Personalities | Chet Atkins | Mr Guitar | Guitar Heroes

As the first superstar instrumentalist to emerge from the modern Nashville recording scene, Chet Atkins (1924–2001) was a living legend for most of his life, but the Nashville-based guitarist was also a producer, engineer, label executive and A&R man without peer.

Chester Burton ‘Chet’ Atkins was born on in June 1924 in Luttrell, Tennessee. He started out on ukulele, later adopting fiddle, and traded his brother Lowell an old pistol for a guitar when he was nine. Self-taught, he became an accomplished guitarist while still in high school. Atkins heard Merle Travis on WLW Radio in 1939. He developed his legendary right-hand fingerpicking style – using his thumb for bass notes and three fingers for melody and harmonies – because he couldn’t believe Travis accomplished all he did with just his thumb and index finger.

After dropping out of high school in 1942, Atkins landed several jobs performing on radio and touring the South and Midwest with regional stars. He was sometimes fired because his increasingly sophisticated style was deemed ‘not country enough’. Atkins made his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in 1946 as a member of Red Foley’s band, but was soon back on the road with touring acts. In 1947 Atkins was signed by RCA, but his early recordings didn’t sell. He finally was able to settle down in Nashville as guitarist with Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters. He began doing more session work as a leader for RCA and finally had his first hit single in 1954 with ‘Mr. Sandman’. His albums became more popular, and he became a design consultant for Gretsch, who manufactured a popular Chet Atkins line of electric guitars from 1955–80.

When Atkins’ producer Steve Sholes took over pop production in 1957 (a result of his success with Elvis Presley), he put Atkins in charge of RCA’s Nashville division. With country music record sales slumping in the wake of rock’n’roll, Atkins and others eliminated fiddles and steel guitar from productions in an attempt to appeal to pop fans. The result became known as the Nashville sound, a label Atkins rejected and blamed on the media. But Atkins’ arrangements produced big hits for Jim Reeves (‘Four Walls’ and ‘He’ll Have To Go’) and Don Gibson (‘Oh Lonesome Me’ and ‘Blue Blue Day’). The country ‘crossover hit’ became more common.

Atkins himself recorded in a sophisticated home studio, where he spent much time creating unique musical and sonic ideas. His records and television appearances earned him the moniker Mister Guitar. By 1968 Atkins had become vice-president of RCA’s country division. He had brought Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Bobby Bare, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed and John Hartford to the label in the Sixties. In the mid-Sixties, he signed country music’s first African-American singer, Charley Pride, whose records helped to move country back to an earthier sound and away from the pop stylings Atkins had ushered in.

Atkins’ own biggest hit single...

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