Personalities | Chet Atkins | Nashville & Beyond | Country
One of modern country music’s most remarkable figures, Chester Burton Atkins born in Luttrell, Tennessee, rose from rural obscurity to become one of the world’s most celebrated guitarists and one of Nashville’s most influential record producers. Atkins’ musical vision did much to shape country music during the 1950s and 1960s.
Atkins was born on 20 June 1924, the son of a music teacher. He spent his early years in the Clinch Mountain foothills of East Tennessee. As a child, he was stricken with asthma, and when his parents separated it fell to him and his brother to keep the family afloat by working the small, hardscrabble farm that was their sustenance.
Atkins was given his first guitar by his stepfather and by the age of 10 he could already competently find his way around its fret board. He also taught himself to play fiddle. He was influenced extensively by his older half-brother, Jimmy Atkins, who would later play in legendary guitarist Les Paul’s backing trio. But young Chet’s life was forever changed one night in the late 1930s when he heard Merle Travis finger picking on WLW, a powerful radio station that broadcast from Cincinnati, Ohio. Atkins was mesmerized and would soon formulate and eventually perfect his own intricate finger-picking method.
After performing as a soloist and back-up musician on radio stations in Knoxville, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Ohio, Raleigh, North Carolina and elsewhere, Atkins’ big break came in 1947 when he was working at a station in Denver, Colorado. He got a call from producer Steve Sholes who, after hearing some transcription discs of Atkins’ guitar-playing, signed the young instrumentalist to RCA Records. Thus began Atkins’ long relationship with both Sholes and RCA – the label with which he was affiliated for 35 years.
Atkins And The Nashville Sound
Atkins made his debut recording for Nashville-based Bullet Records in 1946, and commenced his first solo recordings for RCA the following year. At that time he was still heavily steeped in the Merle Travis influence, but he gradually emerged with his own distinct style that encompassed elements of country, jazz, pop, rock and even flamenco.
In the late 1940s, he became the featured guitarist with Mother Maybelle And The Carter Sisters and began performing with them on The Grand Ole Opry in 1950. Soon, he was one of Nashville’s most sought-after session guitarists.
While making his own solo records, Atkins was also frequently called on to serve as Sholes’ Nashville assistant. By the early 1950s, he was leading and occasionally producing record sessions for an array of other RCA artists. By 1957, Atkins was overseeing the label’s entire Nashville operations. By the mid-1950s, he had begun expanding his guitar-playing technique to embrace elements of pop and jazz with his intricate finger-picking style. While recording adventurous solo releases, he continued to back bedrock country artists like Webb Pierce, Hank Williams and Mother Maybelle And The Carter Sisters in the studio.
As a producer, Atkins was one of...
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