Chet Atkins, who already has a city street and a citywide musical festival that bears his name in Nashville, now has a life-size bronze statue that honors him in his hometown.
The sculpture of Guitar Town’s top string slinger was unveiled Wednesday morning in downtown Nashville. Bank of America, who commissioned the project, hosted a reception inside its atrium and the statue was then unveiled just outside the building, already ensconced in its permanent home at the corner of Fifth Avenue North and Union Street.
“This is a wonderful statue and I think it looks a lot like me, too,” Atkins said once the sculpture was revealed. “I think folks will tell me that in the years to come.”
The sculpture features an empty stool next to the statue of Ol’ Chester so that people can sit down and make believe they’re trading guitar licks with the world-famous instrumentalist.
Known as “Mr. Guitar,” Atkins’ contribution to music goes way beyond his mastery of his instrument.
As a record company executive, Atkins had a knack for spotting young talent, nurturing the careers of Charley Pride, Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Don Gibson, Connie Smith and others.
As a producer, Atkins — along with Owen Bradley and others — was instrumental in creating the “Nashville Sound” of the late 1950s and ’60s. It was a sound that broadened the market for country records, and subsequently helped the country music industry persevere during the onslaught of rock ’n’ roll.
Presiding over the ceremony, Vince Gill spoke of the “gentleness and kindness and passion” he enjoys when he hears Atkins play the guitar. Gill also said Atkins was certainly deserving of the statue: “It all speaks for itself if you just look around the room and see the lives that Chet Atkins has touched.”
Suzy Bogguss performed “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” the same song she played on a TNN special where she was introduced to Atkins. Bobby Bare sang his classic “Detroit City,” which he recorded for RCA in 1963 when Atkins was a producer and executive at the label. Charley Pride, whom Atkins signed in 1965, delivered a cover of Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go,” another RCA classic.
Eddy Arnold — who, like Atkins, is a longtime member of the Country Music Hall of Fame — thanked the guest of honor for producing many of his hits, specifically naming the 1965 chart-topper “Make the World Go Away.” Arnold, quite choked up, also encouraged those in attendance to hunt down a relatively obscure recording of “Cold, Cold Heart” that Atkins made with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, citing it as “the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell spoke of the great contributions Atkins has made to Music City since the East Tennessee native settled down in Nashville 50 years ago. “Chet Atkins has done everything,” he said, “but what makes him unique is that he did everything first, everything best and everything here, for which we owe him thanks.”
Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist perhaps summed up the festivities best, claiming “You couldn’t build a life-size statue of Chet Atkins this building could hold because Chet is larger than life.”
Among those on hand for the unveiling were Country Music Hall of Famer Kitty Wells, Johnnie Wright, Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle, Amy Grant, Ralph Emery, Lee Greenwood, Ray Stevens, George “Goober” Lindsey and songwriting great John D. Loudermilk. Also present were Atkins’ wife, Leona, and his daughter, Merle. Many Music Row studio musicians, songwriters and executives were there to honor Atkins, too.
Bank of America commissioned Tennessee-based sculptor Russell Faxon to create the statue in support of the Downtown Partnership’s Avenue of the Arts initiative, the development of Fifth Avenue from the Bicentennial Mall to the new Country Music Hall of Fame as a concentrated area of visual and performing arts.
“I hope they continue this [project] and put other artists on this street,” Atkins said during the close of the ceremony. “I’m so glad you’re all here, and I’ll come out to your outing if they hold one sometime.”