GUITARISTS WHO BECOME SUCCESSFUL IN country music often do so because they write great songs or can sing, or both. Either way, playing guitar often becomes secondary to their careers—at least in the eyes of their record company. Even a mega artist such as Steve Wariner, who has scores of number-one singles, tells of being flatly turned down by MCA when he wanted to make a purely guitar album.
“They said I could put one instrumental song on an album,” says Wariner. “I finally got Arista to let me make my first instrumental album, No More Mr. Nice Guy, but I had to beg and plead with them to let me do it. It’s important for me to be able to do instrumental music, though, because I look at myself as a guitarist first. I was a player before I was anything.”
Wariner eventually cut his ties with the big record companies and started his own Selec- Tone label. Now, Wariner was free to make the instrumental album he’d always wanted—a tour de force tribute to the man he calls his boss, producer, musical mentor, and friend—Steve Wariner C.G.P: My Tribute to Chet Atkins. This fabulous collection of mostly original songs spotlights the amazing fingerstyle talent that Wariner possesses, as well as his deep knowledge of Atkins’ signature guitar style. On this latter point it’s worth noting that of the other guitarists to which Atkins bestowed his “Certified Guitar Player” award (the list also includes Tommy Emmanuel, John Knowles, and Jerry Reed), Wariner is the only one to have been an official member of Atkins road band—a job he would keep until Atkins “fired” him after Wariner scored his first Top 10 hit.
How did you fall in with Chet Atkins?
I was working with Bob Luman, who had been a huge rockabilly star. We were in the studio doing on a comeback album for Bob, which his neighbor Johnny Cash was producing. I was playing bass then, and the guitarist on the session was Paul Yandell, who had been Chet’s right-hand guy for many years. He heard some of my songs, and he also heard me playing guitar, so he told me he wanted to take a tape of my songs to Chet. That’s how it started.
What happened after Atkins signed you to RCA?
We cut a few things together, but I wasn’t making any money. I was struggling pretty hard when Paul Yandell called me one day, and said, “Chet wants you to come on the road with us and play bass.” I think Chet knew it was hard times for me, and he needed a bass player. But it was wonderful, because in the middle of his show, Chet would take his Gretsch off and go, “Here Steve, come on over here and do a few songs for everybody.” Then, Chet would sit on a stool beside me with his hands folded watching me play.
Were you already pretty well schooled in his music?
I’d learned a lot of thumb style through my father. He still plays, and he’s 81 now. He had all of Chet’s albums. As a little kid I learned “Cannonball Rag,” and I started doing those finger rolls and open-string things. I was also watching James Burton with Ricky Nelson on the Ozzie and Harriet Show, and I wanted to do some string bending. I loved the thumb style, but I also liked rock and roll. I was kind of in the middle of both worlds, but when Jerry Reed came along, that was it for me.
How did Jerry Reed fit into the picture for you at that time?
I was trying to talk Chet into signing me, and he asked me to come down to RCA’s Studio B. When I got there, Jerry Reed was out in the studio. So Chet introduced me to Jerry, and then he asked me to play a song I’d written called “I’m Already Taken.” So I picked up Jerry’s gut-string Baldwin and played it for him. Man, I was a nervous wreck! I think Jerry must have known I was trying to get Chet to sign me, though, because when I finished he goes, “Damn, Chester, sign this boy. What do you want, blood?”
What were some of the signature elements of Atkins’ style that you wanted to incorporate into the songs you wrote for this album?
Chet had a way of structuring songs where he would start out playing straight thumb style, just doing the melody and playing the bass along with it. And he wouldn’t stray too far from the melody. Then, on the second or third go-around, he would start playing little chords underneath the melody—which I’ve always thought was kind of an Appalachian thing. So that’s the structure I used, for example, on “Leaving Luttrel.” At some point, Chet would put the pedal down, and play those fast arpeggios and stuff, and when your jaw had sufficiently dropped, he would go back to playing the thumb style again. Chet could play like he was getting paid by the note, but he had the restraint to not play real flashy just because he could. Another Chet-ism are the little harmonic things in “Leaving Luttrell.” Chet would play a real note, and then he would play a harmonic accompaniment with his pinky I think Chet liked that I had picked up on some of the signature licks—such as the backwards arpeggios and descending pulloffs he did back in his Galloping Guitar days.
How did you choose the musicians to record this album?
Everyone had to have either produced Chet, or played on a bunch of his records.
Did you record in a similar way to how Atkins worked in the studio?
Chet liked getting players in there and just letting them play, so we tried to cut things right on the fly. A whole lot of this album was recorded just as it went down. There are a few things that could have been fixed, but I didn’t want to stir the batter so much that the biscuits didn’t rise.
Did you use vintage recording gear for the sessions?
We recorded digitally, but we used vintage mics—I’ve got a beautiful old RCA 77 ribbon mic that I used a lot—and preamps and mixed to 1/2" analog tape. I tried to be true to how Chet would have recorded.
What guitars did you use?
On the first part of the record, I wanted to capture Chet’s early days—like his D’Angelico era when he recorded in Chicago, and his early days in Nashville in the ’50s. I didn’t have the luxury of using his guitar, but Paul Yandell let me borrow an Epiphone archtop that was tweaked and modified to be like a D’Angelico. One of the pickups on it was actually Chet’s. He had traded it to Paul many years ago, because his liked the pickup on Paul’s guitar better. So this guitar was tailor made for that era of Chet’s playing. I also used a Gibson Country Gentleman that Chet gave me—right from when he left Gretsch and went to Gibson. I used a Del Vecchio on “Silent Strings,” which is a Brazilian-made resonator guitar that’s synonymous with Chet’s sound. I originally cut “Blue Angel” with a Hascal Haile guitar that this old furniture maker in Kentucky made for me. But I did the song again on a Takamine classical guitar. My amp was a ’65 Fender Princeton that I’ve had for 30 years.
Since Atkins had owned your Country Gentleman, was there anything about its hardware or setup that was different than what you’re used to?
The Bigsby arm is locked so that you can’t swing it out of the way, because Chet liked to have the arm positioned so that his pinky lay right over the top of it. Chet’s hands were really large, so it’s not as easy for me to use the vibrato on the Country Gentleman. Still, that’s the guitar I played for the Brad Paisley project that we just won a Grammy on.
What’s the most unexpected thing you encountered when working with Chet Atkins?
Chet played on two songs on my first instrumental album, No More Mr. Nice Guy, and when we cut his tracks, he came out carrying a Stratocaster. I’m kind of faking a smile, thinking, “If I’m going to get Chet to play on my record, I want him play one of his guitars.” So I’m wondering how in the heck I’m going to tell Chet Atkins to put that Strat down and use his Gretsch or something. I didn’t have the nerve, but after he put down a couple of passes with the Strat, I finally asked him if he could try it on a different guitar—just for contrast. And he said, “Well, how about this Del Vecchio?” So it turned out fine, but I was getting schooled on producing that day.