Chet Atkins – Mr Guitar of The Nashville Sound

Chet Atkins – His Many Roles

Chet Atkins played many roles when it came to the music industry. Starting out as a guitarist, then a songwriter, shortly after a producer and talent scout. 

He has sold more than thirty-five million albums as a solo artist, won fifteen Grammy Awards and changed the course of country music and music in general as a producer only scratches the surface of his legacy.  

Furthermore, he changes the world of guitar by developing and elevating his own innovative style of playing.  Musicians that Atkins inspired are, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Tommy Emanuel, Doc Watson, Earl Klugh, Mark Knopfler and more. 

The Early Days in Tennessee

Hailing from Luttrell, Tennessee, he grew up from humble beginnings. While being raised by his mother, he starts out playing a ukulele later moving on to the fiddle and eventually trading an old pistol and some chores for a guitar.

Later, forced to relocate to Georgia, to live his father, because of his critical asthma condition, music became his obsession.  Because the asthma is so severe, he would sleep in an upright chair and fall asleep playing music. Something he continued to do for the rest of his life. Later he becomes an accomplished guitarist in high school. 

Introverted and shy, he would hang out in the boy’ s bathroom and play his guitar all day. Why? Because that’s where the best acoustics were.  His first guitar had a nail for a nut and was so bowed that only the first few frets could be used. But Chet learned how to play guitar from his brother and mostly by ear. 

After a certain time, He purchases a semi-acoustic electric guitar and amp. The only problem is that there was no electricity where he lived. So, he would walk into town with his equipment and would plug-in and play wherever he could.  

His Musical Style & Influences

At the time, even though he is able to hone his guitar playing, he didn’t have his own style developed yet until 1939.  He hears Merle Travis on the radio and suddenly he finds the path he wants to follow musically.  Whereas Travis’s right hand used his index finger for the melody and thumb for bass notes.

Atkins doesn’t want to imitate his style but instead expand on it by using his right-hand style to include picking with his first three fingers, with the thumb on bass. Others that also influenced him are Les Paul, Jerry Reed, George Barnes and Django Reinhardt mainly because they shaped him and inspired him creatively.

His Days in The Music Industry

Starting in the music industry, Chet Atkins works his way up from low playing radio gigs to a recording artist. Furthermore, as a noted record producer, becomes one of the most prolific record producers in history. While working on on Music Row in Nashville, Chet discovers and signs many talented artists as Vice President of RCA.  Later with the help of a few others, he ushers in the movement which later becomes known as the “Nashville Sound.” 

Some of these artists include Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and many others. During this time he connects with so many of these artists and fans a like mainly due to his humble and down to earth demeanor. 

The Nashville Sound

The Nashville sound originated during the mid 1950s as a sub genre of American country music. Furthermore, it replaces the rough honky tonk music that was constant on the airwaves in the 1940s and 1950s. This new genre had “smooth strings and choruses”, “sophisticated background vocals” and “smooth tempos”. 

Since a new genre called rock ‘n’ roll started taking over the airwaves, this was an attempt to revive country sales that devastated by the rise of rock ‘n’ roll.” And because of Chet Atkins, it was a success.  

Late Career Changes

In the 1970s although Atkins is still having a successful career working for RCA. During this time he becomes disenchanted with where his career is going.  In 1973, after being diagnosed with colon cancer he steps down from the label.  At the same time, he grows dissatisfied with the direction Gretsch (no longer family-owned) is going and withdraws his authorization for them to use his name and begins designing guitars with Gibson. He continues to perform and collaborate with other artists and musicians. 

Atkins continued performing in the 1990s, but his health declined after he was diagnosed again with colon cancer in 1996. He died on June 30, 2001, at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 77.  Furthermore, he left a legacy of music that any musician no matter what genre, can truly appreciate.

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