With Chet Atkins Still on Its Mind, the Opry Mourns Johnny Russell

It was Johnny Russell ’s misfortune to die when Nashville’s engines of grief were still tolling the bells for his friend and mentor Chet Atkins. Russell died at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday (July 3) at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital, just as the leaders of country music were settling in for Atkins’ funeral service at the Ryman Auditorium across town. Here was an irony of timing the quick-witted Russell might have savored.

The local Tuesday evening newscasts also led with Atkins’ funeral, relegating Russell’s passing to second-tier notice. The same condition held at the Tuesday night edition of the Grand Ole Opry (taped Tuesday afternoon). Although Russell had been a popular member of the Opry cast since 1985 — and guest of honor at his own benefit concert held there earlier this year — much of the onstage commentary was still about Atkins.

There was no sense in any of this that Russell’s death or musical importance were being overtly minimized. Rather, it seemed that the loss of Atkins was so monumental and epoch-shifting to people on Music Row that it was impossible for them to turn their attention elsewhere. Both Russell and Atkins had been so seriously ill in recent months that neither man’s death came as a surprise.

Opry manager Pete Fisher jointly memorialized the two influential performers in his opening remarks, explaining that “[it] was Chet who first helped bring Johnny’s music to national prominence” by alerting Jim Reeves to Russell’s song “In a Mansion Stands My Love.” Reeves recorded it as the B-side to his classic “He’ll Have to Go.”

“Here on this stage,” Fisher said of Russell, “he shared his music, wit and love with audiences and fellow members alike for nearly 15 years. This afternoon we give thanks for the lives of our friends, Chet and Johnny, and for the friendship and music they shared … We hope you’ll celebrate their lives, music and laughter with us throughout the performance.”

Only a few of the artists on the two-hour show mentioned their fallen comrades, electing instead to honor them with their music. Jack Greene said at the outset of his segment that “It’s going to be a sad day.” Jim Ed Brown repeated Greene’s observation, calling Russell “one of the best friends I ever had.” He then saluted “the man who changed my life in many ways, Chet Atkins” by singing a medley of songs he and his sisters had recorded for RCA under Atkins guidance: “The Old Lamplighter,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” and “The Three Bells.”

Little Jimmy Dickens eulogized neither Russell nor Atkins by name, but he did end his program with a moving recitation about the seeming randomness of death. Ace guitarist Doyle Dykes closed the show. “We want to honor the chief today,” he said. “We’ve lost a good one, Mr. Chet Atkins.” He spoke of his artistic debt to Atkins and reflected on the times he had shared the stage with him.

In tribute, Dykes launched into a dazzling display of finger-picking that led him through such Atkins favorites as “Freight Train,” “Limehouse Blues” and “Lover Come Back To Me.” He reserved his final tune, “How Great Thou Art,” for Russell, however, noting that the portly star always asked him to play that song when he appeared on his portion of the Opry. Dykes delivered the gospel chestnut with such flair and Wagnerian intensity that it brought the audience to its feet.

The Opry’s newest member, Brad Paisley, did not perform on the Thursday show. But in an interview he did earlier, he recalled his first and last meetings with Russell. “[The first time,] he came into my dressing room, and my mom and dad were in there. I’m sitting in a chair, and I instantly got up. He said, ’That’s good. That’s good you got up.’ At the time, I’m thinking, ’Is this guy serious?’ He said, ’Where’s your record at?’ And I said, ’Oh, it’s at [No.] 35, I think, this week.’ He said, ’OK, you continue to do that. You get out of that seat every time I come in here until it hits No. 1, and then you don’t have to’ … He had the best sense of humor I ever encountered.”

Russell kept his sense of humor until the end, Paisley said. “They had already given him just a certain amount of time [to live], and I knew I would not make it back to see him again. It could have been a very deep and heartfelt moment . . . I walked in, and I said, ’Hey, Johnny,’ and he opened his eyes and said, ’When are you gonna cut one of my songs?'”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.