The little man in denim cutoffs and stained blue T-shirt scurried across the hot blacktop parking lot, his long hair and beard spraying out from his face like a cartoon prophet’s. When he reached the entrance to the funeral home where Chet Atkins lay, he hesitated, glanced down at his grimy costume and muttered apologetically to the men in suits clustered at the door. “I just got in from out of town,” he said, “and I haven’t had a chance to change. I just want to say goodbye.” With that, he moved inside.
Like companionable old neighbors, hundreds of Atkins’ friends and admirers came calling Monday evening (July 2) to stand at his casket and say their personal goodbyes. Visitation services for the world-renowned guitarist, who died Saturday at the age of 77, were held at Nashville’s Roesch-Patton funeral home, just two blocks from the Music Row street that bears Atkins’ name.
It was a serene mixture of the obscure and the mighty. Johnny Cash was there, feeble, barely able to walk, but still a commanding, black-clad presence. At his side was his wife, June Carter Cash, wearing a white straw hat with flowers. In the late 1940s, her family gave Atkins one of his first high-profile jobs as their lead guitar player. After their visit, several people followed the couple outside to their waiting black Mercedes. MCA Records president Tony Brown leaned in through the front passenger door and spoke briefly with Cash. A female security guard waited until Brown was finished and then pressed Cash for his autograph.
Other stars trailed in and out of the funeral home unaccosted and seemingly oblivious to the TV cameras posted nearby. Sonny James, Jim Ed Brown, Ray Stevens, Danny Davis, Jerry Reed, Steve Wariner and Boots Randolph were among the early arrivals.
Also in the crowd of notables were Rick Blackburn, who signed Atkins to Columbia Records in 1982; record executive Shelby Singleton, one of Atkins’ closest companions during his final days; National Endowment of the Arts chief Bill Ivey; and Country Music Hall of Fame member and songwriter Harlan Howard.
Musicians who, along with Atkins, had helped create some of the most memorable country songs of the past 50 years were also well-represented — friends such as pianists Hargus “Pig” Robbins and David Briggs, drummer Buddy Harman, guitarists Harold Bradley and Steve Gibson and vocalist Hurshel Wiginton.
Others paying their respects were producers Norro Wilson, Jerry Crutchfield and Tom Collins; talent managers Merle Kilgore, John Dorris, Billy Deaton, Don Light and Reggie Churchwell; songwriters Dickey Lee and Stewart Harris; publishers Bob Beckham, Henry Hurt, Jana Talbot, Tom Long and Charlie Monk; and photographer/writer Slick Lawson.
The prevailing tone was neither mournful nor festive. It was just a man’s neighbors quietly showing their appreciation for a job well done.