Nashville Music Legend Chet Atkins Dead at 77

Chet Atkins , known as Mr. Guitar and recognized as one of the architects of the country-pop Nashville Sound, died around 10 a.m CT Saturday (June 30) at his home in Nashville from complications of cancer. He was 77. Mr. Atkins, the most recorded solo instrumentalist in country music history, fought cancer for many years and had been inactive in recent months.

The Grand Ole Opry dedicated its performance Saturday night (June 30) to Atkins. Visitation will be from 5-8 p.m. Monday (July 2) at Roesch-Patton funeral home, 1715 Broadway in Nashville. Services will take place at 11 a.m. Tuesday (July 3) at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, with interment to follow at Harpeth Hills Cemetery.

Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, in the small East Tennessee town of Luttrell, which he described as a “whistle stop on the Southern Railway.” His father James was an itinerant music teacher and his mother Ida played piano and sang. His parents divorced in 1932, and Atkins began playing fiddle and later guitar with his brother and sister and their stepfather Willie Strevel. Atkins later said that as a child he was so shy as to seem almost autistic and that the fiddle and guitar offered him an alternate means of expressing himself as a child.

He also suffered from asthma and was sent in 1936 to live on his father’s farm in Georgia in hopes his health would improve out of the hills. Atkins idolized his half-brother Jim Atkins, who played guitar regularly on the “National Barn Dance” network radio show and later formed a trio with guitarist Les Paul. But Chet Atkins’ life changed forever when he happened to hear Merle Travis playing guitar live on station WLW broadcasting from Cincinnati. Atkins had listened to Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Lemon Jefferson records and could copy them but was amazed by the thumb-and-finger-picking style developed by Travis. Atkins developed his own two-finger-and-thumb style of picking — since he couldn’t see Travis picking, he had no idea of how he did it. In later life, Travis would autograph a picture to Atkins thusly: “My claim to fame is bragging that we’re friends. People just don’t pick any better.”

His first job after high school was at station WNOX in Knoxville, Tenn., as fiddler for the duo of Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle. When WNOX’s Lowell Blanchard heard Atkins’ guitar playing, he put him on the station’s daily barn dance show, “Midday Merry-Go-Round.” At the same time, he moonlighted as a jazz guitarist with the Dixieland Swingsters. He moved on to WLW in Cincinnati, and the following year joined Johnnie & Jack. He worked briefly at the “National Barn Dance” on Chicago’s WLS. When Red Foley left WLS to host the “Prince Albert Show” on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, he took Atkins with him.

In Nashville, he made his first recording, “Guitar Blues,” for Bullet Records. Again he moved on, this time to KWTO in Springfield, Mo. The station’s Si Siman gave him the nickname “Chet” and pitched him as an artist to different record companies. After the station fired Atkins because his playing was too polished for hillbilly music, Steve Sholes of RCA Victor signed him to a recording contract in 1947 as a singer and guitarist. He briefly returned to WNOX, where he worked first with Homer & Jethro and then with Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters. When the Carters moved first to KWTO, then to the Opry and Nashville in 1950, Atkins came along.

He was befriended by early country music pioneer Fred Rose, who developed the Acuff-Rose Publishing company and guided the career of Hank Williams. With Rose’s support, Atkins became one of the “A-Team” of Nashville session players and played on recordings by Hank Williams (“Cold, Cold Heart,” “Kaw-liga,” “Jambalaya”), The Louvin Brothers (“When I Stop Dreaming”), Faron Young (“Goin’ Steady,” “I’ve Got Five Dollars,” “If You Ain’t Lovin'”), Webb Pierce (“There Stands the Glass”), The Carlisles (“Too Old to Cut the Mustard”), Kitty Wells (“Release Me”), the Everly Brothers (“Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie”) and Elvis Presley (“Heartbreak Hotel,” “A Fool Such as I”) and appeared on the Opry as a solo artist.

Steve Sholes, who was based at RCA Victor in New York and occasionally journeyed to Nashville to supervise RCA recording sessions, began relying on Atkins as his Nashville surrogate, and Atkins began producing sessions. Those early sessions were done with portable recording equipment in rented garages or offices. RCA decided to build a recording studio in Nashville, and Sholes made Atkins studio manager when the facility opened in 1957. Along with Owen Bradley, who was performing a similar function for Decca Records, Atkins became an architect of the country music industry in Nashville. He continued to record and in 1955 had his first hit with a cover version of the pop hit “Mister Sandman” and had success on a duet with Hank Snow on “Silver Bell.”

Atkins shared his fascination with pop music and crossover appeal with Bradley, and the two fashioned what came to be known as the “Nashville Sound.” They often replaced fiddles and steel guitars with string sections and vocal choruses. The hits followed for such previously harder country artists as Don Gibson and Jim Reeves. He produced artists from Waylon Jennings to Eddy Arnold and Skeeter Davis and Bobby Bare, from the Browns to Dolly Parton.

Atkins later said that the Nashville Sound came about because of a mandate from RCA to “sell records” and he apologized for “anything I did in taking it [country] too far uptown, which I sometimes did, because we were just trying to sell records.” He made history in selling records, with such hits as Don Gibson’s 1958 country and pop smash “Oh Lonesome Me,” which was the first million-selling record produced in RCA’s Studio B in Nashville. Atkins produced the session and played electric lead guitar on it.

In 1965, he signed Charley Pride to RCA and simultaneously had a major hit with “Yakety Axe,” a guitar version of Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax.” When Steve Sholes died in 1968, RCA made Atkins vice president of the Nashville country division.

As he cut back gradually on his producing duties, Atkins began recording with a succession of diverse artists: guitar pioneer Les Paul, British rocker Mark Knopfler, Jerry Reed and Merle Travis. When times changed at RCA and the label was resistant to the idea of Atkins recording a jazz album, Atkins left the label and signed with Columbia as a solo artist.

He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Atkins played the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 and was invited to play the White House by President John Kennedy. He performed with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. When Paul McCartney came to Nashville to record, he called Atkins and asked him to set up a recording session for him to cut a song his father had written. Atkins and Floyd Cramer and several other musicians took McCartney into the studio and the result was the single “Walking In The Park With Eloise”/”Bridge Over the River Suite” released in 1974 in the U.K. and U.S. by The Country Hams (listed as Paul McCartney & Wings, Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer).

From 1967 to 1988, Atkins was named instrumentalist of the year nine times by the Country Music Association. He also won 14 Grammys, the most recent coming in 1997 for best country instrumental performance with the song “Jam Man,” a track from his album Almost Alone. Among country artists, only Vince Gill has as many. In 1993, the Grammy-granting National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented Atkins with its Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of 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.”

“When it came to electric guitar, you couldn’t even imagine anybody who would do you a better job than Chet Atkins,” Charlie Louvin said Saturday on WSM-AM (650).

Although he could take his pick of honorary titles, Atkins often said he preferred to be referred to as a “c.g.p.” — “Certified Guitar Player.” In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Atkins talked about the business of titles. “That damn ’world’s greatest guitar player’ is a misnomer,” he said. “I think I’m one of the best-known guitar players in the world, I’ll admit to that. But there are so many damned people now who play the style I play and can play their own, and there are so many people who can play better jazz. But I kind of was the evangelist for that style. For fingerpicking, me and Merle. I think me more than him because he wasn’t making albums.”

“Chet Atkins’ Musician Days,” a citywide festival in Nashville, was inaugurated in 1997 to benefit the Chet Atkins Music Education Fund. Among the musicians who have paid tribute to Atkins at the festival are Eddy Arnold, Mark Knopfler, Suzy Bogguss, The Jordanaires, Travis Tritt, Clint Black, Earl Scruggs, Marty Stuart, Vassar Clements, Duane Eddy, Vince Gill and John Fogerty.

Atkins has a city street named for him in the Music Row area, and a bronze statue of Atkins playing guitar, with an empty stool next to him, was erected in January 2000 at Fifth Ave. N. and Union St., in downtown Nashville. Vince Gill presided over the unveiling, saying Atkins’ playing displays “gentleness and kindness and passion.”

Mr. Atkins is survived by his wife, Leona; a daughter, Merle Russell; grandchildren Amanda and Jonathan Russell; and sister Billie Rose Shockley, all of Nashville.

Jay Orr and Michael Gray contributed to this story.

Audioclips / Videoclips

In this flawless performance of “Villa,” Chet Atkins displays both the thumb-picking style and graceful melodic phrasing that earned him the title “Mr. Guitar.” This selection comes from the Ozark Jubilee telecast of August 16, 1958.

Speaking in 1992, ace guitarist and longtime RCA country producer Chet Atkins recounts the story of “Four Walls,” the 1957 breakthrough hit that made Jim Reeves a country and pop star to be reckoned with. Listen in AU or RA.

During the late 1950s, RCA producer and recording artist Chet Atkins was also a featured guitarist on the Grand Ole Opry’s weekly NBC radio show. In this June 8, 1958, performance, he romps through “Sweet Georgia Brown,” drawn from his vast repertoire of pop standards. Listen in AU or RA.

Dubbed Mr. Guitar, Chet Atkins popularized the rhythmic, thumb-style guitar playing pioneered by such pickers as Mose Rager, Ike Everly, Kennedy Jones, and Merle Travis. There is no better expression of this style than on Atkins’ self-penned “Country Gentleman,” a non-charted 1953 recording. Listen now.