Chet Atkins, c.g.p.
Written by Bob Oermann
Note: this piece was written prior to the release of "Almost Alone" in 1996
THE HERITAGE OF THE HILLS
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,
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.
MUSIC CITY, U.S.A.
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
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
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.
CHET THE EXEC
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
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.