He was known as The Country Gentleman, and his guitar playing was a major factor in developing the so-called Nashville Sound. Chet Atkins (1924 – 2001) wrapped his long fingers around bluegrass, jazz, and rockabilly, melding them into a style that came to define country music.
Growing up in a small Tennessee town near Knoxville, Atkins got a beat-up old guitar and learned from family and friends and by listening to Merle Travis on the radio. Travis particularly influenced Atkins’ fingerpicking technique. In 1942 Atkins got a job at WNOX in Knoxville playing back-up instrumentals for guests. After that, he moved around, even to Nashville briefly, joining musical acts and regularly getting fired for not sounding country enough.
He’d made his way to Denver when RCA Victor A&R man Steve Sholes heard him and offered him a contract. That was the break Atkins needed. He ended up recording dozens of albums over his 40-year recording career, and producing dozens more, by major artists like Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, and the Everly Brothers.
His first few RCA records didn’t catch fire, but his value was never questioned; Sholes loved his studio work, trusting him to hire musicians and lead sessions. He joined the Carter Family Singers, which was his ticket into the Grand Ole Opry. That’s when his solo music started to get a serious following.
One of his first big hits was Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions (1955). Ironically, Atkins described this album as his first foray away from country music. The three dimensions in the title refer to folk, pop, and classical, which he blends into an appealing hybrid style. Country, however, is never far away.
Atkins uses the simple traditional tune of “Arkansas Traveler” as a starting-point for imaginative variations that wander up and down the fretboard of one of the hollow-bodied electric guitars he designed for the Gretsch company.
Among the remarkable things about Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions is the fact that this album is truly solo: just Atkins on his guitar. Of course, his arrangements were so complex and polyphonic that it seemed like more people were playing. It’s unthinkable today that a pop star could put out a solo instrumental record. As it happens, that approach wasn’t enough to keep Atkins afloat either. Hum and Strum Along with Chet Atkins (1959) is an example of the more standard multitrack studio creation. [Some of these early Chet Atkins RCA “Living Stereo” albums also sound superb, thanks to recording engineer Bill Porter, who also recorded Elvis and Roy Orbison among others. – Ed.]
Specifically, this album was supposed to inspire audience participation. It came with the lyrics and guitar chords (even ukulele tabs) printed in the gatefold cover. The admittedly cheesy choral singing on “In the Good Old Summertime” is a little hard to take, but it’s worth enduring to hear Atkins’ clever, jazzy spin on the tune. Everybody sing along!
Without gospel music, there would be no country music. All the first-generation country players understood that. On Chet Atkins Plays Back Home Hymns (1962), the guitarist reaches back for some of the spiritual songs of his childhood, as well as some more recent material.
“Further Along,” more commonly called “Farther Along,” opens side B. It’s a traditional spiritual that’s been recorded by many country artists, all the way up to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Nothing fancy here, just a Tennessee boy laying down a part of his past. The harmonica solo is uncredited; it’s historically interesting to note that the producer is a woman, Anita Kerr, a singer and composer who did a lot of studio work in Nashville in the 1960s.
The advantage of Atkins’ myriad influences is that it left him open to anything, as well as always on the lookout for new raw materials to play with. For example, there’s Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles, released in 1964, the very year that the Beatles first visited America. Seeing as they were huge fans of American music themselves, it’s not surprising the Beatles acted as session musicians on the album. George Harrison wrote the liner notes.
There are the expected hits like “Michelle,” “She Loves You,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” but Atkins also included some less well-known songs. “Things We Said Today,” written for the Hard Day’s Night movie but not used, had been released as the B-side to the single “A Hard Day’s Night.” Atkins’ version has a loping, Western quality with a sly edge that brings to mind Ennio Morricone’s film scores.
Speaking of Westerns, Atkins had a love for the popular cowboy songs sung by stars like Marty Robbins. In one of his many collaborative albums, Atkins teamed up with long-time colleagues Homer Haynes and Jethro Burns (well known as the duo Homer and Jethro, whose records Atkins often produced) to form the Nashville String Band. Their first effort on RCA was The Nashville String Band (1969).
Robbins’ mega-hit “El Paso” gets the two-guitar-plus-mandolin treatment, complete with backup strings, that makes it sound even more Tex-Mex than the original:
Another of Atkins’ collaborations, and one that must have been a thrill for him, was The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show (1974), which won a Grammy for best country instrumental album. This was the only album Atkins made with his hero Merle Travis (1917 – 1983).
Travis’ fingerpicking technique is on spectacular display in “Is There Anything Better Than This,” one of two Shel Silverstein songs on the album. Travis and Atkins trade licks and spoken compliments on this charming track.
As a perfect illustration of Atkins’ spectrum of interests, he soon made a very different duet album. Chester & Lester (1976), which also won a Grammy, features the granddaddy of the rock guitar, Les Paul (1915 – 2009). It was recorded mostly live in the studio, with almost no overdubbing, a tribute to the caliber of both men’s musicianship. They’re backed by some great session musicians like Larrie Londin on drums and Bob Moore on bass.
And if the blues roots of rock wrapped in country and bluegrass isn’t complex enough, Atkins and Paul lend their talents to yet another genre when they take on the Duke Ellington jazz masterpiece “Caravan.”
As Atkins aged, he kept searching for exciting new ways to combine musical styles. In the 1970s, when classical guitar enjoyed a surge of commercial popularity, Atkins jumped onto that trend by forming the First Nashville Guitar Quartet with Liona Boyd, John Knowles, and John Pell. Their self-titled album in 1979 combined country, pop, and even Mexican elements with the virtuosity of classical headliner Boyd.
Written in 1937, Larry Morey and Frank Churchill’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” premiered in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Miles Davis showed that the song had a jazz infrastructure with his celebrated 1961 version. Although Atkins’ quartet starts out dissecting it in a more intellectual way, after the first chorus each guitarist’s personality begins to emerge.
Atkins continued recording into the 1990s. He died in 2001, but his legacy will live on forever in the hands of every guitarist who picks a pattern or bends a blue note or has the courage to think outside genre lines.