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CHET ATKINSRARE PERFORMANCES 1955-1975
You keep layin that thumb in there, son, and youll be alright. Uncle Dave Macons advice to Chet Atkins
Whenever I hear the early solo recordings of ChetAtkins, I think of Jones s Trading Post. It was a radio swapmeet where everything from old appliances to breedingstock was bartered on KRHD, a country radio station inmy hometown of Duncan, Oklahoma. Sponsored by a localgrocery store, Jones s Trading Post aired weekday morn-ings and was the preschool breakfast soundtrack in myfamilys kitchen. The music bed under the announceroffering us neighbors old lawn mowers and newbornpuppies was the buoyant thumb and dexterous fingers ofChet Atkins. No doubt Chets friendly home and hearthguitar style added to the folksiness of the Trading Post andhelped move its merchandise. It was some years later,
Photo courtesy C
het Atkins C
when I discovered Chets early recordings, that I experi-enced deja vu. Id been hearing classic Chet since earlygrade school, and no doubt the subliminal presence of hismusic every weekday morning for a decade had an impacton my later ardor for fingerstyle guitar.
Im sure my experience isnt unique. Many guitarenthusiasts have doubtless found an old friend in Chet,thanks to the widespread unauthorized use of his record-ings in ways which once wove him deep into the auralfabric of rural and small town American life. In the 1950sand 1960s, Chets guitar was a ubiquitous sound on localradio and television advertising across the South, South-west and Midwest. No doubt Chet wishes he could recoupmechanicals (broadcast performance fees) for all thoseunlicensed plays. In his autobiography, Country Gentleman(with Bill Neely, 1975, Ballantine Books, New York), Chetrecalled: My record of Galloping Guitar, which wasrecorded in 1947, was used for years as a theme song by alot of DJs. The same was true with my record of MainStreet Breakdown. It had a lot of notes and fast runs, andDJs apparently loved it.
So, too, did lots of listeners to country radio. It was,in many respects, the medium which mattered most toChet, a child of the era when radio was rural Americasmagic link to the larger world and the one which launchedhis own career. Yet the video performances here providean ultimately sharper portrait of the man who, for genera-tions, defined country guitar, an artist whose personalityis a contradictory blend of relentless drive and defensiveshyness.
It isnt a contradiction that takes much explaining ifyou have known bright people who, like Chet, have boot-strapped themselves up from rural poverty and minimaleducation. Chets glib reply to interviewer Don Mennsquery as to how he originated his solo style (Guitar Player,October 1979) bespeaks pride undercut by tongue-in-cheekself-deprecation: The style I play is an accident, he said,because I was so far out in the damn sticks I didnt knowany better.
The sticks to which Chet refers were near the town of
Luttrell in easternTennessee. Luttrellwas a whistle stop onthe Southern Rail-way, Chet recalls inhis autobiography,with a post office,pool hall, barber-shop, greasy spoonrestaurant and gen-eral store... It wastwo-and-a-half milesfrom there his par-ents, James ArleyAtkins and Ida SharpAtkins, raised corn,tobacco and five chil-dren in a holler ona fifty-acre farmwhich had been inthe Atkins family forgenerations, perhapssince 1780. Music ranin the family: Chets
grandfather, Wes Atkins, made and played fiddles. Hisfather, James, was a music teacher, piano tuner, and singerfor itinerant evangelists. (He liked to perform Ave Mariawith trilled Rs.) Chets half-brother, Jim, got a Washburnguitar shortly after Chester Burton Atkins was born onJune 20, 1924. Jim became good enough to start performingon radio while Chet was still a boy and his success fired hisyounger sibling with the desire to do the same.
Chet started strumming a ukulele when he was five.He recalls a guitar he abused by tying a string to it anddragging it through the yard and filling it with dirt. Bythe time he was nine, he could do more with the instru-ment than drag it and was ready for one of his own. (Healready was playing fiddle on a poorly repaired instru-ment once struck and shattered by lightning!) A stint ofearly morning milking and a firearms swap earned Chet
his first guitar, one he recalls as real cheap, probablymade in Chicago. It didnt have a name on it. (Anotherearly guitar of Chets, a Silvertone, is in the Country MusicHall of Fame.) That guitar, he said in his autobiography,would absorb almost every moment I could find for it forthe rest of my life.
Chets first significant performance experience cameat the age ten: he played Wildwood Flower for an appre-ciative audience of 200 of his fellow school children. Theirapplause was medicine for a shy kid who felt, he laterwrote, that everybody hated me because I was ugly andretarded....The applause gave me much more confidencein myself than anything ever had. Soon Chet was playingfiddle in a family ensemble led by his guitar-playingstepfather, Willie Strevel (Chet was six when his musicianfather took off, leaving his family with two milk cows, acouple of horses and a saddle), and the group performedat East Tennessee school houses and tourist camps. Chetsfirst earnings as a professional musician were $3 and somewatermelon.
Ill-health, particularly asthma, plagued Chet in hischildhood. He became so frail when he was eleven thatChets mother wrote his father, then living in Georgia, tosay their son was dying. Convinced a change of climatewould cure him, James Atkins brought his son to live onhis farm 22 miles north of Columbus, Georgia. Chetmissed the community music-making which was such apervasive part of life in east Tennessee, but he credits theisolation of his life in Georgia with freeing him to explorea new style: I began to experiment picking the guitar withmy fingers instead of a hard pick, he wrote in CountryGentleman. It felt natural, and since there was nobodyaround to teach me anything else I began, little by little, todevelop a finger-pickin style....I might not have devel-oped it as quickly if I had stayed in east Tennessee, wherethere were so many people to influence me, and whereeverybody played with a plectrum....
Elsewhere, Chet has admitted his style didnt takeshape in complete isolation: Merle Travis is where I firstheard pickin, Chet told Dave Kyle (Vintage Guitar,
August 1995). There were some people before him thatinfluenced me, like the guy that used to cut my hair. Hecould play Spanish Fandango on the guitar, which was afinger-pickin piece. Then I heard a record of a guy named[Charlie] Stump that did some finger-pickin on an oldEdison record. When I first heard Merle Travis play [overCincinnati station WLW circa 1938], I didnt know what hewas doing and I tried to imitate him and it wound up to bedifferent. I play more of a stride piano style and he playsmore of a 4/4 beat type of thing.
The sounds of Travis, George Barnes, and brother JimAtkins, who appeared on the WLS National Barn Dancealong with Les Paul, came to Chets isolated Georgiaoutpost via radio. Chet would stay up listening and prac-ticing each evening until midnight. When he was fifteen,Chet got a summer job with the National Youth Adminis-tration and from it earned enough money to electrify hisguitar. I ordered an Amperite pickup for my guitar, hetold Don Menn. It was basically just a coil of wire and amagnet that you clamped to the back of the bridge. Healso ordered a PA system, and the newly-electric Chetbecame a sensation around Columbus, Georgia.
At seventeen, Chet returned to east Tennessee to seek
oughtery, Chet A
tkins, Jack Anglia, Johnny W
right & M
work at Knoxville radio station WNOX, which had oncelaunched Roy Acuff. (A high school dropout, Chet wouldlater award himself a fictitious degree, C.G.P., CertifiedGuitar Player). Chet was hired as a fiddler to accompanycomic Archie Campbell and singer-comedian Bill Carlisle.When Chets guitar skills came to light, station managerLowell Blanchard gave him a solo spot on the Mid-DayMerry-Go-Round on the 10,000 watt radio station. Whata debt I owe that guy, Chet would tell interviewer JimOhlschmidt (Acoustic Guitar, May/June 1993). I wouldlisten to all the pop tunes that were out, everything, andtry to think of something I could play how in the worldcould I make it interesting for two minutes. The stationsstaff guitarist was drafted, and Chet (4-F on account ofchronic asthma) stepped in and quickly learned more Swing-era standards as a member of the staff band, the DixielandSwingsters. He worked three years at WNOX before set-ting his sights on Traviss old radio home, Cincinnatis50,000 watt WLW.
It was there Travis himself first heard his foremostdisciple in action.The first time Iheard him reallyturn loose was inabout 1945, Merlerecalled in 1979. Idbeen in the MarineCorps a short whileand I was goingback to Cincinnati tovisit friends. It wasa cold morning....Well, Chet Atkinswas on the radio atthe time on WLW inCincinnati, and Iwas listening to theradio and the an-nouncer said, Now well have a guitar solo from ChetAtkins. He started playing, and I pulled the car overit
tkins & M
erle Travis P
hoto courtesy Merle T
was snowing like everythingand sat there and listenedto him, and I thought, Wow!