienzle, in his contribution to the exhibit’s companion book, drove home what all of this meant: “Chet Atkins vaporized the lingering stereotype of the crude, backward country guitar picker unable to tune his instrument, much less play more than a few rudimentary chords.”

‘Atkins-esque’

Not a few young guitarists drew influence from the anything-but-backward Atkins. As a teenager, smooth jazz guitarist Earl Klugh snatched up as many different flavors of Atkins albums as he could. Says Klugh, “That’s what I loved about his music, I think, most of all. I’ve kept my records like that as well, just a great variety.”

For Klugh, it was a revelation to see Atkins giving a solo instrumental performance of “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago on Perry Como’s television show. “The first thing I realized was, ‘Here’s a guy playing the guitar, and he’s not singing,’” Klugh laughs. “And I’m like, ‘Well, this is great, because I can’t sing. So maybe I can do this.’ It was just amazing, because he was playing all these parts of the song. It wasn’t just like strumming; he was playing the melody, the bass line. It was very interesting from my perspective because I’d been playing piano. … So that really was a life-changing thing for me.”

Growing up, Paul Yandell—who’d go on to spent a quarter-century as Atkins’s second guitarist and bandleader—couldn’t afford any Chet records of his own, so he listened for Atkins’s songs on the radio and learned to play what he extremely modestly refers to as “warmed-over Chet.”

Steve Wariner—who’d eventually be signed by Atkins as a singing, songwriting guitarist—got his hands on all the Chet albums in his dad’s collection. Says Wariner, “Pretty soon my head’s spinning as a young guy going, ‘Wow, man, this is not your typical country hillbilly guitar player here. This guy is on another planet. He’s all over the place. And he can do it with all of them, on any level.’ … All of a sudden you’re going, ‘I want to be like him! I want to do that!’” Wariner captured the varied eras of Atkins’s playing with affectionate attention to detail on a tribute album a couple of years back.

Atkins made a mark not only on guitarists, but on guitars themselves. The Gretsch Company signed him to an endorsement deal—then a very cutting-edge thing—in 1954. (It’s only fitting that Gretsch would be a presenting sponsor of the Atkins exhibit.) “Chet was Nashville-based, he was an incredibly talented musician, he was a real gentleman and a man of his word,” explains current Gretsch president Fred W. Gretsch. “So all of those things added up to a desirable partner.”

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young presents Dinah and Fred Gretsch a memento during an opening event for the "Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player" exhibit. Photo courtesy Donn Jones Photography

On Aug. 10, 2011, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young presents Dinah and Fred Gretsch a memento during an opening event for the “Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player” exhibit. Photo by Donn Jones Photography

The relationship proved to be a win-win. Having a top-notch signature guitar line reinforced Atkins’s reputation as a noteworthy and increasingly influential musician. And the Gretsch Chet Atkins models—which benefited from Atkins’s continuous pursuit of better-sounding and more advanced guitar technology—appealed to players all over the modern musical landscape, not a few of them—like the Beatles’ Harrison—from the exploding field of rock ‘n’ roll. “Basically [Chet’s] best known works were all done on Gretsch guitars,” points out Gretsch. And several Gretsch guitars from Atkins’s personal collection—including his trademark Country Gentleman—are featured in the exhibit.

Out with overalls, in with rhinestones

You’ll often hear Atkins—along with fellow producer Owen Bradley—called an architect of the Nashville Sound. But that designation in itself reveals almost nothing about what the sound of the Sound was like. Atkins had been made head of RCA’s Nashville operations in 1957, and throughout the late ’50s and ’60s he framed a good many of the singers he was producing—Jim Reeves, the Browns, Skeeter Davis, Bobby Bare and more—with the lush, uptown textures of string sections and silken background choruses, as opposed to hard country’s fiddle and steel guitar. The point was that, as on his own records, Atkins applied a sophistication that appealed to an adult pop audience; he was taking modern country music places it wasn’t really known for going.

Paul Hemphill, observing Atkins at close range in his 1970 book The Nashville Sound, offered an astute take on the one-time farm boy’s considerable cultural savvy. Atkins, he wrote, “had the back-country roots of all the great country musicians but had gone a giant step further by developing interests in such diverse areas as poetry, classical music, philosophy and electronics. Atkins, in short, was not simply a ‘picker,’ but a master musician who was no more at home on the stage of the Opry than he was guesting with the Nashville symphony or playing at the White House….”

In the early ’70s, Atkins backed off from the bulk of his producing responsibilities because of the toll they were taking on his health. But Atlantan Jerry Reed—whom he’d first encountered when Reed was performing in the hillbilly stage show Georgia Jubilee and signed to RCA in 1965—was one he kept producing. And since Atkins was then returning his focus to his first love—guitar playing—he cut many a Reed-written instrumental and the two pickers made albumsas a duo.

Chet Atkins with Atlanta native Jerry Reed. Photo courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Chet Atkins with Atlanta native Jerry Reed. Photo courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

In the Atkins exhibit (and on YouTube) there’s a great video of Atkins and Reed making a 1970s television appearance. It takes a few false starts for them to agree on a song to play—“Baby’s Coming Home” won out—and in all their bantering Reed plays the loose-goosey good old boy to Atkins’s wry, polished professional. The same sort of contrast comes through in their playing—Atkins’s clean touch meeting Reed’s grittier attack—and makes for an entertaining performance.

Making “C.G.P.” mean something

The exhibit, you’ll recall, was dubbed Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player. Because the music business had no official title to offer—nothing equivalent to, say, certified public accountant or registered nurse—Atkins made up the C.G.P designation for himself, then bestowed it upon Reed and three other pickers: John Knowles, Wariner and Tommy Emmanuel. (In a touching moment at the exhibit’s opening, Russell named Yandell the fifth and final C.G.P.)

This C.G.P. business was all in good fun. Atkins presented Wariner with his award just after winning the Grammy category in which they’d both been nominated; Atkins even gave Wariner his gramophone trophy, joking that he already he already had loads of them at home. (Atkins won 13 Grammys over the course of his career).

At a special event on Aug. 10, 2011, visitors view artifacts featured in the "Certified Guitar Player" exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Photo by Donn Jones Photography

At a special event on Aug. 10, 2011, visitors view artifacts featured in the “Certified Guitar Player” exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Photo by Donn Jones Photography

On the other hand, the C.G.P. awards certainly weren’t without meaning. Explains Buck, “[Chet] said that he’d always wanted a degree, like from Vanderbilt or some place, but he never got one.” It could be argued that those honorary awards were a way for Atkins—who’d never finished high school—to highlight the musical intelligence, study and prowess involved in the mastery of his instrument. Sophisticated musicianship of that sort, indeed, deserved as much respect as any academic credential.

Atkins collaborated with a number of impressive guitarists, and Klugh—a virtuoso on the nylon string—was one of them. Atkins guested on a Klugh album, Klugh returned the favor and the two of them teamed up for several TV performances, included more than one episode of Hee Haw.

Klugh loaned the museum a nylon string gifted to him by Atkins. Says Klugh, “In his inscription he basically said, I’m giving this to you, because I know that this was the first classical guitar you heard that got you on your way.’”

Buck was plenty pleased to have it to display. “I had actually been on the lookout for this particular guitar,” he says. “I had seen it pictured in one of Chet’s guitar books, but it wasn’t with the guitars that were here, obviously. But I didn’t know where it had gone, who he had given it to or what. When Earl informed us of this one we were like, ‘Yes, please!’ Earl even drove up from Atlanta to bring it to us.”

A generous gatekeeper

You find that people are happy to help when it comes to honoring Chet Atkins, even if it involves making an interstate delivery. For a guy who’d inevitably had to tell people “no” sometimes as the head honcho at a label, he was as universally well liked as anyone in the business.

“Anybody who wrote him a letter at the office, he would write them back,” shares Russell. “Or if anybody sent a tape, he would write them back: ‘We’re not using this kind of music now. Keep trying. I hope you’ll keep writing. Send me some more stuff sometime.’ …He knew what it was like to be on the other side, and to be trying and not making it.”

That was no doubt why Atkins not only signed and produced Wariner, but gave the young musician a paying gig playing bass in his band until Wariner’s own recording career started taking off.

Yandell was the beneficiary of Atkins’s generosity at their very first meeting; he had shown up to audition for the Opry, which was Atkins’ turf. As Yandell tells it, “[Opry announcer] George D. Hay came out and said, ‘Son, you’re next.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to go down and get my guitar and amp.’ He said, ‘Well, we don’t have time for that. I’ve only got about 10 minutes.’ So Chet was standing over there against the wall. … I guess he was smoking a cigarette. He said, ‘Well, just hang on a minute.’ He was rehearsing down around the corner in Studio C for the Prince Albert show, which they did every Saturday night at nine o’clock. So he [went] back there and got his amp and his guitar and brought it around there and went in the studio and hooked it all up. And he said, ‘Here, play my guitar.’ You can imagine how I felt.”

Chet Atkins - Certified Guitar Player

Chet Atkins – Certified Guitar Player

In the final two decades of Atkins’s life, Georgia was more than happy to claim him—if not as a native son, at least as a multifaceted musical legend who’d spent truly formative years there—and he recognized the connection on his side, too. In the early ’80s, he held a golf tournament at Callaway Gardens, not too terribly far from where he’d lived with his dad. Later on, he played benefit shows for Mountain Hill School. The Georgia government, for its part, declared a stretch of I-185 “Chet Atkins Highway.” The resolution declared “the citizens of Harris County are especially proud to have such a link with this country music star who has frequently acknowledged his Southern roots and strong connections with Georgia and its people.”

And in 1995, Atkins was fittingly inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. His performance at the induction ceremony that year remains an institutional highlight.

It’s only when you consider Chet Atkins’s remarkable story from start to finish—rural roots to cosmopolitan impact—that you truly appreciate why it’s bound to live on.

Related Posts