Chet Atkins, known as Mr. Guitar, died on Saturday morning (June 30th) at his home in Nashville at age seventy-seven, after battling cancer for several years. Like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie, Waylon and the boys, Atkins altered the physical characteristics of country music, creating one of its most definable eras. One of the finest guitarists of the past 100 years and a producer with a distinctive vision, Atkins, for better or worse, fused country and pop together in a manner which spread the former into the reaches of America it had previously been unable to break.
Born Chester Burton Atkins on June 20, 1924 in Luttrell, a small town in East Tennessee, Atkins was raised in a musical family and was initially directed towards the fiddle. But upon hearing guitar genius Merle Travis, Atkins gave up the fiddle for the six-string, trying to learn Travis’ inimitable finger-picking style, and ultimately developing his own three-finger style.
He found sporadic work, both on guitar and fiddle through the mid-Forties, before landing a gig with Red Foley, who gave him his first chance to play the Grand Ole Opry, where he would later become a mainstay. By 1946, Atkins made his first recordings (for Bullet Records) and a year later he signed a contract with RCA. By the early Fifties, he was one of the most prolific session men in Nashville, playing with Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Faron Young, the Louvin Brothers, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells and numerous others.
Atkins also began to oversee album production in Music City, and became a studio manager for RCA in 1957. As country music began to display a broader national sales muscle, Atkins became a primary catalyst in the creation of the Nashville Sound, excising some of the genre’s rural attributes and adding strings and background vocal ensembles. The result was a fork in the road for country music listeners; purists found the lush, pop sensibility tainted, but the genre found more stars for a bigger, broader audience.
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His relationship with RCA ran through the Seventies and included work with a number of artists who helped define mainstream country through those years, including Don Gibson and Charlie Pride. Atkins’ production work was so influential that it provided the basic sketch the sounds developed by other producers, most notably Billy Sherrill, who recorded George Jones and Tammy Wynette during the height of their popularity. Atkins jumped ship in the early Eighties when RCA balked at his desire to record a jazz-tinged album. Subsequently Work It Out With Chet Atkins was released in 1983 on Columbia. Atkins also recorded vibrant collaborations with Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler (1990’s Neck and Neck) and former disciple Jerry Reed (1991’s Sneakin’ Around). His last release was The Day the Finger Pickers Took Over the World, an inspired collaboration with Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel in 1997, one year before he took a leave from live performing due to his illness.
Atkins is the country artist most awarded by the Recording Academy. Between his first award in 1967 and 1996 when Jam Man won for Best Country Instrumental Performance, Atkins won a total of fourteen Grammys in addition to a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973.