Easy to carry, easy to play, and instantly recognizable, the guitar is a staple of almost every conceivable genre—classical, folk, blues, jazz, pop, and rock. Because it is both a rhythm and lead instrument, the mythology of the guitar celebrates both the everyman and the “guitar heroes” who play the instrument with exceptional skill. It would be impossible to chart the history of the guitar in Southern music in a single article, as the South has been home to many great guitarists. But some guitarists rise to legendary status, not just because they were skilled players, but because their playing changed the course of later music. In this series, we will explore the lives and work of four Southern guitarists who shaped the story of Southern music, creating traditions which other musicians across the world would follow.
When Chet Atkins was born, he was nothing but a poor country boy in Luttrell, Tennessee. When he died, he was regarded as one of the founding fathers of Music City. Atkins’ transition from country hick to sophisticated music executive mirrors the changes he made in music, moving country and western from its roots as raw “hillbilly” music to a more polished style that appealed to twentieth century suburban audiences.
Born in 1924, Chet Atkins began his musical career playing the ukelele and the fiddle; at age nine he allegedly traded a pistol for his first guitar. When Atkins was 11, he moved to his father’s farm in Georgia to treat his asthma (Atkins’ parents divorced when he was six). During his time in Georgia, he dedicated himself to learning guitar, practicing at school and even in his bed. He also experimented with musical equipment as a young person—he was an early adopter of guitar amplification and built his own pickup and amplifier for his guitar.
After he dropped out of high school, Atkins became a professional musician, working at radio stations and with country acts as a backup guitarist. Despite his talent, his time in the radio business was often not rewarding for him. His shy personality made him unpopular with fans and co-workers, and his musical blend of country and jazz was criticized as either too country for pop or too pop for country. Atkins’ career finally took off in the 1950’s when he signed a deal with RCA Victor and then moved to Nashville to work both as a solo artist and a session player. His jazz-infused playing breathed fresh air into country music, and he quickly rose from playing as a session guitarist to producing songs and albums.
His production work downplayed traditional country instruments such as steel guitars and fiddles and replaced them with strings, pianos, choirs, and a sophisticated pop sensibility. This new style became known as the Nashville Sound, and, depending on how you feel about it, was either a much-needed renaissance for country music or a desecration of the art form by cynical studio executives. Atkins himself described the Nashvilles Sound as “the sound of money.” As a producer and manager at RCA, Atkins signed or produced country legends such as Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Hank Snow, Jim Reeves, and Don Gibson. He was also responsible for RCA’s outbidding Columbia to sign a Memphis boy named Elvis. In addition to all this, he released many albums during the ’50’s and ’60’s, and had several instrumental hits, including his rendition of “Mr. Sandman,” and “Yakety Axe.”
Atkins stepped back from producing and executive work in the 1970’s but still continued to play music and record albums. Many of his albums are collaborations with other musicians, such as Les Paul, Suzy Boggus, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and Akins’ own hero Merle Travis. Atkins continued to play and record until his death in 2001. He told Music City News in 1996, “I’ll continue playing as long as people want to hear me, and when they don’t, I’ll put it all under the bed.” Atkins will always be remembered as the person who brought country music into the twentieth century, adding a new level of sophistication to the art form.
If Chet Atkins’ only accomplishment had been creating the Nashville Sound, he would still have changed the course of music. The Nashville Sound created a new group of country stars who blended country and pop and appealed to suburban audiences. It also paved the way for movements like Outlaw Country, New Traditionalism, and Alt-Country, which explicitly set themselves against whatever was popular in Nasvhille at the moment. The Nashville Sound, however, was just an extension of the Chet Atkins ethos. Atkins embodied clean sophistication in all his musical endeavors, not least in his guitar playing. He was a tight, precise, methodical guitarist, with tone that was as clear as a bell. If you listen to a Chet Atkins recording, you will notice that not a single note is out of place.
Atkins learned his style of fingerpicking from Merle Travis, who played separate lines with his forefinger and thumb. Because Atkins learned from listening to Travis’s recordings rather than watching Travis, he mistakenly played his parts with three fingers instead of two, adding a new level of complexity to “Travis picking.”
Although he had immense technical talent, Atkins knew both how to take center stage and how to play minimalist guitar parts that emphasized the singer rather than the guitarist. Forever experimenting, he built and modified guitars and recorded in a home studio when he wasn’t at the office. His fans include Mark Knopfler, Tommy Emmanuel, Jerry Reed, and even George Harrison, who wrote the liner notes to Atkins’ Beatles tribute album.
In Part Two, we’ll move from the smooth sophistication of the Nashville sound to the raw energy of early rock-and-roll when we look at Scotty Moore, Elvis’s first guitarist.
WATCH CHET ATKINS PERFORM “MR. SANDMAN,” 1954