Part 1, La Cucaracha: The first time I ever really noticed a guitar or a guitar player I was watching Hee Haw. I may have been 5 or 6, and I was staying with my grandparents, who I called Maw and Paw. Maw and Paw lived pretty far from civilization and they only got one television channel, which happened to be the CBS. So my choices were either watch Hee Haw or watch nothing. Anyway, I remember this gentile, grey-haired guy walking onto the set with a bright red Gretsch. And you knew he was somebody ‘cause he got, like, deferential treatment from both Roy Clark and Buck Owens who normally smirked their way through that show with the self-satisfied arrogance that was requisite of 70’s TV personalities. As for the grey haired man, I can’t remember what he played, but I remember how he played. He stood stock-still and the cameras trained in on his right hand thumb, which jumped back and forth between two strings. I remember telling Maw that his thumb looked like a cockroach. And the sound it made was kinda like a stand-up bass. But echoey. And then, the grey haired man did something that to me, was totally shocking: he started to play a melody on top of that bass line. It sounded like two people, but it was just him. I’d never seen that before and it completely blew my mind. And the sound, it was was unmistakable. Today, we’re talking about the creator of that sound. It’s a sound that inspired me and hundreds of others to pick up a guitar and try to make our right hand thumb hop like a cockroach between two strings. It’s a sound that has been emulated by likes of Tommy Emmanuel and Mark Knopfler. It’s the sound of Chet Atkins.
Recordings: Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, “Cannonball Rag” from Me and Jerry; Chet Aktins and the Carter Sisters, “Carroll County Blues” from The 1950 Radio Sessions; Matthew Cochran, “Cicadas at the Equinox” from Vapor Trail from a Paper Plane Commercial Break: Strings By Mail (Pat Metheny, “Fast” from Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich)
Part 2, Merle Travis and the 1940’s Radio Circuit: If you’ve been following our series on guitar heroes, you already know that no matter how inventive or an artist’s style may be, and no matter how expansive their vision eventually becomes, there’s always an initial inspiration, some preexisting musical kernel that provides a springboard for further creativity. In the case of Chet Atkins, that initial inspiration was Merle Travis.
Recordings: Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, “Down South Blues” from The Atkins/Travis Traveling Show; Merle Travis, “Play On Your Harp Little David” from Walkin’ the Strings; Merle Travis, “Walkin’ the Strings” from Walkin’ the Strings; The Carter Sisters featuring Chet Atkins, “Carroll County Blues” from 1950 Radio Sessions; Chet Atkins with Homer and Jethro, “Galloping on the Guitar” from Chet Atkins Classics; The Carter Sisters featuring Chet Atkins, “Humoresque”, “Pennsylvania Polka/In the Pines” from 1950 Radio Sessions; Lionel Loueke, “Ami O” from Mwaliko
Part 3, The RCA Victor Years: The 1950’s were a pretty remarkable time in the commercial music industry. Chet Atkins moved to Nashville around the time that the major labels were setting up outposts to record country music acts. Record companies relied heavily on local talent for session work, and Chet ended up played on tons of storied recordings, including Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and Kitty Wells’ “Release Me”. Chet also proved to be handy in the control booth, so eventually, Steve Shoals brought Chet on as the studio manager for RCA.
Recordings: Chet Atkins, “Mr. Sandman” from Countrypolitan Classics; Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel” from The Essential Elvis Presley; Don Gibson, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”; The Everly Brothers, “Bye, Bye Love”; Hank Locklin, “Please Help Me I’m Falling”; Hank Snow, “I’ve Been Everywhere”; Chet Atkins and the Boston Pops Orchestra, “Country Gentleman” from The Pops Goes Country; Chet Atkins, “Yakety Axe” from Guitar Legend, The RCA Years; Chet Atkins and Les Paul, “Caravan” from Chester and Lester; Chet Atkins and Lenny Breau, “Tenderly” from Standard Brands
Commercial Break: Peghead Nation (The Punch Brothers, “Flippin” from Who’s Feeling Young Now)
Part 4, New Beginnings—Columbia, Gibson, and Chet Atkins, C.G.P: Anybody that’s studied the music industry understands that the only constant is change, and those that maintain successful careers amid those changes can’t do so without adaptation. In 1977, RCA’s Studio B closed up shop, and Chet was more or less out of the music production game. He was focusing on his solo career, and was as busy as ever. But that wasn’t the only change that happened that year: Gretsch Guitars was sold to Baldwin pianos, and had been suffering quality issues. Chet had been pressuring Gretsch to explore a nylon string model, but the company refused to move forward with a design. Frustrated with the lack of cooperation, Chet withdrew his endorsement, and pursued a relationship with Gibson, who was willing to create an electric nylon string guitar. The Gibson Chet Atkins CE Model made its debut in 1982, and was a pretty good solution to the inherent feedback problems that plague nylon string guitars amplified at higher volumes. Oh, and one more pretty big change happened for Chet in the early 80’s. After 36 years with RCA, Chet signed with Columbia records. The move offered Chet increased artistic freedom, which he used to pursue a new direction in both his writing and guitar playing.
Recordings: Chet Atkins, “Wobegon (The Way It Used To Be) from Sails; Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins, “Sleep Walk” from A Prairie Home Companion Final Performances Vol. 2; Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins, “Tears” from Neck and Neck; Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins, “So Soft, Your Goodbye” from Neck and Neck; Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, “Jerry’s Breakdown” from Jerry and Me
Next week, we’ll continue with our tribute to guitar legends with a discussion of about the Mercurial Gypsy Jazz Virtuoso, Django Reinhardt. Special thanks for research guidance this week to my friend Rich Ramos.