With more than 35 million copies of his 75-plus original releases sold, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner Chet Atkins was one of the most successful guitarists in history; as a country music producer, he was largely responsible for the pop-oriented "Nashville Sound" of the '60s.
Raised in poverty, Atkins received musical training from his evangelical-singer father and an older half brother. He took up the guitar at age nine, and counted among his influences Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, and Merle Travis (Atkins' finger-picking style is a modification of Travis' technique). Beginning professionally in his teens playing fiddle for Archie Campbell, by the late '40s he had switched exclusively to guitar, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and recorded as a sessionman and a solo artist. In the late '50s he became vice president in charge of RCA's Nashville operations and as such was involved as both a player and producer in the development of Eddy Arnold, Perry Como, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison. Later he expanded country music's horizons by helping introduce black country singer Charley Pride and encouraging the "outlaw" movement of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
As a producer at RCA from 1957 through the mid-'70s, Atkins established the Nashville Sound, string-laden and embellished with pop-style backup choruses. Traditionalists balked, but Atkins insisted that the style, augmented by his use of innovative studio technique (echo, reverb, tremolo guitars), brought country music into the pop mainstream. Admired by such diverse musicians as Paul McCartney, Leo Kottke, Earl Klugh, and George Benson, Atkins' guitar style was characterized by versatility. He recorded 12 duet albums featuring the likes of Les Paul, Doc Watson, Jerry Reed, and Mark Knopfler. He also performed with sitar player Ravi Shankar, the Atlanta Symphony, and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. As designer of a series of Chet Atkins Signature Guitars, he consistently maintained an interest in the technical side of guitar-playing.
In 1973 Atkins became, at 49, the youngest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame; a year later, he released an autobiography, Country Gentleman, its title Atkins' longtime nickname (on his albums he bills himself "C.G.P." —"Certified Guitar Player," a title he coined). In the '80s, backing off from producing, the guitarist enjoyed a performing renaissance: He toured with folksy pundit Garrison Keillor and continued to put out critically acclaimed albums with other guitarists. In 1991, South Street, in the heart of Nashville's Music Row, was renamed Chet Atkins Place. And in 1997, he received the Century Award, Billboard's highest honor. Atkins died of cancer at age 77.
This biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).