Steve Wariner Talks About His Grammy-Nominated Tribute to Chet Atkins

He's Also Honored in Nashville for His Songwriting Accomplishments

Between a recent Grammy nomination and special recognition for his accomplishments as a songwriter, Steve Wariner has plenty to celebrate these days.

BMI, a performance rights organization, recognized his songwriting achievements Tuesday (Dec. 15) during a luncheon at a Nashville restaurant. He has now earned 15 BMI Million-Air awards signifying more than 15 million radio spins of songs he has written or co-written. Among them are 2 million plays of his 1998 hit, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” and another 2 million spins for Keith Urban‘s “Where the Blacktop Ends.” Additionally, Wariner and Clint Black co-wrote Black’s No. 1 single “Nothin’ but the Taillights,” which has now generated more than 3 million plays.

During the luncheon, Wariner noted that most people think of him more as a singer and guitarist than a songwriter. And while his Grammy nomination stems from an album that includes some of his original compositions, the very nature of the project will inevitably add to his reputation as one of Nashville’s most respected guitarists.

“Producer’s Medley,” from Steve Wariner, c.g.p., My Tribute to Chet Atkins, is nominated for a Grammy for best country instrumental performance. Wariner didn’t write any of the songs in the medley, but it’s one of his favorite tracks on the mostly-instrumental album he recorded for his own SelecTone Records label. The medley is fashioned from a segment Wariner helped perform nightly in the late ’70s when he worked as the bassist in Atkins’ touring band.

“When I toured with Chet, he would talk to the audience and say, ‘You know, folks, I’d get lucky every now and then. I’d be with some great artists in the studio, and some great songs would come across my desk,’” Wariner told CMT.com during a recent interview at his studio. “He never would add, ‘And I’m a great producer.’ But he’d say, ‘Every once in a while, we made some hits. And here’s some of those songs.’”

“Producer’s Medley” represents classic recordings Atkins produced, including “And I Love You So” by Perry Como, “Welcome to My World” by Jim Reeves, “The Three Bells” by the Browns, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” by Don Gibson, “Java” by Al Hirt, “Let It Be Me” by the Everly Brothers, “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” by Jerry Reed.

After doing some research for the tribute album, Wariner was surprised to discover that Atkins had only played the medley during his live performances.

“It wasn’t on any record anywhere, and he made a hundred and something albums,” he said. “I found a live TV show he did on TNN [The Nashville Network] and had that to go by. Then I also had the musical charts still in my bass case from when I worked with him. They’re still there now. I’ve got all my charts from the symphony dates, so I sort of tweaked it and rearranged it a little bit. … I thought I had to do it. It shows a great body of work — and he left out ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ He co-produced that.”

During his tenure as head of RCA Records’ Nashville division, Atkins signed Wariner to his first recording contract, and they remained friends ever since. The tribute album had been on Wariner’s mind ever since Atkins died in 2001.

“I had just gotten to New York City when we got word he had passed away,” Wariner recalls. “We had already checked into the hotel. We just checked right back out and came home. Since then, I’ve been wanting to do some kind of tribute to him, but it took a long time to figure out how to do it. What’s the point of just doing his songs halfway as well as he did them? That’s why I had to find another way to do it. For me, it was through songwriting.”

Wariner came up with the idea to write songs that represented a timeline from each era of Atkins career.

“What I wanted to do was not only capture that era, but also to then try to do the styles,” he said. “Chet’s style evolved. In his early days, he played more like Merle Travis, in my opinion. Then fast forward to the ’80s when he played that light jazz with Earl Klugh and Larry Carlton. In between, he played more of the folk songs, like ‘John Henry.’”

During their lengthy friendship, Wariner learned a lot from Atkins, but those lessons often stemmed from merely observing his mentor.

“With Chet, I realized how much he revered the melodies of songs,” he said. “It was always about the melody. He’s like a baseball pitcher in a lot of ways, to me. When he wanted to, he could bring the heat. But he’d start out with a song that had a beautiful melody, and he would play that melody.” He laughed, adding, “What a concept: a great melody — and he plays it.

“Nowadays, guitar players play everything they know. You hardly even recognize the melody. A lot of people do that, and it bugs me. Chet used to laugh and say, ‘They’re getting paid by the note.’ He would play the melody. The second go-around, he’d embellish it a little bit. Then he’d freestyle later. It was just brilliant. So what I learned, more than anything, was to play the melody and how to build a song. It’s all about taste.”

At the end of the tribute album, there’s a short segment from a cassette recorded on a boom box Atkins kept on the patio of his office on Music Row. It was recorded one day when Wariner happened to stop by the office while Atkins was informally recording several classic songs to send to Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion.

“On this tape I put on my album, I had messed up a lyric on one of those old songs,” Wariner says. “Chet would bust your chops. He’d say, ‘Yeah, Steve, you messed up on that.’ I’d look at him and say, ‘Oh, sorry, Chet. I don’t know every song that’s 150 years old like you do.’

“If you didn’t know every song known to man, he would bust you for it. And he knew them. He would name songs from the ’30s and knew every word of them. I heard him once backstage when he sang ‘On Top of Old Smokey’ — and he sang every verse. And there’s like a thousand verses to it. I’m like, ‘How does he know all that and remember it all?’ What a wealth of knowledge. He knew every song. Show tunes, pop standards, big band, Hawaiian music, you name it.”

Atkins’ work ethic and sense of adventure also inspired Wariner.

“He always wanted to learn,” he said. “Even in his later years, I’d go to his office, and he’d be working on a guitar lick, and he’d say, ‘Man, check this out.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Here’s Chet Atkins. He’s sixty-something and he’s still excited about a lick.’”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.