He started life as a shy, introverted boy from East Tennessee, playing his guitar in the men’s room at school because it sounded best there, but Chet Atkins would go on to become the most famous guitarist in country music history.
Chet Atkins: A Life In Music, a TNN special airing Saturday, Sept. 16 (10 p.m. ET/PT) tells Atkins’ story in an intimate portrait incorporating archival interviews with Atkins himself, testimonials from fellow artists, dozens of historic photos and performance clips from vintage TV shows.
“We lived way out in the sticks, over there about four miles from school,” Atkins says early in the hour. “So that’s the reason I play like I do. I didn’t have anybody to play with.”
That would all change, of course. Eventually, guitarists of every ilk beat a path to Nashville, to hear and see the great man play in his inimitable thumb-and-two-finger style.
Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler, an Atkins acolyte whose duet recordings with him have included the Grammy-winning tracks “Cosmic Square Dance,” “Poor Boy Blues” and “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” understands that Atkins’ early days shaped him in important ways.
“He was telling me about going to school as a little boy in the freezing cold — walking to school — and not having a coat,” Knopfler recalls in the special. “And I remember that his eyes kind of misted over a little bit. And it reminds you of the grinding poverty that Chet came from.”
Jazz great George Benson, Willie Nelson, Peter Frampton, Les Paul, Dolly Parton, Eddy Arnold, Don Everly, June Carter Cash and many others reminisce about their experiences with Atkins, as a guitarist and a record producer, and the effect he had on their careers.
In all, Atkins has won 14 Grammy Awards and nine Country Music Association Awards. He joined the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, and he won the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1982. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.
Atkins ranks as one of the most popular and recorded sidemen in history. His credits include such classics as Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Jambalaya” and Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog.”
His unique style also influenced a generation of rock and pop guitarists, among them George Harrison, Duane Eddy, The Ventures, Eddie Cochran, and Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and The Guess Who.
Knopfler talks about spending endless hours trying to learn Atkins’ licks on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye, Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie.” “He made it seem so effortless,” Knopfler says, “but there was often something very difficult going on.”
The cable special also includes testimonials from some of the many artists whose careers Atkins guided as a talented record producer and head of RCA Records. Among the artists on his company’s roster were Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Dottie West, Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed, Charley Pride and Waylon Jennings.
“He was one of the best producers you’ll ever meet in the whole world — if not the best,” Jennings says during an interview.
Among the interesting and little-known facts recalled in the special is that Atkins’ guitar-playing half-brother, Jimmy, 12 years his senior, played with Les Paul and told Paul about Chet. Paul, a pioneer of the electric guitar, passed along a discarded instrument at a bargain price. Later, “Chester and Lester” would collaborate on a Grammy-winning album. “It far exceeds anything I’ve made with anybody,” Paul feels. “It lives forever.”
In tracing Atkins’ career, the special recalls his signing with RCA in 1947, his move to Nashville in 1950 and his work with music publisher Fred Rose and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. June Carter Cash witnessed Atkins’ rapid ascent with RCA from musician to producer and then record executive under the tutelage of RCA executive Steve Sholes. “Steve Sholes wanted him to be bigger and better than Luttrell, Tennessee,” she says.
Arnold recalls first meeting Atkins in New York when Sholes assigned Atkins to produce a recording session for Arnold. “He could get along with artists, and that’s a talent unto itself,” Arnold states.
When the rock ‘n’ roll and pop explosion of the ’50s and ’60s threatened to leave country music in the dust, Atkins and other producers working in Nashville developed the lushly orchestrated Nashville Sound, a style more suited to the growing pop market. With customary modesty, Atkins says, “I was just trying to make a record that would sell and that disc jockeys would play. I never thought about ‘let’s make a pop record,’ or ‘let’s make a folk record.’”
One of his most historic contributions to the history of country music came while Atkins was a record company executive. He recruited and signed Charley Pride during an era of racial segregation. Pride, who would go on to join Atkins in the Country Music Hall of Fame, expresses deep gratitude for Atkins’ help. “Although I was born and raised in Mississippi, I didn’t realize the things that he would have to go through with this ‘permanent tan’ I have,” Pride says. “That’s why I’ll never forget, and I’ll never stop loving Chet Atkins.”
Atkins first heard a tape of Parton when she was 11 years old. He recalls his first reaction: “Hell, she’s got to get an education.” Atkins encouraged Parton to go back home to East Tennessee, which she reluctantly did. She never forgot her East Tennessee hero, “He was the first person I looked up when I moved to Nashville in ’64.”
An interesting edit juxtaposes Jennings, legendary songwriter Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson and Atkins recalling the studio clashes between Atkins and strong-willed Jennings. “Me trying to get that freedom and everything made it rough on Chet and made it rough on everybody around,” Jennings admits. “I think they thought I wanted something else — just power, or that I was out to destroy something. Actually, I was out to survive.”
Ultimately, being a record executive didn’t agree with Atkins. Dealing with creative artists and their passionate dreams day after day was draining, he recalls. “They start looking at you like their father and mentor, and advisor and all that, and it’s a terrific amount of stress that we used to have to go through — A&R men. And I just decided to get out of it. I couldn’t do it anymore.” In 1982 Atkins resigned as RCA/Nashville chief. In 1983 he began a stellar recording career on Columbia Records.
Suzy Bogguss, sporting an ’80s-era perm, got her first introduction to Atkins on TNN’s Nashville Now. She began to open for him on the road and a lasting friendship developed. They later collaborated on an album, Read My Licks. Bogguss offers some insight into Atkins’ untiring optimism and the courage that in recent years has pulled him through brain surgery, to remove a cancerous tumor, and radiation therapy. “He has taught me to be a forward thinker,” Bogguss says. “Even though this business can dash you against the rocks, there’s always this hope that I’m going to hit another lick. He’s looking forward to the next lick he’s going to hit.”
With invaluable archival footage and photos, and an occasional opportunity to see Atkins himself at work, Chet Atkins: A Life in Music hits its share of good licks. Atkins has led an extraordinary life. The special makes clear that generations of pickers who come after him will hit more good licks, thanks to his incredible talent and his generosity in sharing it.