With his unique guitar-picking style, Chet Atkins (1924-2001) produced music from country to jazz in a career spanning over 50 years, making him the most recorded solo instrumentalist in country music history. His talent for finding and nurturing new recording stars and introducing new sounds earned him a second career as a record company producer and executive.
Chet Atkins was born Chester Burton Atkins on a farm near Luttrell, Tennessee, a small town about 20 miles north of Knoxville, on June 20, 1924. His parents, James Arly Atkins and Ida Sharp Atkins, each had children from a previous marriage. The family was large and poor. With a father who was a music teacher, piano tuner, and evangelist singer, a mother who played piano and sang, and siblings who played instruments, Atkins was surrounded by music from birth. At the age of six he played his first instrument, a ukulele, replacing broken strings with wire pulled from a screen door. Three years later he began playing a Sears Silvertone guitar and a fiddle along with his siblings and their stepfather, Willie Strevel. He and a brother played at local gatherings, throwing a hat on the ground into which listeners were encouraged to toss spare change. They were quite successful with this during the Depression years of the 1930s. Atkins idolized his talented half-brother, Jim, who was 13 years older. Jim Atkins was a guitar player on network radio and later performed with guitarist Les Paul. The younger, budding musician was influenced by what he heard on radio and records, including the songs of country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.
However, despite the music and large family, Atkins had a difficult childhood. He was an extremely shy and asthmatic child. Music became a way for him to express himself in those early years. He referred to his childhood in eastern Tennessee in a letter to friend Garrison Keillor, writing, "Those were some of the worst years of the old man's life, don't you know. But even the bad ones are good now that I think about it." James and Ida Atkins divorced in 1932. In hopes that a different climate would improve Atkins' asthma, he was sent to live with his father in Columbus, Georgia, in 1936.
Developed a Unique Style
Atkins' move to Georgia widened his musical sphere, bringing him radio programs from Knoxville and Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York City. As a boy he listened to guitarists on a crystal radio set he had assembled by himself and tried to imitate them. Cincinnati's station WLW is where he first heard and tried to copy Merle Travis playing guitar. In doing so, Atkins developed his own style. Because he could not observe Travis, only listen to him on the radio, Atkins couldn't see that Travis played the guitar with his thumb and just one finger. So, as Atkins told Bill Milkowski in Down Beat magazine, "I started fooling around with three fingers and a thumb, which turned out to be this pseudo-classical style that I stuck with." His admiration for his hero never waned. Atkins named his daughter Merle. When he signed an autograph for Travis years later, he wrote, "My claim to fame is bragging that we're friends. People just don't pick any better." This signature thumb and finger guitar-picking style Atkins created not only influenced future musicians, but led Atkins to design guitar models, collaborating with the Gretsch Guitar Company, and later with Gibson.
While still in school, Atkins began performing on radio stations. At the age of 17 he quit high school to enter the music field. Atkins returned to Tennessee and landed his first job at radio station WNOX in Knoxville, fiddling for the duo of Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle. He later played on the daily barn dance show. Atkins was also moonlighting as a jazz guitarist. Though management and other artists recognized his talent, this tendency to mix jazz with country, along with absences due to asthma, got him fired often from radio stations during the 1940s. Restless by nature, Atkins moved to Cincinnati's WLW and then to Chicago's WLS "National Barn Dance." He was there just a short time before country star and host Red Foley whisked him off for a stint at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. That same year, 1946, Atkins made his first recording, "Guitar Blues," for Bullet Records.
Atkins left Nashville again, this time for station KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, where Si Siman nicknamed him "Chet" and promoted his artistry to record companies. The station eventually fired him, thinking his sound too polished for country music audiences, but Atkins was attracting fans. About this time, a woman saw him perform in a roadhouse. She wrote: "He sat hunched in the spotlight and played and the whole room suddenly got quiet. It was a drinking and dancing crowd, but there was something about Chet Atkins that could take your breath away." While in Cincinnati, he met Leona Pearl Johnson, a singer, who with her twin sister Lois, performed on station WLW. Atkins and Leona married a year later, July 3, 1946, when Atkins was 22 years old. They would remain together for the next 50 years, until the guitarist's death in 2001.
Hired by RCA
Impressed by Atkins' talent, RCA Victor recording executive Steve Shoal set off in search of the guitarist. He finally tracked him down in Colorado and offered him a contract. From his early RCA recording sessions came attention-getting numbers like "Canned Heat," Bug Dance," and "Main Street Brakedown." He sang on some of these recordings, many of which Atkins later tried to destroy. In 1949, along with performers Homer and Jethro, Henry Haynes and Kenneth Burns, he recorded "Galloping Guitar," which became Atkins' first big success. It was this year, too, that the industry dropped the derogatory term "hillbilly" in reference to country music. Not confident about a career in recording, Atkins continued performing on radio and stage.
The 1950s brought more exposure and a big career boost when the Carter family and Homer and Jethro invited Atkins back to the Opry stage. Country music publisher Fred Rose also befriended Atkins and involved him as a session player on some of the '50s top hits. He played with country music's great singer-songwriter, Hank Williams, on such big hits as "Cold, Cold Heart," Kaw-liga," and "Jambalaya," and on "Release Me" by "the first lady of country music," Kitty Wells. After years of listening to different styles of music and experimenting with his own, Atkins helped pioneer the era of rock and roll, playing on early rock records like Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Wake Up Little Susie" by the Everly Brothers.
RCA management's decision to not only feature Atkins as a solo performer but to use his talent as a session player proved lucrative for him and the company. Recording executives noticed how Atkins' suggestions helped other performers succeed, and they put him in charge of recruiting new talent. He found and nurtured talents who became top-of-the-chart country singers, including Don Gibson, Waylon Jennings, Bobbie Bare and Dottie West. His own stardom increased with the release of two albums in 1951. His hit version of "Mr. Sandman" in 1955 showed his knack for interpreting music written by others.
Increased Country Music's Audience
Atkins played a major role in popularizing country music by finding talent and producing hits for many great names, including Don Gibson, Skeeter Davis, Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed, Eddy Arnold, and many others. RCA made Atkins manager of their new Nashville recording studio that opened in 1957. As a producer with an eye for talent, Atkins succeeded in signing future stars, including singer-songwriter-musicians Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, who both became diversified entertainers with crossover record hits and starring movie roles. Just as Atkins continued to adapt his own style to changing trends, the country music industry now needed to do the same to compete with the popularity of rock and roll. RCA named Atkins as their division vice president for country music in 1968. He helped to attract a wider audience by producing a more modern sound, using string arrangements instead of the traditional fiddles and steel guitars. He and Owen Bradley of Decca Records are credited with this style of orchestration, later called the "Nashville Sound."
During the 1960s, Atkins signed on singer-songwriter Bobby Bare and encouraged Bare's flair for "recitation" songs, which mixed singing and speaking. Results included "Detroit City" and "500 Miles Away From Home," both of which hit not only the top of country charts, but also pop music's top-ten lists. As radio, television, and Opry host Ralph Emery relates in his book, 50 Years Down a Country Road, Atkins trusted Bare's musical and recording know-how "to such an extent that Chet did the unthinkable in those days. He allowed Bare to produce his own records. That was the beginning of the so-called Outlaw Movement of the 1970s." Along with the growth of 'outlaw' music, the gap between country and pop music narrowed in the 1970s. Performers were using more electric guitars, and country music gained more urban audiences.
Career Continued to Flourish
At the age of 49 in 1973, Atkins became the youngest artist ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He had already performed at the White House for President Kennedy and the Newport Jazz Festival in the previous decade, and went on to perform in diverse fields when he played classical music with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra and recorded with Paul McCartney. He played with legendary guitarists Doc Watson, Les Paul, and his lifetime idol, Merle Travis; with British rock star, Mark Knopfler; and with contemporary country singer-guitarist, Suzy Bogguss. Compact discs containing Atkins' older numbers still pleased music critics, while some of his recordings aired on progressive and new age music radio stations. Appropriately dubbed "Mr. Guitar," the title of his 1960 album release, Atkins earned recognition as Country Music Association's instrumentalist of the year nine times between 1967 and 1988, and as Cash Box magazine's top guitarist many times throughout the 1960's and 1970's. Atkins remarked to Rolling Stone magazine, " … 'world's greatest guitar player' is a misnomer. I think I'm one of the best-known guitar players in the world, I'll admit to that." If a title was used, he preferred: "c.g.p" for certified guitar player.
In 1982, after more than 30 years with RCA, Atkins left the label and joined Columbia Records. He released his first album with Columbia the same year, "Work It Out With Chet Atkins." He continued recording and releasing albums during the 1980s and 1990s, touring the United States, Africa, and Europe with his music. At age 72, Atkins started doing club dates, performing with bass, drums, and even a little singing. In an interview at Caffe Milano, he said. "That's my favorite thing, I guess, to play for an audience, because it's such a challenge. … You got to get out there and do it right … I think I'm a better musician than ever because my taste has improved."
While managing to promote both country music and rock and roll, Atkins' own recordings, ranging across the musical spectrum, garnered 14 Grammy awards. The Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Atkins in 1993 by the organization that presents the Grammy awards cited his "peerless finger-style guitar technique, his extensive creative legacy documented on more than 100 albums, and his influential work on both sides of the recording console as a primary architect of the Nashville sound." A street in Music Row in Nashville is named after him, and a downtown statue of Atkins with his guitar was erected in the year 2000.
A Farewell in Nashville
Twenty years after being treated for colon cancer, Atkins underwent surgery in 1997 for a benign brain tumor and to repair damage caused by a stroke. He continued working, releasing an album of contemporary artists singing country classics the following year. However, complications from his cancer led to Atkins death at his home in Nashville on June 30, 2001. Atkins was buried at Harpeth Hills Cemetery in Nashville, leaving his wife Leona, daughter Merle, two grandchildren and a sister. His life is described in two Atkins' books, one put out near the end of his life, Just Me and My Guitars, and his 1974 autobiography, Country Gentleman.
At a memorial service held at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, original site of the Grand Ole Opry, radio host, author, and longtime friend Garrison Keillor delivered a heartfelt eulogy. To an audience of over a thousand, he described Atkins as a man who loved doing shows but liked to be alone backstage to enjoy the quiet and calm; a restless man; a musician with a mind of his own; and a great storyteller. He was an inspiration to others, but also admired other performers' works and went out of his way to tell them so. "He was the guitar player of the 20th century," Keillor continued, describing Atkins as the perfect model of a guitarist: "You could tell it whenever he picked up a guitar, the way it fit him. His upper body was shaped to it, from a lifetime of playing: his back was slightly hunched, his shoulders rounded… ."
Keillor's tribute and the picture he painted of the legendary guitarist seemed an altogether fitting image to leave with Atkins' legions of fans and for the generations of fans yet to come.
Contemporary Musicians, Gale Research, 1991.
Emery, Ralph, 50 Years Down a Country Road, William Morrow, 2000.
"Chet Atkins," World Music Portal, http://www.worldmusicportal.com/Artists/USA-artists/chet-atkins.htm (October 31, 2001).
Contemporary Authors Online, "Chester Burton Atkins," The Gale Group, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
Flippo, Chet, "Nashville Music Legend Chet Atkins Dead at 77,"Country.com, ysiwyg://10/http://www.country.com/news/feat/catkins.obit2.063001.jhtml (October 30, 2001).
Detroit News staff, "Chet Atkins, 77, dies of cancer," Detroit News, wysiwyg://47/http://detnews.com/2001/obituaries/0107/02/a02-242409.html (October 31, 2001).
Kar, Paromita, "Legendary guitarist Chet Atkins dies," britannicaindia, wysiwyg://27/http://www.britannicaindia.com (October 31, 2001).
Keillor, Garrison, "Eulogy to Chet at his funeral," Mister Guitar, wysiwyg://6/http://www.misterguitar.com/news/eulogy.html.
Orr, Jay, "Chet Atkins Remembered as 'A Great Giant,"' wysiwyg://8/http://www.halloffame.org/news/archibe/hof-chet-atkins-funeral-0701.html (October 31, 2001).
Patterson, Jim, "No rust on Atkins," http://www.canoe.ca/JamMusicArtistsA/atkins-chet.html (October 31, 2001). □
"Chet Atkins." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chet-atkins
"Chet Atkins." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chet-atkins
A more important contributor to the genre of country music than famed guitarist and composer Chet Atkins is difficult to imagine. Not only has the man labeled “Mr. Guitar” by fans and critics alike gifted music audiences with his own recordings of classics such as “Gallopin’ Guitar,” “Country Gentlemen,” and “Snowbird,” but for many years he helped RCA Records recruit other talented country artists, including Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride.
And while Atkins is credited by some with helping country music retain its popularity throughout the boom of rock and roll, he has not limited himself to performing in the country genre—he seems equally adept at picking out the strains of jazz, classical, and pop music on his guitar, and during the 1980s has released records that find airplay on New Age music stations. Atkins has also received numerous awards for his talent, including several Grammy awards and nominations, and was for many consecutive years named top guitarist by Cash Box magazine.
Chester Burton Atkins was born June 20, 1924, in a secluded, rural area near Luttrell, Tennessee. His family was poor, and large—both his mother and father had children from previous marriages. But Atkins was surrounded by music from the beginning, and in addition to listening to his older family members sing and play, he also listened to the records of country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers. When he was very small, his older brothers did not want him playing their guitars, so he first learned the violin, or fiddle. Then, when he was nine, he traded a gun for an old, beat-up guitar, but he continued with the fiddle, and also the ukulele. Atkins and his brother would play at various gathering places, putting a hat before them on the ground for people to throw change in, and, for the Depression years, were fairly successful.
Atkins liked the guitar best, however, and more or less taught himself to play. As a boy he would listen to guitarists on a radio crystal set he had assembled himself, and try to imitate their styles. One of his favorites was Merle Travis, but, as he told Bill Milkowski in down beat, “I didn’t see his fingers so I didn’t know he was playing with just one finger and a thumb. I started fooling around with three fingers and a thumb, which turned out to be this pseudoclassical style that I stuck with. So I guess I was lucky that I didn’t see him and copy him any more than I did.” Thus Atkins developed his distinctive finger style guitar, which, in turn, has been imitated by many other aspiring artists.
While Atkins was still in high school, he landed his first job with a radio station, playing both country and jazz for WRBL in Columbus, Georgia, where he had gone with some of his family to live in order to improve the
Full name, Chester Burton Atkins; born June 20, 1924, near Luttrell, Tenn.; son of James Arley (a music teacher, piano tuner, and evangelical singer), and Ida (maiden name, Sharp) Atkins; married Leona Pearl Johnson (a singer), July 3, 1946; children: Merle (daughter).
Played fiddle in the street for small change as a child; during the 1940s played fiddle and/or guitar for various radio stations and radio shows, including “The Parson Jack Show,” WRBL, Columbus, Ga., “The Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle and Archie Campbell Show” and “Midday Merry-Go-Round,” also member of staff band, WNOX, Knoxville, Tenn.; member of staff band, WLW, Cincinatti, Ohio; worked at WPTF, Raleigh, N.C.; performed on Grand Ole Opry, c. 1946; performed on “Sunshine Sue Show” and “Old Dominion Barn Dance,” WRVA, Richmond, Va.; member of Slim Wilson and the Tall Timber Trio, KWTO, Springfield, Mo.; featured on the Mutual radio network show “Corn’s a’ Crackin’”; member of cowboy band in Denver, Colo.; recording artist, 1947—. Also performed again on the Grand Ole Opry during the late 1940s and 1950s, forming acts with Homer and Jethro and the Carter Family. Served as session musician for RCA Victor Records, 1949-53, consultant, 1953-57, part-time producer, 1957, manager, 1957-68, Division Vice President, 1968- c. 1982.
Awards: Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1973; several Grammy Awards, including Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance of 1967 for Chet Atkins Picks the Best, Best Country Instrumental Performance of 1970 for Me and Jerry, Best Country Instrumental Performance of 1971 for “Snowbird,” and another Grammy in 1976 for Chester and Lester. Has been named top guitarist for many years during the 1960s and 1970s by Cash Box magazine. Humanitarian Award, 1972, from the National Council of Christians and Jews.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 51 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019.
severe asthma he had suffered since childhood. He dropped out of high school, however, and returned to Tennessee, winning a job playing fiddle at Knoxville’s WNOX. He served there on programs such as “The Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle and Archie Campbell Show” and “Midday Merry-Go-Round.” From then on, Atkins spent most of the 1940s playing for various radio stations throughout the United States, often impressing management and other artists with his virtuosity, but often getting fired, either for mixing a little jazz into his country picking, or for missing performances due to asthma flare-ups. He even had a brief stint with the “Grand Ole Opry.”
Atkins was playing with a cowboy band in Denver, Colorado, when Steve Sholes of RCA caught up to him. Sholes had seen a transcription—despite the fact that Atkins never learned to read or write music, and memorizes all of his pieces—of the young guitarist’s “Canned Heat” and was favorably impressed, but Atkins moved from job to job so much that he proved somewhat difficult to locate. Sholes offered Atkins a recording contract with RCA, and Atkins traveled to the company’s Chicago studios. Some of the numbers from this session included Atkins’s own vocals; he has since tried to destroy many of the master tapes that include his singing. Though his first instrumental cuts—“Canned Heat,” “Bug Dance,” and “Nashville Jump” (released in 1947)—did not garner much public attention, disc jockeys liked them and gave them a lot of airplay.
But Atkins was not convinced that his recording career would take off, and he continued to play on radio shows. During the late 1940s he was invited to play with the Carter Family, and with them performed again on the “Grand Ole Opry” in 1950. In 1949, however, he had recorded more tracks for RCA, including the hits “Gallopin’ Guitar” and “Main Street Breakdown.” At last, he was brought to the attention of a widespread audience, and his fame continued to grow with album releases like Chet Atkins In Three Dimensions and Stringin’ Along. Eventually, of course, Atkins became popular worldwide, making successful tours of Europe and Africa in addition to the United States.
Meanwhile, RCA decided to make Atkins a session musician as well as a featured attraction. Recording executives quickly noticed that his suggestions on other artist’s work made for more successful products, and they increasingly involved him in management decisions. He became an artist and repertory man for them, in charge of finding and recruiting new talent, and his discoveries include Don Gibson, Waylon Jennings, Dottie West, Bobby Bare, and pianist Floyd Cramer. Atkins was also instrumental in signing the first successful black country singer, Charley Pride. By 1968, after he had managed their Nashville operations for over ten years, RCA had named Atkins its division vice president in charge of country music.
In his management work for RCA, Atkins helped country music adapt itself for consumption by increasingly modern audiences. He was able to do this because, in addition to having a certain knack for predicting what performances would make for hit records, he continually experimented with his own music. Atkins has played jazz for festival audiences at Newport, strummed the classical notes of Bach with symphonies, and recorded with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, as well as many country artists. One of the first country musicians to recognize the talent of the Beatles, Atkins’s Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles proved to be one of his best selling albums.
Though Atkins left RCA in 1982, he continues to be active as a recording artist for Columbia. In addition, compact disc releases of some of his older albums are still producing raves from the critics. One such compilation, including the albums Pickin’ My Way, In Hollywood, and Alone, prompted reviewer Jon Sievert in Guitar Player to declare that “Chet’s masterful tempo shifts, subtle vibrato technique, intimate feel, and uncommon taste make him required listening for all pretenders to the throne.” Atkins’s Columbia recordings, however, increasingly stray from the country genre, including Chet Atkins, C.G.P. (initials stand for Certified Guitar Player), which Alanna Nash of Stereo Review lauded for its “complex musical images in startlingly vivid colors.” Cuts from CG.P. and a few albums previous to it are often heard on progressive and new age music radio stations, and Milkowski in down beat concluded that Atkins’s 1980s efforts “are really a natural progression for the man who has always been stretching, probing other idioms, and interpreting these modes through his own signature approach.”
LPs; released by RCA, except as noted
Chet Atkins Plays Guitar, 1951.
Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions, 1951.
Hi-Fi in Focus, 1957.
At Home, 1958.
In Hollywood, 1959.
Mister Guitar, 1960.
Other Chet Atkins, 1960.
Most Popular, 1961.
Down Home, 1962.
Caribbean Guitar, 1962.
Back Home Hymns, 1962.
Our Man in Nashville, 1963.
Guitar Country, 1964.
Progressive Pickin’, 1964.
My Favorite Guitars, 1965.
Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles, 1966.
From Nashville, 1966.
Guitar World, 1967.
Chet Atkins Picks the Best, 1967.
Class Guitar, 1967.
Solid Gold’69, 1969.
Best, Volume 2, 1970.
Love and Guitars, 1970.
Standing Alone, 1970.
(With Jerry Reed) Me and Jerry, 1970.
This Is Chet Atkins, 1970.
Portrait of My Woman, 1971.
For the Good Times, 1971.
Welcome to My World, 1971.
Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye, 1971.
Pickin’ My Way, 1971.
Lovin’ Her Was Easier, 1971.
Now & Then, 1972.
Chet Atkins Picks on the Hits, 1972.
(With Merle Travis) The Atkins-Travis Travelin’ Show, 1974.
Atkins String Band, 1975.
(With Les Paul) Chester and Lester, 1976.
Stay Tuned, Columbia, 1985.
Chet Atkins, C.G.P., Columbia, 1989.
(Compact disc compilation) Pickin’ My Way/In Hollywood/Alone, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, 1989.
Also recorded Stringin’ Along and Finger Style Guitar on RCA during the 1950s.
Atkins, Chet, Country Gentleman, Regnery, 1974.
Country Music, May-June 1989.
down beat, May 1989.
Guitar Player, November 1989; December 1989.
Stereo Review, May 1989.
"Atkins, Chet." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/atkins-chet-0
"Atkins, Chet." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/atkins-chet-0
Guitar, singer, songwriter
Chet Atkins may have first made his mark in country music, but his legacy has spread far, his style influencing jazz, blues, and rock guitarists. Atkins’ jazz-tinged country guitar once got him dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry, the premier showcase for country music. His style turned out to be so influential, though, that he became the youngest person ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He earned the honor in part because of his work as a producer, which some say kept country music from being overrun by rock and roll in the 1950s. More important, though, was his unique style of playing, which earned him the nickname “Mr. Guitar.”
Born June 20, 1924, near Luttrell, Tennessee, Chester Burton Atkins grew up in a poor rural area amid a variety of musical influences. The son of a classically-trained gospel singer, Atkins avidly listened to the sounds around him, as he explained to Billboard magazine, “[l]f anybody came through the area playing something I didn’t know, I’d steal it, take it over, and make it my own.” His first instrument was a ukulele, which he strung with
Born Chester Burton Atkins, June 20, 1924, near Lutrell, TN; son of James Arley (a music teacher, piano tuner, and evangelical singer), and Ida (maiden name, Sharp) Atkins; married Leona Pearl Johnson (a singer), July 3, 1946; children: one daughter, Merle.
Played fiddle in the street for small change as a child; during the 1940s played fiddle and/or guitar for various radio stations and radio shows, including “The Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle and Archie Campbell Show” and “Midday Merry-Go-Round” at WNOX, Knoxville, TN; member of staff band, WLW, Cincinnati, OH; performed on the Grand Ole Opry, 1946; signed with RCA, 1947; recorded hit single “Main Street Breakdown,” 1949; performed again on the Grand Ole Opry during the late 1940s and 1950s with the Carter Family and Homer and Jethro; served in multiple capacities for RCA Victor Records, 1949-82; signed with Columbia, 1982.
Awards: Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1973; several Grammy Award winning recordings, including Me and Jerry, 1970, Chet Atkins Picks the Best, 1971, “Snowbird,” 1971, Chester and Lester, 1976, “Cosmic Square Dance,” 1985, Neck and Neck, 1990; named top guitarist several times by Cash Box Magazine; Humanitarian Award, 1972, from National Council of Christians and Jews; received Century Award, 1997, from Billboard magazine.
Addresseses: Record company —Columbia Records, 51 West 52nd St, New York, NY 10019.
wire from a screen door. He also learned to play the fiddle, and when he was nine, he traded a gun for a guitar. Besides learning classical music from his father and gospel from his neighbors, Atkins learned other styles from listening to the radio. He taught himself guitartrying to imitate what he heard, especially the finger picking style of Merle Travis. He didn’t realize that Travis played with just his thumb and one finger, so from reading his father’s classical music magazines, Atkins learned to play with his thumb and three fingers, which became his signature style.
Atkins started playing professionally on radio stations while still in high school. He dropped out of school and played at several radio stations throughout the country during the 1940s. Although there always seemed to be work for him, he would frequently get fired for mixing in jazz with his country. He earned a brief stint with the Grand Ole Opry in 1946, and also cut his first record that same year for Bullet records. Atkins didn’t stay put in Tennessee, though, and Steve Sholes of RCA records had to track him down in Denver, Colorado to sign him to a contract in 1947. He received some attention for such songs as “Canned Heat” and “Bug Dance” from his first sessions. In 1949, though, Atkins established an audience for his style with “Main Street Breakdown.”
Atkins’ stature as a solo artist continued to grow with the release of two albums in 1951. He continued playing as a session man, though, recording with country music legend Hank Williams, among others. Atkins’ effective suggestions in the studio earned him a position as producer. In that role he specialized in recordings that relied more on string arrangements than on fiddles and steel guitars, which brought country music to a new audience. Atkins also had a keen ear for talent, and he was the first to sign such future country stars as Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson to recording contracts. Speaking of his success as a producer to Noel Holston of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Atkins said, “It’s not that I’m so smart or anything, it’s that I’m a square.”
Atkins’ production work didn’t keep him from recording. His hit version of “Mr. Sandman” in 1955 displayed his gift for interpreting music written by others. He also began to draw on his varied musical background in his recordings, releasing albums such as the classically influenced Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions. Atkins’ musical tastes weren’t stuck in the past, though, as he kept up with the latest musical trends, some of which he inspired. When Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles was released in 1966, it came with an endorsement in the liner notes from one of his more famous fans, Beatles guitarist George Harrison. The music industry also recognized the quality of Atkins’ work throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He was repeatedly named the top guitarist of the year by Cash Box magazine and won several Grammy awards. Some of Atkins’ most highly praised recordings were collaborations with his guitar heroes. He recorded The Atkins-Travis Travelin’Show with Travis in 1974, and his 1976 effort with Les Paul, Chester and Lester, won a Grammy. Atkins explained the appeal of such duets to Kevin Ransom of Guitar Player. “Playing with other guitarists inspires me to play better than I normally would, because it’s kind of competitive.”
Although his legend was secure, the 1980s brought changes in Atkins’ place in the music industry. In 1982 he left RCA, where he was a vice-president, to sign with Columbia. Country music was changing, too, and Atkins’ songs were more likely to be heard on New Age radio than on country stations. As always, though, Atkins successfully ranged across the musical spectrum. Two collaborations with rock guitarist Mark Knopfler won Grammies: the 1985 track “Cosmic Square Dance” and the 1990 album Neck and Neck. Throughout the 1990s, Atkins continued to record with guitarists who had learned from listening to him. The albums Read My Licks and The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World showcased Atkins playing with such diverse performers as Knopfler, jazz guitarist George Benson, country performer Steve Wariner, and young Australian guitar phenomenon Tommy Emmanuel.
Surgery for a benign brain tumor and a stroke in 1997 slowed Atkins, but he remained active. He told Jim Patterson of the Associated Press, “I can play with feeling. But technically, I can’t hook it like I used to.” Still, he practiced daily and kept busy in the studio, putting together the 1998 album Tribute to Tradition, a collection of classic country songs performed by contemporary artists. He even played on one of the tracks, a version of “O Lonesome Me,” which was a number-one hit when he produced itfor Don Gibson in 1959. Another of Atkins’ projects was been the annual Chet Atkins’ Musician Days, a week of concerts and seminars for musicians. With all his attention to younger performers, Atkins showed that his legacy existed not only in the body of work that he has produced, but also in the knowledge and encouragement that he passed down to new generations.
Chet Atkins Plays Guitar, RCA, 1951.
Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions, RCA, 1951.
Hi-Fi in Focus, RCA, 1957.
At Home, RCA, 1958.
In Hollywood, RCA, 1959.
Mister Guitar, RCA, 1960.
Workshop, RCA, 1961.
Down Home, RCA, 1962.
Our Man in Nashville, RCA, 1963.
Guitar Country, RCA, 1964.
Progressive Pickin’, RCA, 1964.
My Favorite Guitars, RCA, 1965.
Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles, RCA, 1966.
From Nashville, RCA, 1966.
Guitar World, RCA, 1967.
(With Jerry Reed) Me and Jerry, RCA, 1970.
This is Chet Atkins, RCA, 1970.
For the Good Times, RCA, 1971.
Welcome to My World, RCA, 1971.
Pickin’ My Way, RCA, 1971.
Now & Then, RCA, 1972.
Chet Atkins Picks on the Hits, RCA, 1972.
(With Merle Travis) The Atkins-Travis Travelin’ Show, RCA, 1974.
Atkins String Band, RCA, 1975.
(With Les Paul) Chester and Lester, RCA, 1976.
Stay Tuned, Columbia, 1985.
Chet Atkins, C.G.P., Columbia, 1989.
(With Mark Knopfler) Neck and Neck, Columbia, 1990.
(With Jerry Reed) Sneakin’ Around, Columbia, 1992.
Read My Licks, Columbia, 1994.
The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World, Columbia, 1997.
Contemporary Musicians, vol. 5, Gale Research, Inc., 1991.
Billboard, December 6, 1997.
Chicago Sun-Times, October 6, 1998, p. 33.
Florida Times Union (Jacksonville), July 12, 1998, p. E3.
Guitar Player, October, 1994.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis), May 22, 1998, p. 3E.
"Atkins, Chet." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/atkins-chet
"Atkins, Chet." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/atkins-chet
Chet Atkins (Chester Burton Atkins), 1924–2001, American country guitarist, singer, and record company executive, b. Luttrell, Tenn. Part of a musical family, he played fiddle and guitar as a youngster and performed professionally while still a teenager. His distinctive guitar-picking style involved using three fingers to pick out the melody while the thumb supplied the bass. A respected studio musician during the 1940s, Atkins became well known after his debut (1950) on the Grand Ole Opry radio show and, in the years that followed released some 100 solo albums and contributed to many more. He also was (1957–82) an important record producer and executive at RCA's Nashville division. Through his music and that of those with whom he performed and whom he produced—including Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Waylon Jennings, and Dolly Parton—Atkins helped shape the
and transform the city into the center of the country music industry. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973 and received 14 Grammy awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award (1993).
See his autobiography, Chet Atkins: Country Gentleman (1974); biography by R. O'Donnell (1976).
"Atkins, Chet." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atkins-chet
"Atkins, Chet." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atkins-chet