Chet Atkins was born on this day in 1924. To commemorate the occasion, we look back on the life and career of the guitar virtuoso and pioneer of the Nashville sound.
Born in rural east Tennessee, Chet Atkins was the youngest of four children. The family was poor and grew even poorer when his mother and father divorced when Atkins was six years old. He began his musical education by playing the fiddle and the ukulele, but his lifelong love affair with the guitar began at age nine when he traded an old pistol and pledged to do some of his brother’s chores in order to get his hands on the instrument. Later in childhood he’d develop a bad asthma condition that forced him to sleep sitting up and he’d play guitar until he nodded off, a habit that would stick with him long after the asthma was successfully treated.
By high school he was already expert on the instrument, preferring to practice in the school restroom because he liked the room’s acoustics (practicing in tiled bathrooms, incidentally, was also a favored habit of Keith Richards). Around this time he bought an electric guitar and amp – even though his home had no electricity.
His major musical awakening came in 1939, when he heard Kentucky musician Merle Travis and his signature syncopated finger picking on the guitar. Three years later he’d dropped out of high school and was working at radio station in Knoxville, where he played fiddle and guitar with performers including Bill Carlisle and Archie Campbell (later of Hee Haw fame). In 1946, he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry as a member of Red Foley’s band. He also found work at WRVA radio in Virginia, but was fired when his musical arrangements were deemed “not country enough” for daring to feature instruments like the clarinet.
After seeing him play in a country band in Denver, RCA executives signed him to a contract and he made his first solo records in 1947. When they didn’t sell, he returned to Knoxville, where he would once again find his way onto the Grand Ole Opry, this time as a member of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. He also was gaining a reputation as a versatile session musician by backing a number of artists on hit tunes, and RCA made him a consultant in 1953. Meanwhile, he also began working with Gretsch to design guitars.
In 1955 he had a hit of his own with a version of “Mister Sandman.” As rock music took off and country waned, he was put in charge of RCA’s country music division and began creating what was to become known as ‘the Nashville sound’ – a slicker, more pop-oriented production style that ditched the traditional fiddles and steel guitars in favor of lush string sections and multi-tracked vocals.
During the 1960s, he helped bring artists like Waylon Jennings, Connie Smith, Dolly Parton and Jerry Reed to RCA. He also risked redneck ire by signing black artist Charley Pride. During this time, he continued making records of his own, and in 1965 had his biggest hit with “Yakety-Axe” – a guitar driven version of Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax.” The decade also saw him perform for President Kennedy (he would become a White House tradition, playing for every subsequent president up through George H.W. Bush), and from 1968-1970 he was honored with three consecutive CMA instrumentalist of the year awards.
During the 1970s he began turning away from producing in favor of playing, particularly after a 1973 diagnosis of colon cancer. As an artist, he became disenchanted with RCA for their reluctance to let him pursue jazz instead of country, despite a release that proved to be one of his best selling records, the Grammy-winning Chester and Lester. After the collaboration with the legendary Les Paul, he left for Columbia Records.
Late in his career, Chet Atkins participated commercially and critically lauded collaborations with artists like Jerry Reed, the Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, and country artist Suzy Bogguss. His last Grammy came in 1997 for his instrumental “Jam Man.”
Atkins died on June 30, 2001 as the result of a brain tumor. Asked some 20 years earlier how he’d like to be remembered, he said, “I’d like for people to say that I played in tune, that I played in good taste, and that I was nice to people. That’s about it.”