The Man They Called 'Mr. Guitar'

By Vicente Mateu

It's enough to strap on a Gretsch to feel like Mister Guitar; to play it like old Chet, though, that's a whole different story. The legend of Chester Burton and his alter ego Chet Atkins is tied to that of the instrument he used when he began to write that legend from the time they first put a ukulele in his hands. Years later, that young kid from Tennessee would turn into something much more than a great guitarist: he would be the head of a record label as influential as RCA, redefine country music by creating the 'Nashville Sound' and act as 'godfather' to many other great musicians as producer of their albums. Along with Les Paul, he is one of the key figures for understanding everything that would come later.

The career of Chet Atkins is marked by his obsession to play better than his idol, Merle Travis, and by asthma, paradoxically perhaps his greatest aid in achieving that goal. His illness was a torture that forced him to sleep sitting up and he played guitar to get to sleep, night after night... until he learned to use three fingers of his right hand to pluck the strings and not just the thumb and index finger as his teacher did.  
That technique learned while trying to fill his lungs with air would leave his peers breathless in his own era and guitarists in succeeding ones as well, right up to the time Mark Knopfler and his sultans of swing gave it a new splendour. Teacher and student, indeed, who recorded some interesting master 'lessons'.

Atkins never sold his soul to the devil, but his biography includes many of those 'things' that define the complex personality of a genius. Apart from anecdotes like the one about the pistol he used to pay his brother for his first guitar, he was a compulsive perfectionist who built his own recording studio as soon as he could, was reluctant to perform live and controversial for his business practices when he ended up 'charging' his associates at RCA. 

He was also famous for his break with the manufacturer of his unmistakable guitars, the Gretsch brand specializing in instruments 'with soul'. He wanted them to remove his name -that little nameplate in the headstock- from his models while he was designing for the competition at Gibson, his new supplier. In any case, as a 'luthier', Atkins is arguably one of the most long-lived and his creations are still in-demand, from the popular '6120 Chet Atkins' to the refined 'Country Gentleman'.   

The Chet Atkins who was besotted with his guitar is the truly interesting one, the jazz lover who managed to take country music out of the saloons that still reeked -if you pardon the expression- of barns and bourbon. From Elvis Presley to Waylon Jennings, Floyd Cramer, Don Arnold or Connie Smith, nothing came out of Nashville without his approval as the decision maker at RCA. He kept on recording albums, earning his fair share of hits in his own name but above all by playing on so many hits by a multitude of artists as a session musician.

In those golden years that the U.S. enjoyed during the '60s, his own career shined with several big hits like "Yakety Axe" in 1965, followed a little later by "Country Gentleman". During those times, his life was more focused on his role as an aggressive executive of a major record label. At the same time, criticisms were raining down on him from the 'purist' sectors of the North American popular music world who were suspicious of including elements of pop, rock and jazz in their 'honky tonk playpen'. Bob Dylan never stopped warning that the times they were a-changing, but some people had not cottoned on yet. 

We are indeed talking about a self-taught musician. Born in 1924 (Luttrell, Tennessee), the early stages of his career took place on radio stations, jumping from state to state, making a name for himself as a session guitarist... because back then in the '40s, the saying about music being 'played live' was no euphemism.  He finally managed to record his first songs despite his renown as the 'weirdo' of country music that had gotten him fired more than once. But once he finally made it to Nashville, he was there to stay.

Steve Sholes, the head of RCA until Atkins himself succeeded him at the label after his death, was impressed by the half-dozen songs he let him record when he arrived in the country music capital.  He immediately hired him as a session guitarist for the record label (which at that time, in fact, was just an extension of the radio broadcasting company.) 

That was the key moment in the two 'prodigious' decades for Atkins. He started up a promising career in the record industry where he showed a good eye for signing talent and, especially, a vision of the future at the same time as he was recording his own disks and earned his first hits, "Mr. Sandman" and "Silver Bell". At this stage, the nickname of "Mr. Guitar" was a title that no one dared to argue with. Here was a genuine one man orchestra who was still overflowing with plenty of ideas for designing his own guitars (and fighting with everyone).


In the '70s, Atkins refocused his efforts on his musical career again. In the company of the 'hillbillies' Homer & Jethro, a very popular banjo-guitar duo with whom he first worked when they were just starting out, he formed the Nashville String Band, and according to his official biographies, reached his peak as an instrumentalist. The reason for the change was the unfortunate diagnosis in 1973 of his first tumour, which he managed to overcome. Illness once again marked his life and once again he went back to his starting point: the six strings.

With the freedom that comes from having seen the end so near, Atkins prepared to fulfill his secret dream in the '80s: to record a jazz album. Although he had to fight with RCA and then leave them for the competition to do it, just like he did with Gretsch. Accepted at Columbia, 1983 saw the release of 'Work It Out With Chet Akins', the first of a handful of gems before he turned back to pure country in the last years of his life.   It was just in time to share a studio with Knopfler and Jerry Reed in the early '90s.

With 70 years behind him, old Chet couldn't put off his date with the legend any longer. Another bout with cancer, this one even more serious, left him confined to his Nashville home in the mid-'90s, and even more loathe than ever to take part in any event, until his death in 2001.  His guitar no longer had the strength to mock fate one more time. He died, of course, in Nashville. That, they could never remove.