Chet Atkins - Biography

By J Poet

Saying Chet Atkins was a guitar player would be like saying Elvis Presley was a singer. Without his contributions there would be no country music industry, country rock would never have been invented and even the history of rock’n’roll would be less vibrant. As head producer and A&R man at RCA records he laid the foundations for the Nashville Sound and helped country music crossover to pop. During his career he made over a hundred albums under his own name making him the most recorded guitar player in history, and played on hundreds more. He took home 13 Grammys for his guitar prowess, more than any other country artist, won nine Country Music Association awards including Musician of the Year in 1988, had a Nashville Street - Chet Atkins Alley - named after him, produced and played on albums for countless country and pop stars starting with Elvis and including Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler, George Benson, Asleep At The Wheel, The Chieftains, Dolly Parton, and Neil Diamond, and did session work with Hank Williams, Sr., Elvis Presley, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves and Perry Como. In 2002 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a year after he died of cancer.


Chet Atkins was born in Tennessee in 1924 and suffered from asthma. His parents were musicians and divorced before he reached his teens. He was inspired to pick up guitar by his half-brother Jim, who played in a band led by Les Paul. Atkins started playing at age nine and was a first rate guitarist by the time he was 18; early influences were jazz guitarist George Barnes, Karl Farr of the Sons of the Pioneers and Merle Travis. He also learned ukulele and fiddle and by 18 was playing on Knoxville’s WNOX backing Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle on fiddle.


In 1942, after dropping out of high school, he landed a solo instrumental spot on WNOX’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and became a touring sideman Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright, but many considered his style “too jazzy” for country music. He made a few instrumental singles for Bullet and RCA, but they went nowhere. Atkins had met Jethro Burns of Homer & Jethro, and started working in the Homer & Jethro band and played on their RCA hit “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in1949.


In 1950 Atkins moved to Nashville and Fred Rose of Acuff/Rose Music, the town’s most powerful publishing house got him studio work with Chet was backing Hank Williams, Sr., The Louvin Brothers Webb Pierce, Porter Wagoner, and many others. Steve Sholes, the New Yorker who was RCA’s main country producer, hired Atkins to lead his session band, and Atkins was soon producing sessions himself. He got his own radio show on WSM (home of the Grand Ol’ Opry) and started making albums for RCA under his own name. A Session with Chet Atkins (1955 RCA), a country jazz album did well and he built a home studio so he could record his music on his own terms. In 1954 RCA built the famed Studio B and Atkins became studio manager. He played on Elvis Presley’s “heartbreak Hotel,” the singer’s first RCA session made Atkins a session superstar.


In 1957 he helped the Everly Brothers get signed to Cadence and arranged and played on their hits “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie.” Later that year became RCA’s Manager of Operations in Nashville. He produced Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me"/"I Can't Stop Loving You” single and also produced Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and Jim Reeves which helped create The Nashville Sound, a more pop/rock style of country music without fiddles and pedal steel guitar. He was also cutting his own albums – Finger Style Guitar (1956 RCA), Hi Fi in Focus (1957 RCA) and Mr. Guitar (1959 RCA.)


Atkins was busy as an RCA executive, picker and producer and helped Homer & Jethro win their first (and only) Grammy for “Battle of Kookamonga” the only Nashville record to win a Grammy for comedy. In 1960 Atkins played the Newport Jazz Festival and in 1965 had his first Top 10 hit, “Yakety Axe,” and was still making two or three instrumental albums a year including Chet Atkins’ Workshop (1961 RCA), Caribbean Guitar (1962 RCA), Teen Scene (1963 RCA), Guitar Country (1964 RCA), and Chet Atkins Picks on The Beatles (1965 RCA.)


In the 60s Atkins signed and produced Charley Pride, the first African American country star, Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and Charlie Rich. He also signed Dolly Parton although he never produced any of her hits. In 1967 Atkins won his first Best Instrumental Album Grammy for Chet Atkins Picks the Best (1966 RCA.) In 1968 Atkins became a VP at RCA and cut back on producing, although he did sign Ronnie Milsap, Guy Clark, Tom T. Hall, Gary Stewart, and soon to be superstar Steve Wariner. He also continued recording and made It’s a Guitar World (1967 RCA) which featured Harihar Rio on sitar, Solo Flights (1968 RCA) which features Atkins on his own invention, the Octabass Guitar (an electric guitar with added bass strings), and Chet Picks on The Pops (1969 RCA) cut with Arthur Feidler’s Boston Pops Orchestra.


He began collecting regular Best Instrumental Album and Best Instrumental Performance Grammys for Me & Jerry (1969 RCA) with Jerry Reed, The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show (1973 RCA), with Merle Travis his first guitar hero, Chester and Lester (1977 RCA), a collaboration with Les Paul and After All These Years (1981 RCA.) In 1973, Atkins became the youngest person ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; he was learned he had cancer and started cutting back on studio work to concentrate on his own records.


Although he continued to work for RCA in Nashville as a producer and music exec, Atkins signed with Columbia as an artist in 1982 and started making the kind of country jazz albums he’d always wanted to make including Work It Out With Chet (1983 Columbia), Stay Tuned (1985 Columbia) with the Grammy winning track “Cosmic Square Dance,” Street Dreams (1986 Columbia), Columbia (1987 Columbia), Chet Atkins C.G.P. (1988 Columbia) Neck & Neck (1990 Columbia) with Mark Knopfler, which won two Grammys – Best Vocal Collaboration for “Poor Boy Blues” and Best Country Instrumental Performance for “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” Sneakin’ Around (1992 Columbia) another duet with Jerry Reed and a Grammy winner, Read My Licks (1994) which took home the Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Young Thing” and Almost Alone (1997 Columbia), another Best Country Instrumental Performance winner for the song “Jam Man.”


In 1987 Chet Atkins made the best selling guitar instruction tape of all time, Get Started on the Guitar. And followed it up with the advanced course The Guitar Of Chet Atkins in 1996. In the 1990s, as Atkins cancer slowly progressed, he cut back on recording, but still played concerts, often with symphony orchestras. In 1997 he had a tumor removed from his brain, which put and end to his playing. He died on June 30, 2001, leaving behind a lifetime of music and a Nashville that’s a pop as well as a country music monolith.

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