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Chet Atkins, c.g.p.

Written by Bob Oermann

Note: this piece was written prior to the release of "Almost Alone" in 1996


One of the most striking things about the architects of the Nashville Sound is that their music has stood the test of time so well. Chet Atkins is one of those architects. The works of Chet Atkins have remained in print to touch era after era of music lovers with their freshness, spark and inventiveness.

Known as "Mr. Guitar," Chet Atkins is the most recorded solo instrumentalist in music history. As a studio musician, his string-tickling work has gilded the records of Elvis Presley, Kitty Wells, The Everly Brothers, Hank Williams and dozens of other Nashville legends. His style influenced such pop greats as Mark Knopfler, Duane Eddy, George Harrison, The Ventures, George Benson and Eddie Cochran, as well as thousands of country pickers. He has won nine CMA Awards as Musician of the Year, four Playboy jazz poll honors and thirteen Grammies, more than any other artist in the history of country music.

As the head of RCA Records, he propelled an entire generation of country stars to fame -- Dottie West, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves, Jerry Reed, Skeeter Davis, Charley Pride and Eddy Arnold were all signed and/or produced by Chet. He built RCA Studio B, said to be the most hit-generating studio in the history of Music Row. The name of Chet Atkins is synonymous with The Nashville Sound.

Chester Burton Atkins was born in 1924 near the tiny Appalachian hamlet of Luttrell, Tennessee. It was an impoverished mountain upbringing with music as a spirit-filling solace for the lonely, shy, asthmatic youngster. His grandfather was a country fiddler. His mother played piano and sang. His father was an itinerant piano teacher who sang with touring evangelists. Chet didn't see much of his father as a child because the elder Atkins was on the road so much; his parents separated when he was six, then divorced.

His half-brother James, older by twelve years, was Chet's main musical inspiration. Jim Atkins was performing in Chicago and broadcasting via WLS on The National Barn Dance by 1935. In 1939 he teamed up with Les Paul, another idol of Chet's. The boy was also deeply influenced by the jazz style of Chicago guitarist George Barnes, the western swing of Sons of the Pioneers picker Karl Farr and the Kentucky fingerpicking stylist Merle Travis, all of whom he listened to on the radio.

Chet's Sears guitar became his constant companion. He also learned to fiddle. His earliest music jobs were playing for mountain square dances. During severe asthma attacks, Chet was sent to live in Georgia with his father, who began to teach him to read music.

He dreamed of radio stardom. At age eighteen Chet Atkins auditioned at Knoxville's WNOX and was hired as a fiddler by Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle, then working as a duo. By 1942 he had his own little solo instrumental spot on WNOX's Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round show and by 1943 he was touring as a sideman with Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright. Chet moved among the barn dances of Knoxville, Renfro Valley and Cincinnati during the next few years. At the last-named's WLW Boone County Jamboree he worked with Leona and Laverne Johnson, the station's singing Johnson Sisters. Chet married Leona in 1946 (Chet's lifelong friend Kenneth Burns, "Jethro" of Homer & Jethro, married Laverne).

Throughout this period, Chet Atkins was struggling to merge his love of jazz and country. He wasn't a true jazz musician, yet his playing was considered too arty for standard radio hillbilly shows. He couldn't seem to hold a barn dance job for long. In less than two years he bounced from WLW to WPTF in Raleigh, WSM in Nashville (as a sideman for Red Foley), WRVA in Richmond, KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, and KOA in Denver. He tried recording for Bullet Records in 1946, where he was produced by Owen Bradley, and for RCA in 1947, but the records were not hits.

Chet and Leona had a daughter, Merle, in 1947. With one more mouth to feed and feeling a little desperate, the radio barn dance failure returned to Knoxville to work at WNOX with Homer & Jethro. RCA stuck with him, believing that Chet might be its answer to Capitol's star Merle Travis. Backed by Homer & Jethro, Chet's "Galloping on the Guitar" got some airplay as a radio theme tune in 1949. Things also started looking up when he joined Mother Maybelle & The comedy skills made the act wildly popular at WNOX, then at KWTO. June teamed with Homer & Jethro on the 1949 hit "Baby It's Cold Outside." Backed by Anita Carter and Homer & Jethro, Chet scored another minor instrumental success with "Main Street Breakdown" late that year. Opry star George Morgan caught the Carters' act with Atkins in Springfield and raved to the WSM executives back home in Nashville. In 1950 the troupe was offered Grand Ole Opry stardom. This time, Chet Atkins came to town to stay.


Fate couldn't have planned it better. Surveying the infant recording and song publishing scene of 1950, WSM deejay David Cobb began referring to Nashville as "Music City." The nickname was more hopeful than realistic at the time, but it stuck. And with Chet Atkins' help Nashville did, indeed, become world renowned by that moniker.

Chet was lured from Springfield not only by the Carters' Opry berth, but because producer/publisher Fred Rose offered him recording studio work. Soon after moving, Chet was backing Hank Williams ("Cold Cold Heart," "Kaw-Liga," "Jambalaya") and The Louvin Brothers ("When I Stop Dreaming"), both of whom were produced by Rose. In 1951-56 Chet also recorded with Faron Young ("Goin' Steady," "I've Got Five Dollars," "If You Ain't Lovin'"), Webb Pierce ("There Stands the Glass," "Walkin' the Dog"), The Carlisles ("Too Old to Cut the Mustard," "No Help Wanted," "Is Zat You Myrtle"), Johnnie & Jack ("South in New Orleans," "I Want to be Loved"), Porter Wagoner ("Uncle Pen"), Rosalie Allen ("Guitar Polka") and Kitty Wells ("Release Me," "Repenting"), among others.

Steve Sholes became Chet Atkins' booster at RCA. Sholes was making frequent trips to Nashville to record the Carters, Eddy Arnold, Johnnie & Jack, Hank Snow and his other artists. The New Yorker began to rely more and more on the 26-year-old guitar hotshot as his session leader. Chet and Boudleaux Bryant co-wrote Eddy Arnold's 1953 chart-topper "How's the World Treating You," as well as Chet's signature instrumental of 1953, "Country Gentleman." Sholes also liked the way Chet rounded up the best pickers in town and communicated his ideas to them. When Sholes was held up on business, Chet went ahead and produced the RCA sessions himself.

The instrumentalist's fame spread rapidly in Music City. By 1954 he had his own show on WSM. During that same year RCA issued his debut LP, Gallopin' Guitar, and he toured with the label's Country & Western Caravan concert series. His second LP, A Session with Chet Atkins, appeared in 1955. He had two hit singles in 1955, "Mr. Sandman" and a guitar duet with Hank Snow called "Silver Bell." He endorsed a top-selling Gretsch model bearing his name, published a guitar-instruction course and built his first home studio. People were beginning to call him "Mr. Guitar."

STUDIO B AND MUSIC ROW Nashville's importance as a recording center was growing rapidly. Like the other labels, RCA initially began recording at WSM or at the 1946-54 Tulane Hotel studio, The Castle. Next, Sholes used the Brown Brothers Transcription Service (also known as Brown Radio Productions) at 240 Fourth Avenue, North, downtown or Thomas Productions at 109 13th Avenue North. In 1954 Sholes set up the first RCA studio, located in space rented from the Methodist Television Radio & Film Commission at 1525 McGavock Street, the site of Jim Owens & Associates today.

Chet was hired to manage the McGavock Street facility and to oversee RCA's day-to-day operations in Nashville. New Sholes signee Elvis Presley arrived there in 1956. Chet played on "Heartbreak Hotel," the singer's history-making RCA debut. The record's massive success cemented RCA's commitment to Nashville and to Chet. It put Tree International on the map as a publisher. It created a pop culture revolution and in one stroke made the term "Music City, U.S.A." a reality. Chet Atkins went on to perform on such Presley hits as "I Need Your Love Tonight," "A Big Hunk of Love," "I Got Stung" and "A Fool Such as I."

He also led the sessions for another major act of the teen revolution, The Everly Brothers. In fact, Chet was the duo's champion in Nashville for years before the hits came. He took Everly songs to Kitty Wells and Anita Carter when the brothers were still in high school. He got the Everlys their first recording contract. And he was with them in the studio when they created the 1957-62 tunes that would eventually make them members of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, including "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie" and "All I Have to Do Is Dream."

In early 1957 Sholes promoted Chet Atkins to RCA Manager of Operations. Chet's first order of business was convincing the label that it needed to build its own office and studio. Located at 17th and Hawkins (now Roy Acuff Place), RCA Studio B was the first permanent record-company office on Music Row. It is the building that spearheaded the music industry's migration to Nashville. Although Mercury Records and Capitol Records had set up small outposts earlier, it was this move by Chet and RCA that began Nashville's march to worldwide fame as a recording center.

Chet struck pay dirt in the new facility instantly by producing Don Gibson's double-sided 1958 smash "Oh Lonesome Me"/"I Can't Stop Loving You." Some historians cite this disc as the first true Nashville Sound recording. He also took over the production of three established RCA stars, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and Jim Reeves, bringing all three men to stupendous new levels of success and eventual election into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The Nashville Sound evolved because rock 'n' roll was ominously eroding the popularity of traditional country music. Chet Atkins and his peers were crafting a country song to sophisticated arrangements with cool strings and background vocals. It was an "uptown" approach, aimed at broadening country's sales appeal to pop consumers. Yet it was also unmistakably casual and almost folksy, marked by the camaraderie of an "A Team" of pickers who worked out "head" arrangements together.

Chet Atkins had an astonishing gift for finding distinctive voices and ear-catching hit songs. By the early 1960's he was redefining country music with a host of new Nashville Sound artists. Among those who created classics in Studio B, "the house that Chet built," were Skeeter Davis ("The End of the World" 1962), Bobby Bare ("Detroit City" 1963), Floyd Cramer ("Last Date" 1960), George Hamilton IV ("Abilene" 1963) and Hank Locklin ("Please Help Me I'm Falling" 1960), all produced by Chet Atkins.

Dottie West won the first female country Grammy with 1964's "Here Comes My Baby." In 1959, "The Three Bells" by The Browns became the first Nashville Sound record to reach Number 1 on the national pop charts. Roger Miller launched his career with "You Don't Want My Love" and "When Two Worlds Collide" on RCA in 1960-61. Hank Snow's tongue-twisting signature song "I've Been Everywhere" (1962) is also a Studio B product. So are Eddy Arnold's "Tennessee Stud" (1959) and such huge Jim Reeves hits as "He'll Have to Go" (1959) and "Welcome to My World" (1964). Homer & Jethro's 1959 hit "Battle of Kookamonga" became the only Nashville record in history to win a Grammy for comedy. Again, all of these landmarks were Chet Atkins productions.

RCA rented the studio to other labels, too. So Roy Orbison's "Crying" and "Oh Pretty Woman" (Monument Records), The Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown" (Warner Bros. Records), Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax" (Monument Records) and many other Music Row hits were cut there. MGM, United Artists and 20th Century Fox were other labels who used Studio B frequently.

Business was so good that the studio was expanded in 1961. A mastering lab was installed as well as additional office space. RCA outgrew this and moved into a new building adjacent to the studio in 1964. It contained Studio A, the site of many more musical triumphs.


Meanwhile, Chet Atkins' performing career was heating up. He appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 and performed for President Kennedy in 1961. He had a top-10 country instrumental hit with "Yakety Axe" in 1965. A book was written about him in 1967. By then, he was unquestionably the best known country guitarist on earth. His guitar course, his Gretsch endorsement, his high visibility in the media and his capacity for hard work paid off. He had become the most visible and influential guitarist of his time.

By the mid-1960's Chet was producing twenty-five acts simultaneously for RCA, as well as maintaining his own performing and recording career. He signed the legendary Charley Pride (1966) and Jerry Reed (1967) and produced the early singles that brought each to fame. He signed Waylon Jennings in 1965 and produced more than fifteen of the superstar's top-20 hits during the next five years, including "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," "Yours Love," "Mental Revenge" and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man." In 1965 he produced "Green Green Grass of Home" for Porter Wagoner, creating a country standard. He signed Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and Charlie Rich, all of whom were to achieve later stardom. He also signed, but did not produce, Connie Smith (1964) and Dolly Parton (1968).

Chet attracted a wide diversity of talent to RCA's studios in the 1960's, including pop crooner Perry Como, trumpeter Danny Davis, Bonanza TV star Lorne for the magic touch of The Nashville Sound. Comedian Don Bowman summed it all up in his 1964 single, "Chit Akins, Make Me a Star." In 1968, Chet Atkins was promoted to an RCA vice-presidency.

The Nashville Sound, along with the promotional efforts of the Country Music Association (founded in 1958), "saved" country music during the artform's darkest days. It was not only a commercial style, but a handy marketing term that the media was quick to use. By the late 1960's, reporters from national magazines were making regular pilgrimages to Music Row and the first country music books were being published. Almost all of the writers were smitten by the easy-going country congeniality and awesome musical abilities of Chet Atkins.

By the 1970's he was producing less, but still with enough vim to guide the massive 1970-71 Jerry Reed pop crossover hits "Amos Moses" and "When You're Hot You're Hot." Just as Steve Sholes had helped him, Chet brought along a new generation of RCA producers, notably Bob Ferguson, Felton Jarvis and Jerry Bradley. His later contributions to the RCA roster included Ronnie Milsap, Guy Clark, Dottsy, Tom T. Hall, Dickey Lee, Gary Stewart, Steve Young, Ray Stevens and Steve Wariner, Chet's last RCA protégé, one of the most consistent hitmakers in modern country music.

Although increasingly less interested in the pressures of being a label executive, Chet continued to play with breath-taking virtuosity. As an artist, he embarked on a series of collaborative LPs, working with Les Paul, Lenny Breau, Jerry Reed, Hank Snow, Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Django Reinhardt. These were highly acclaimed and reaped a heap of awards.

In 1973, Chet Atkins became the youngest person ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1974, he published his autobiography, Country Gentleman. In 1977 he ended his association with Gretsch and went on to develop his own model for Gibson Guitars. Studio B closed in 1977 to become a an artist a year later.

Columbia Records signed him in 1982. Primed for a new chapter in his creative life, Chet gave himself a "degree" in 1983. It is Certified Guitar Player and he began signing his name as "Chet Atkins, c.g.p." Leaning increasingly toward pop-jazz, Chet issued Work It Out With Chet (1983), East Tennessee Christmas (1983), Stay Tuned (1985), Street Dreams (1986), Sails (1987), Chet Atkins C.G.P. (1988) and Read My Licks (1994). Chet's 1990 release of Neck & Neck is a duet CD with Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler. He reunited with Jerry Reed for an instrumental CD in 1992, Sneakin' Around; and a new generation of performers has lined up to collaborate with the legend. They include country singer Suzy Bogguss, former Toto bassist David Hungate, champion fiddler Mark O'Connor and jazz greats George Benson, Larry Carlton and Earl Klugh. Chet is Emmylou Harris's banjo teacher.

As a producer, Chet Atkins continued to do occasional work with acts such as South African balladeer Roger Whittaker and radio star Garrison Keillor. He appeared frequently on the latter's Prairie Home Companion show and remained a popular concert attraction, often appearing with symphony orchestras. He also starred in his own Cinemax cable-TV special, A Session with Chet Atkins, C.G.P. In 1987 Chet introduced an instructional video, Get Started on the Guitar, which has since outsold all other home videos of its type. Thanks to the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society, he has become the subject of an annual four-day Nashville convention featuring admirers from around the world.

Today, Chet Atkins continues his career as actively as ever. He has just completed recording his 10th album for Columbia Records, due for release in March 1996. Entitled "Almost Alone" the album features 11 great Chet Atkins guitar arrangements played "Solo", with only an orchestra accompanying 4 tunes. For the many long-term Chet Atkins fans who love listening to his mastery in it's purest form, this album has been long-awaited. And Chet has just completed an advanced guitar instructional video, "The Guitar Of Chet Atkins", due for release in April 1996. Here Chet shows the viewer nine complicated guitar arrangements, and then slows it down to show how it's done. Anyone with some ability on the guitar will be able to learn a massive amount about Chet's technique and some of his trade secrets. And as the viewer learns, he is entertained with Chet's wit and wisdom and gets to know Chet Atkins more personally than ever before.

Chet Atkins remains a vital musical force in the community he helped to create. His works in music will remain unparalleled forever. He is a musician's musician and a gentleman's gentleman. He has a lasting legacy and a level of excellence that stands as a standard for everyone who will ever work in Music City.

He has done more than play, produce and perform. He has built a culture. He has helped forge a community. He has drawn a blueprint for greatness. He has helped found an industry. He is one of the architects of The Nashville Sound. And his saga continues.

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