We look back on the life and career of Chet Atkins, guitar virtuoso and pioneer of “the Nashville sound”…
Born June 20, 1924, in rural eastern Tennessee, Chet Atkins was the youngest of four children. The family was poor and grew even poorer after his mother and father divorced when Atkins was 6. The first instruments he learned to play were fiddle and ukulele but were soon eclipsed by the guitar. At 9 Atkins traded an old pistol and pledged to do some of his brother’s chores in order to get his hands on a guitar, beginning his lifelong love affair with the instrument. Later in childhood he developed asthma, a condition that forced him to sleep sitting up. Young Atkins would 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 acoustics (practicing in tiled bathrooms, incidentally, was also a favored habit of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones). Around this time Atkins 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 guitar finger-picking. Three years later Atkins dropped out of high school and began 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 Atkins 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 once again found his way onto the Grand Ole Opry stage, this time playing with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Atkins was gaining a reputation as a versatile session musician 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 Atkins 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 Atkins 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 (Atkins would become a White House tradition, playing for every subsequent president up through George H.W. Bush), and from 1968 to 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, Atkins left for Columbia Records.
Late in his career Atkins participated in commercially and critically lauded collaborations with artists like Jerry Reed, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and country artist Suzy Bogguss. His last Grammy came in 1997 for the instrumental “Jam Man.”
Atkins died June 30, 2001, as the result of a brain tumor. Asked some 20 years earlier how he’d like to be remembered, Atkins 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.”