Through their grief, Chet Atkins ’ friends, colleagues and fellow musicians found eloquent ways to express their profound affection and respect for “Mr. Guitar” during a 50-minute service in his honor Tuesday (July 3).
Atkins died Saturday (June 30) at 77, at his home in Nashville. His funeral took place at historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where he appeared frequently on the Grand Ole Opry during its tenure there from 1943-1974. A semi-circle of about 50 floral arrangements, an orange electric guitar on a stand and a trademark white fedora graced the Ryman stage. Atkins’ closed silver casket arrived around 9:15 a.m.
When the many members of the general public had filed into their seats in the Ryman balcony — floor seats were reserved for family and friends — the service began with the traditional gospel song, “Farther Along,” sung by Connie Smith, accompanied by her husband, mandolinist Marty Stuart, guitarist Mark Casstevens, bassist David Hungate and fiddler Stuart Duncan.
Eddy Arnold, who recorded for RCA during Atkins’ tenure as producer and executive, said, “I’ve lost a friend, a cohort and a fellow artist in Chet Atkins. We won’t ever see the like, the talent, in one man. If you ever heard of any man, anywhere, who had it all, it was this man.”
In an emotional tribute, Arnold talked about Atkins’ 56-year marriage to his wife, Leona, who was seated in the third row with the couple’s daughter, Merle, other family members and close friends. Arnold also talked about Atkins’ talents as a record producer and musician. He quoted a poem by Walt Whitman, ending with “So long, and I hope we shall meet again. Goodbye, Chet.”
Guitarists Steve Wariner, Paul Yandell and Vince Gill followed Arnold, playing a medley of tunes in the thumb-and-finger picking style perfected and made famous the world over by Atkins.
Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor, a longtime friend and admirer, began his eloquent eulogy with a riotously funny letter from Atkins about returning to East Tennessee, aging and playing concerts.
As guitarist Pat Donahue played behind him, Keillor went on to recall the night in 1946 when Atkins made his debut with Red Foley on the Ryman stage. Atkins’ style of play was different, Keillor said. “This one hunched down over the guitar and made it sing and made a melody line that was beautiful and legato.”
He reviewed the circumstances of Atkins’ life, from his early, unhappy childhood and his early exposure to music in his home and on the radio, to his ascendancy to a stature as the premier guitar player in the world. Keillor also reminisced about Atkins’ many wonderful personal qualities and quirks.
“He was an artist and there was not a bit of pretense in him,” Keillor added. “He never waved the flag,
he never held up the cross, he never traded on his own sorrows. He was the guitarist. His humor was
self-deprecating. He was always his own best critic. And he inspired all sorts of players who never played anything like him.”
One of Keillor’s best lines drew laughter from the mourners. “He knew stories about a lot of people in this room that are not in your press packets,” Keillor said.
Near the end of his eulogy, Keillor recalled that Atkins once speculated about the spiritual realm and eternity. “I believe that when I die I’ll probably go to Minnesota,” Atkins said in one of the letters Keillor read. “The last time I was up there it was freezing, and I remember smiling and my upper lip went up and didn’t come back down.”
Keillor also praised Atkins’ musical mastery.
“He was a great giant and maybe the greatest,” Keillor said, calling Atkins “the guitar player of the 20th century, the model of who you should be and what you should look like.”
Stuart invited the audience of more than a thousand to applaud for Atkins and Keillor, and they responded with an extended ovation. “It’s just incredible what he saw in people early on in their lives,” Stuart said. On mandolin, he played the Skeeter Davis hit, “End of the World,” produced originally by Atkins. Guitarist Casstevens and a small string section accompanied Stuart.
To close, Kevin King read a chapter from a new Atkins book, Just Me and My Guitars, in which Atkins seemed to offer a final word on his career. “The players come and go,” he wrote, “but the music lives on and eternity will take care of the rest.”
Following the service, a number of artists and friends filed by Atkins’ casket, among them the Browns, Ralph Emery, Porter Wagoner, Jack Greene, Bill Ivey, Harold Bradley, Charley Pride, Gill, Wariner, and Yandell, his guitar playing partner for 24 years. Then the silver casket was wheeled out the double doors at the rear of the Ryman.
Active pallbearers included Gary Atkins, Ray Stevens, Gill, David Conrad, Wariner, Jonathan Russell, Dr. Will Russell, Chad Sawyer, Yandell and Harry Warner. Interment followed the service at Harpeth Hills Cemetery on Highway 100 in Nashville.
“I thought it was very dignified and really lovely,” Keillor said after the service. “It was very
fitting for him. It didn’t go too long, and he would have been pleased with that. He didn’t believe
in long shows. He certainly was the star of it. All of the laughs were his laughs. I think he would have been pleased by that.”