Of course, there are the guitars. Among his countless accolades is the nickname of “Mr. Guitar,” so the instruments are at the center of Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player, a biographical exhibit that recently opened at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
When longtime friend Steve Wariner first visited the exhibit, though, he was immediately drawn to a workbench cluttered with tools, guitar pickups, vacuum tubes, a jar filled with pens and pencils and an array of unlikely items, including a badminton birdie and a quart of Quaker State motor oil. He’d seen the bench many times before in Atkins’ home recording studio.
“I spent so much time down there in his studio, when I walked into the exhibit and saw that, it hit me really hard,” Wariner tells CMT.com. “He had converted his basement into a studio. Later, he built a little drum booth, but during the early, early days, he had a recording room with a glass window. Then when you walked into the control room, on one side looking through the glass, he had his console with speakers and his rack of outboard gear. Then back in the corner in the other side of the same room, he had the workbench. That was his man cave down there.”
The exhibit, which runs through June 11, 2012, showcases Atkins’ career as a world-renowned musician, producer and record executive, but it also captures the essence of an average guy who loved experimenting and tinkering with instruments.
“I remember once when I brought in a Baldwin classical electric guitar in that I’d left in my car,” Wariner said. “The bridge had come apart and was coming unglued. I told Chet, ’Man, my guitar’s all messed up.’ He said, ’Bring it in.’ He brought it over to his workbench. There were pictures of Jerry Reed and Ray Stevens — the ones you see in the exhibit. He laid it up on his workbench and just started taking a file and began sanding. And I’m thinking, ’Now I’ve got a Hall of Fame producer, guitar player — the master guitarist — working on my guitar. How much is this going to cost?’
“Unless you knew him, you wouldn’t know it, but he loved electronics. Many times I was with him down on Music Row having lunch. I’d be riding with him and he’d say, ’I’ve got to make a couple of stops.’ So he’d go to Electra, an electronics store that used to be on Broadway, and Randolph & Rice, which is still there right off of Division Street. You go in there, and it’s all tubes and wires and cables. It’s just a geek’s place. I was a kid, but I was astounded that Chet would walk in these places, and they weren’t impressed. They would say, ’Hey, Chet.’ And he’d say, ’Hey, Bill. I came to pick up my 6L6s.’ And they’d hand him a pack of tubes, and he’d take them home with him.”
Wariner had not seen many of the exhibit’s guitars and other artifacts since Atkins died in 2001.
“It really hit me with a flood of emotions and memories,” Wariner said. “The workbench looked just like I remembered. They hit it dead on. They did a great job, the Hall of Fame. I saw Chet’s old slot machine. I lost a lot of money in that machine, man. I used to play it between takes and when we were just hanging out.”
While he was still a teenager, Wariner was playing bass in Dottie West’s band when he first met Atkins during a concert in London. With some help from Paul Yandell, Atkins’ accompanying guitarist and bandleader, he eventually got a record deal at RCA, where Atkins was head of the label’s Nashville division.
“The actual thought of working with Chet was intimidating, but that’s who I wanted to work with,” Wariner said. “I really wanted to be with him because I admired him so much and loved his playing. When Chet was talking about signing me to RCA, I was assuming he would produce me, but he came up with the thought of maybe someone else producing me. I found out later he was wanting to start stepping away from producing and other duties.”
During his tenure at RCA, Wariner charted more than a dozen singles, hitting No. 1 in 1981 with “All Roads Lead to You.” While waiting for his career to take off, he worked as the bassist in Atkins’ touring band.
Coinciding with the exhibit, the museum has published a 96-page book, also titled Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player, that includes photos and personal correspondence. Particularly insightful are the letters exchanged between singer Hank Snow, an RCA recording artist, and Atkins, who served as his producer. After Snow complained of the musical direction his records were taking, Atkins wrote back as head of the label and noted, “Hank, I do want to emphasize to you that you very much need advice and guidance in your records. You are no exception. So do I. When one thinks about himself, he sees just what he wants to see and leaves the public and other people out.”
Although cordial in tone, the letter demonstrates Atkins’ business persona in a way that most people never experienced.
“Chet was mild and easygoing, but if you struck a little thing with him, he didn’t have a problem laying it down with you when it came to business,” Wariner acknowledged.
The guitars on display range from Atkins’ first guitar, a modest Sears Silvertone he acquired at age 11, to the iconic Gretsch and Gibson signature instruments he used during the height of his career. More obscure models include an archtop acoustic constructed for Atkins by John D’Angelico, one of the most important guitar builders of the 20th century.
“I know those guitars in the exhibit because I used to play them,” Wariner said. “I remember that D’Angelico. Again, the tinkerer in Chet, he put pickups in it, and the guitar wasn’t made for that. Mr. D’Angelico made that guitar for Chet in New York. Then Chet took it and sawed it up and put pickups in it. Later, when Chet was older, he went back and had it restored and had the pickups taken out.”
While most musicians have a deep respect for valuable instruments, they’re essentially tools.
“That’s what Chet used to say,” Wariner recalled. “I heard somebody ask Jerry Reed once, ’What did you play on “Amos Moses”? What did you play on this?’ They were just wearing him out. Jerry finally turned around and goes, ’It’s just wood and strings. I don’t know.’ And Chet was a lot like that, too. Honestly, Chet could pick up the junkiest guitar in the room and play it, and you’d go, ’Holy cow! Listen to that!’ It was his hands.
“The thing about Chet, to me, is the many things he was great at. You know he’s a master guitarist. The best. Arguably the best ever, technique-wise. But he was a great producer and record executive. I loved that Chet had so many areas he was great at. I guess the time is different, but I don’t think there will ever be another one like that.”View photos from the exhibit. Find out more about events at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.