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Working with Chet Atkins
An interview with Mark O'Connor (cont.)

by Tom Redmond

TR: Tell me a little bit about how your relationship with Chet changed after that initial break that he gave you with the TV show. Did you have other opportunities where you could play with Chet on stage?

MO: Yes, there were lots of opportunities and they came in the way of live performances as well as studio recordings. He started having me as a guest on his own recordings and he even played on one of mine, and I remember in particular that I played quite a bit on an album he did that Mark Knopfler produced.

Mark O'Connor and James Taylor
TR: The "Neck and Neck" album?

MO: Yes. It was very exciting to be able to work with him, and I also ended up opening up some of his shows on the road, and once in awhile he had me play with him in concert. But I think the most memorable thing for me to associate with Chet was hanging out in his office and learning.

TR: What was it like when you went to his office?

MO: It was really great. We were able to hang out and play and I would hear him try out new ideas and new things on the guitar, and honestly, I heard him play some of the coolest stuff in those private sessions. He often played an acoustic guitar in those settings, and he would play a little differently than what he did in shows or in recordings. He would play some different kinds of repertoire that you would never really hear him play on albums or in his concerts.

What I remember mostly about that is that in his concerts, he would play mostly more of his country style and a little bit of jazz, and in his albums, he would play a little bit more of a contemporary style, sometimes a soft jazz style, but around his office, he would play really kind of eccentric, esoteric materials -- things that he would be listening to, say, on a record if you transcribed it, or he would work out arrangements or renditions of things. I remember a lot of Spanish stuff, things with a Latin influence, some classical-oriented stuff and really some of the most beautiful guitar work I've ever heard.

TR: Do you think he played that stuff in the office because he didn't think it was good for commercial release or that maybe a live audience would not like it?

MO: Perhaps. I think that he was very aware as a producer and as a former record label head that in order to make a record that was commercially viable, you have to have an audience that you're trying to target, and maybe he felt like some of that stuff was just his own personal music.

Maybe he didn't necessarily need to release it on an album because he didn't really know what audience he would be trying to go for. But it was really interesting that he was so well-versed in all of guitar music, and his appetite and his knowledge along with his technique was able to really cover the full range of guitar music – the most that I've ever heard.

And he really inspired me. I would experiment quite a lot with it because I myself had studied guitar and loved all the different styles. We had a lot of that in common.

Child Prodigy
TR: So would you guys actually jam in his office, or did you mostly just talk with him? Were you playing guitar or fiddle as well?

MO: A lot of times, he would play something for me, and then he would invariably want me to play. I got a sense that he was like a kid in a candy store because he wanted to play something for me that he'd been working on. He wanted to have an audience that really appreciated and understood what he was doing, even if it was just one person.

I think every single musician in Nashville appreciated Chet but I think he felt comfortable playing really different things for me.

It was also kind of a master-student thing, where he wanted to not only engage me in the music he was playing, but also teach me at the same time. That was something that I really, really appreciated and I think he knew that.

TR: Obviously, you felt that professionally and musically those were beneficial moments for you?

MO: It really was. At times I had to pinch myself. I remember thinking, "Oh my gosh, I get to go over to Chet Atkins' place, just hang out for an hour and then he takes me out to lunch and pays for it!" (laughs)

MO: Chet would call me and say, "Mark, why don't you come and visit me Thursday afternoon," and so I would just pencil it in my calendar and then show up. When I got there he would say, "Mark, I've got something I want to you hear," and I never knew what it was going to be.

Sometimes he would play something that he'd been working on for a recording or a show, or sometimes he would just get out the turntable -- this was in the '80's, so it was before CD's. He would get out a turntable and he would play me obscure stuff that he knew about and it was like a music history lesson every time I showed up.

One time he played me this incredible recording of a singer from the 1920's that I believe was singing what sounded like, "I'm so lonesome I could cry," and it sounded just like Hank Williams, but the only difference was it had been recorded about 15 or 20 years earlier. And I looked at Chet and I went, "Oh my gosh! Does Hank Williams know him?"

It was an old black blues singer. And I said, "So you think Hank Williams got his style from this man," and he said, "Well, it sounds like it, doesn't it?" And we were sitting there in the office and we were having this epiphany together, and I've never, ever heard that recording since. I don't know where it came from or who it was, and nobody's ever mentioned it before or since to me.

MO: It was just so interesting every time. And we did work on some things together. Once in awhile he'd say, "Hey, I want you to play on a show with me, so let's work up a song," and it could be a Beatles tune, it could be an old fiddle tune, I never knew what he had in mind. And you know I believe his father played the fiddle.

TR: I believe he played piano too and was a music teacher.

MO: Chet played a little bit of fiddle himself, and there's not many people really know that because he never really did it professionally. But he actually would pick up the fiddle now and then because he loved it, and it reminded him of his childhood and his forefathers, and so that was another connection that he and I had. So we had the guitar connection, and then also he had the love of the fiddle that not many people knew about.

What's really interesting and ironic about Chet as a commercial record producer is that he was one of the producers along with Owen Bradley that in a sense deemed the fiddle not commercial or contemporary enough, and he started making recordings with the strings, what was later called “the Nashville sound”.

He loved the fiddle and was good friends with Johnny Gimble. But ironically, he was kind of responsible for decreasing the amount of fiddling in country music for a long period of time. When I showed up to Nashville, the fiddle was pretty much out of favor, there was really no fiddling on recordings anymore, and Chet at that point was retired from his record executive days.

With the fiddle being out of style he couldn’t really help get any session work for me but that was something I was able to do on my own apart from Chet. But Chet really helped me by getting me on television, and he put me on his records and he put me on stage.

So suddenly, I started to make some headway in the recording scene and I'm sure that Chet was very impressed with how I helped bring back the fiddle into recordings in Nashville, and I think he was very, very proud and delighted.

Mark winning the 1980 Grand Fiddler contest
TR: There was something written about you in the Los Angeles Times talking about what a great diversity of styles you play., and that you've crossed musical boundaries with the different styles of music that you do. Do you feel like that's something you had in common with Chet?

MO: Yes, I think so. There's a real parallel. As an instrumentalist, I gained a large part of my notoriety and popularity from Nashville. It was really an important association with Chet because he was the standard-bearer in Nashville. Everything that I could possibly do or achieve was compared to Chet and his career, which was tremendous, and I figured that there was no way to ever achieve anything near as much as Chet was able to accomplish.

And so it gave me a lot of gratification that he liked me and supported me. As long I'm trying to become a solo instrumentalist, it was natural to look to Chet. Chet really is the only one who was really able to do it to such a profound extent and have a real full career with it.



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