Chet Atkins gave his final public performance June 12, 1998, at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville, the city where, in the early 1940s, he first attracted notice as a radio performer. With him on the final bill were the accordionist LynnMarie and Atkins’ physician and fellow guitarist, Dr. James Coleman.
“When he brought me out [on stage],” Coleman recalls, “he told the audience that I had diagnosed a stroke in his big toe. He told them about our friendship and how I had helped him out in a lot of areas in his life.” (Although the remark exemplified his wry sense of humor, Atkins had really had a blood clot in his left big toe of the kind that often causes strokes, Coleman says.)
“The people in his band didn’t want him to play this show,” Coleman continues, “because they didn’t think he was up to doing it. But he played so great. He did the song ‘Vincent,’ just on solo guitar, and it was one of the greatest things I ever heard. I don’t remember if on that show he did the song ‘I Still Can’t Say Goodbye.’ I kind of think he didn’t do it for some reason, although he usually did it and dedicated it to his father.”
“The house was packed,” Coleman says. “It was $26 a ticket, and it was sold out. I have it on video. He played once again at his fan club’s yearly convention. It’s called the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society. He played about 20 minutes, probably in July [of 1998]. I think that’s the last time he played at all. But the last public performance was in Knoxville. All his family was there [in Knoxville], and his oldest friend, Buster Devault, from Luttrell, Tennessee, where Chet came from, was there too.”
Coleman, who diagnosed Atkins’ lung cancer in 1996 and treated him successfully for it, says the legendary guitarist took him to Luttrell “about three years ago” to meet the people he had grown up with. “His step-father is still living and was there. We went to his house. We also went back to the little farm where Chet and his mother and father had lived. The people who were living there now said, ‘I guess this is really great for you to come back here.’ But Chet said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Coming back here is one of the most painful things that I could ever do, because this is where my father left me and my mother when I was six years old.’” (Atkins reunited with his father when he was in his teens.)
Recently, Coleman released his tribute album to Atkins, The Guitar That Made America Great. Coleman says he had kept a journal covering his years of friendship with Atkins.