Sideman. Studio musician. Performer. Recording Artist. Producer. Record Executive. In an industry known for multi-talented individuals, perhaps no one has achieved such a vast and varied resume as the inimitable Chet Atkins. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will pay tribute to this versatile and visionary artist with the cameo exhibition Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player, which opens in the Museum’s East Gallery on August 11, 2011, and runs through June 2012. The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Gretsch Company. Additional support will be provided by Great American Country Television Network.
“Chet Atkins was country music’s ultimate Renaissance man, one of the greatest instrumentalists in American music history and a true musical savant,” said Museum Director Kyle Young. “His signature guitar licks shaped recordings by scores of legendary artists, including the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley and Kitty Wells, and his playing influenced future rock gods Duane Eddy, George Harrison, Mark Knopfler and many more. As a producer, Chet was an architect of the ‘Nashville Sound’; he was also a brilliant record executive who signed and propelled a generation of country artists – including Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Charley Pride – to fame. Chet’s guiding hand shaped much of the bedrock of country music, and we’re honored to tell his story, one we know will resonate with country fans old and new.
“We’re also honored to have the Gretsch Company as this exhibition’s title sponsor,” Young continued. “Gretsch is an important part of American music history, and enjoyed a longstanding relationship with Chet.”
“My uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., first signed Chet as a Gretsch signature guitar artist in 1954,” said Fred W. Gretsch, president of the Gretsch Company. “Our company is proud of its long association with Chet, and our family cherishes the special relationship that we shared with such a unique individual. Today, we’re proud to support this special exhibition by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We share the Museum’s commitment to ensuring that Chet’s unrivaled legacy will continue to be celebrated for generations to come.”
Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, in Luttrell, Tennessee, a remote town nestled in the hills of Appalachia. He grew up in a musical family – his mother sang and played piano, and his father was an itinerant music teacher – and at the age of eight Atkins began to learn the guitar and fiddle. When Atkins’ parents divorced, his father relocated to Georgia, and his mother remarried. Young Chester, along with his brother, sister and stepfather, began playing regularly at square dances. In 1936, an asthma attack forced him to live with his father in Georgia, where the more favorable climate made it easier for him to breathe. While there, a teenaged Atkins heard Merle Travis on the radio; Travis’s thumb-and-finger picking style fascinated Atkins, who soon created his own thumb-and-two-finger variation.
After attending high school in Georgia, Atkins landed a job at WNOX in Knoxville, fiddling for singer Bill Carlisle and comic Archie Campbell. He soon became a featured player on the station’s popular daily barn dance show, as well. Over the next decade, Atkins worked as a musician for numerous artists and radio stations, including a memorable stint at KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. It was there that station official Si Siman gave him the nickname “Chet.” Siman, impressed with Atkins’ abilities, brought him to the attention of RCA Victor Records, and in 1947 the label’s Steve Sholes signed Atkins as a singer and guitarist. Chet’s initial RCA recordings were not hits, and he returned to WNOX in 1948, working first with Homer & Jethro and then joining Maybelle and the Carter Sisters as lead guitarist. He soon went back to KWTO, this time with the Carters.
When the Carters moved to Nashville in 1950 to become members of the Grand Ole Opry, Atkins joined them. With the help of his mentor, Steve Sholes, and music executive Fred Rose, Chet became one of Nashville’s “A-Team” session musicians, recording with Johnnie & Jack, Hank Williams and others. He also appeared on the Opry as a solo act and returned to making his own records; his first chart hit, a cover of the pop song “Mr. Sandman,” came in 1955, followed by a hit guitar duet with Hank Snow on “Silver Bell.” Soon after, fans began to refer to Atkins as “Mr. Guitar,” and Gretsch Guitars introduced a model bearing his name.
Throughout the 1950s, Atkins’ work relationship with the New York–based Sholes deepened; in 1952, Atkins began organizing sessions for Sholes, and shortly thereafter Sholes began trusting Atkins to produce sessions whenever Sholes’ schedule prevented his coming to Nashville. In 1955, Sholes made Atkins manager of RCA’s new Nashville studio, a space rented as needed from the Methodist Television Radio and Film Commission. Two years later, Sholes and Atkins convinced the label to commission its own office and studio in Nashville. The resulting building, known today as RCA Studio B, opened in November 1957, adding impetus to the growing Music Row area. Sholes installed Atkins as head of the label’s Nashville artist & repertoire operation, and ten years later made him a company vice president.
As rock & roll eroded country music’s record sales and threatened its viability, Atkins’ production skills came to the foreground. Atkins – along with Decca’s Owen Bradley, Columbia’s Don Law and Capitol’s Ken Nelson – began to craft recordings that would appeal to pop listeners as well as country fans. The style of these recordings, in which singers were backed by neutral rhythm sections and steel guitars, and fiddles were replaced by vocal choruses, came to be known as the “Nashville Sound.” Atkins mined gold from the new approach immediately, first producing Jim Reeves’ 1957 crossover hit “Four Walls” and, later that year, producing Don Gibson’s 1958 double-sided smash “Oh Lonesome Me” / “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Atkins assumed production of established stars, including Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Hank Snow, and produced hits by new stars including Bobby Bare, the Browns, Floyd Cramer, Skeeter Davis, Dottie West and many more.
During the 1960s, Atkins continued to record and perform: Always a jazz lover, he increasingly explored the genre in his performances and appeared at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival; he also played for President Kennedy the following year.
By the middle of the decade, Atkins was producing more than two dozen acts for RCA. During this time, he signed a cadre of now-legendary country artists, including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed and Connie Smith.
As the 1970s dawned, Atkins reduced his producing commitments and focused more on his own recordings and live performances. He embarked on a series of collaborative albums, working with Les Paul, Jerry Reed, Merle Travis, Doc Watson and others. However, he still found time to facilitate additions to the RCA roster, including Ronnie Milsap, Ray Stevens and Steve Wariner.
Atkins’ virtuosity was undeniable, and his mantle quickly filled with the hardware to prove it. In 1973, Atkins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He went on to earn 14 Grammy awards and nine Country Music Association awards during his career.
In 1982, Atkins relinquished his RCA executive role and left the label to record for Columbia in 1983. He also gave himself an honorary degree: Atkins christened himself a “Certified Guitar Player” and began signing his name as “Chet Atkins, C.G.P.” Atkins would later bestow this “degree” on several legatees, including Jerry Reed and Steve Wariner.
For the remainder of his life, Atkins continued to record and play; he collaborated on albums with George Benson, Suzy Bogguss, Mark Knopfler, Mark O’Connor and others, exploring and expanding the boundaries of country, jazz and pop. In 1993, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Atkins died on June 30, 2001. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year.
Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player will be accompanied by an ongoing series of programs throughout the exhibit’s duration.
More information about the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is available at www.countrymusichalloffame.org.