"Someone once asked me if I knew how to read music, and I said, 'Yeah, but not enough to mess up my pickin'."
Chester Burton Atkins, c.g.p.
Chet Atkins, also known as "Mr. Guitar," is one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century, making his mark on country, bluegrass, jazz, and rock and roll. He is also the most-recorded solo instrumentalist in history, and one of the most sought-after studio musicians ever.
Chet was born in Luttrell, Tennessee into a family of musically talented but otherwise poor Appalachian farmers. His mother played piano, his father was a gospel singer, his grandfather played fiddle, and at a young age, he took up music, too. His first instrument was a homemade ukulele strung with wires from a screen, but he stepped away from it to play the fiddle, for which he appeared to have more talent. Then, against the recommendation of his older brother Lowell, he decided to learn the guitar. He traded a pistol for his first real guitar, a Sears Silvertone.
When he left high school in 1941, he was already an accomplished guitarist, but took jobs as a fiddler at barn dances to earn pocket money. During a period of severe asthma attacks, Chet went to live with his father in Georgia, where he began learning to read music. By 1942, he had gotten a job as a fiddler with Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle on WNOX, a Knoxville, Tennessee radio station. He soon earned a solo instrumental spot on their "mid-day merry-go-round", and the publicity earned him offers for other jobs.
While touring, he made himself a name all over the south and midwest of America as a great country musician, even though his work then would be called "bluegrass" by many today. He also developed a passion for jazz, which gave his style an ostentatious edge. As a touring barn dance player, he couldn't hold a job very long because of his unconventional style. While moving from job to job, he ended up in Cincinatti, Ohio, where he married Leona Johnson, one of the "singing Johnson sisters" of WLW radio in that city. He continued to bounce from radio station to radio station, from barn dance to barn dance, going as far west as Denver, Colorado for work.
Chet finally got himself a stable job with Homer & Jethro back at WNOX and recorded some minor country hits with them such as Baby It's Cold Outside, and with Anita Carter, they put together Main Street Breakdown. A Grand Ole Opry star by the name of George Morgan caught their act and went back to Nashville, Tennessee to his studio execs to rave. The group were offered a spot at The Grand Ole Opry, and accepted.
In 1950, a DJ looked at the growing country music scene in Nashville and began referring to Nashville as Music City. About this same time, Chet was starting to do some studio work backing up then-better-known artists such as Hank Williams, The Louvin Brothers, Porter Wagoner, and more. It wasn't long before his skills were noticed and known by everyone in Nashville, and he became the most sought-after studio artist in town. In 1954, RCA released his first LP, "Gallopin Guitar".
From his 1955 LP, "A Session with Chet Atkins," he had two hit singles: Mr. Sandman and Silver Bell. He endorsed a Gretsch guitar bearing his name, built his first home studio, and published a guitar instruction course. The nickname "Mr. Guitar" had begun to circulate.
He was promoted to RCA's management to oversee day-to-day operations in Nashville, but still managed to get in his licks. He played backing guitar on a few of RCA's throwaway pop hits you may have heard of:
...by Elvis Presley
and The Everly Brothers
. He was, if you'll pardon the pun, instrumental
in their successes, getting the Everlys their first contract and backing Elvis
before people knew him by just one name. His clout got Studio B
built at a time when rock and roll
was diverting the public's interest from good old down home country music, but Chet Atkins
kept at it, and Studio B went on to become known as "the house that Chet built." As a producer, his guitar work became more and more absent on others' work, but you can't deny his taste: he helped record such classic artists as Roy Orbison
, Hank Snow
, Jim Reeves
, Roger Miller
, Dottie West
, Hank Locklin
, and Boots Randolph
At the same time, he had become a star in his own right for his innovative picking style, which he called "two guitars, played badly." He covered Boots Randolph's Yakety Sax and renamed it Yakety Axe, and rode it into the top ten in 1965. 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 was making country music history when everyone was paying attention to the Beatles and Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones--and while they were all listening to Nashville records and Delta blues for influence. 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. 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).
His fame coupled with his taste created a body of music known as The Nashville Sound, which helped country music stay alive through Rock and Roll's pinnacle and got Chet promoted to vice president at RCA. Many have remarked that the Nashville Sound would not exist without Chet.
During his time as a leading producer, he kept a low profile, recording with such flashes in the pan as Merle Travis, Les Paul, Django Reinhardt,
Hank Snow, and Jerry Reed. The awards these recordings won are too numerous to name here, but Grammys were not his only trophy--he was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, the youngest person ever at the time to earn that honor. In 1974, he published his autobiography, Country Gentleman. In 1977, he ended his association with Gretsch and helped Gibson design his new namesake guitar.
He signed on to Columbia Records in 1982, and awarded himself an honorary degree, "certified guitar player," and started signing his name "Chet Atkins, c.g.p." at every opportunity. He worked frequently with Garrison Keillor and appeared on A Prairie Home Companion as a regular guest. He recorded a duet album called Neck & Neck with Mark Knopfler in 1990, and taught Emmylou Harris to play the banjo. He also collaborated with Suzy Bogguss, former Toto bassist David Hungate, champion fiddler Mark O'Connor and jazz greats George Benson, Larry Carlton and Earl Klugh. Artists who claim him as an influence include Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler, Les Paul, Duane Eddy, George Harrison, the Ventures, and dozens more. In 1991, the City of Nashville renamed South Street to Chet Atkins Place.
He died on June 30, 2001 after a long battle with cancer.
He was central to the creation of the Nashville Sound, and was a guitar virtuoso. He recorded over 75 albums, traversing musical boundaries between country, jazz, bluegrass, pop, rockabilly, rock and roll, and his own instrumental finger-pickin' style. He was and always will be "Mister Guitar."
This is paraphrased from Bob Oermann's and S.T. Erlewine's excellent and informative biographies of Chet on misterguitar.com; panamaus and shro0m provided some extra Chet trivia.