Few guitarists have had more influence on the instrument than Chet Atkins.
In Atkins case, his influence extends from the country-music realm into rock and roll. As a studio musician, he appeared on records by Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and countless country musicians. Atkins thumb-and-fingerpicking style influenced George Harrison, Duane Eddy, the Ventures, Eddie Cochran, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler, as well as innumerable country pickers. Even the likes of Ted Nugent has credited Atkins with inspiring him to take up the instrument. ‘’I think he influenced everybody who picked up a guitar,’’ said Duane Eddy.
Atkins was a key architect of the “Nashville sound,” which opened up traditional country music to pop influences, allowing it to remain commercially viable in the Fifties and Sixties. His multiple roles in the music industry included recording artist, record-company executive, producer, guitar designer and sideman. Although inducted into the Hall of Fame as a sideman, his versatility and impact could have made him a viable candidate as a performer, early influence or nonperformer, too. Atkins won 14 Grammys (including the Lifetime Achievement Award). Guitar Player magazine proclaimed him Popular Music’s Most Influential Stylist. In 1973, he became the youngest person ever inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Two decades later, Atkins was one of the oldest musicians (he was 77 when he died of cancer in 2001) inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame.
Atkins was a virtuoso guitarist whose smooth, clean-sounding style belied his intricate mastery. His style was a tasteful blend of country, jazz and pop, informed by such early influences as Merle Travis, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt. Atkins would pick a bass line with his thumb on the lower strings and fingerpick melodies and harmonies with his other four fingers. He played Gretsch and Gibson guitars, and he helped design numerous models by both instrument makers. These include the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman and the Chet Atkins Tennessean.
Born and raised in rural east Tennessee, Atkins debuted as a sessionman in 1945, backing up a group that would eventually become the Oak Ridge Boys. He moved to Nashville and cut his first solo album, Chet Atkins' Gallopin Guitar, and later recorded 1966’s Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles. He has collaborated with such fellow guitarists as Les Paul, Jerry Reed and Merle Travis.
In 1954, Atkins persuaded the Everly Brothers to move from their small Kentucky hometown to Nashville. There, he became their adviser, sideman and friend. He played electric guitar on many of the duo’s early classics, including “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “When Will I Be Loved.” ‘’Chet Atkins was the reason we came to Nashville,’’ Phil Everly has said. “He was always our mentor.”
In 1957, Atkins was appointed RCA’s Manager of Operations in Nashville. With Atkins help, Nashville became known around the world as Music City. He produced and signed not only pop-country crossover stars like Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Charlie Pride, but also mold-breaking rebels such as Willie Nelson, Hank Snow, Dolly Parton, Guy Clark, Charlie Rich, Skeeter Davis, Bobby Bare, Gary Stewart and Waylon Jennings all of whom have considerable followings among rock and roll fans. Atkins also convinced RCA to build an office and studio, the legendary Studio B (a.k.a. The House That Chet Built) on Music Row. Elvis Presley alone wound up cutting 250 songs between 1957 and 1977 at Studio B. More hits were recorded at Studio B than any other studio in Nashville history.
In 1974, longtime admirer Paul McCartney visited Nashville to record a track with Atkins. In 1994, Atkins and New Orleans R&B great Allen Toussaint collaborated on a track, “Southern Nights,” for the album Rhythm Country & Blues. Atkins and Mark Knopfler released an album of guitar duets, Neck and Neck, in 1990. No doubt speaking for many rock guitarists, Knopfler said, “When I was coming up, I made a religion of the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, and a lot of the sessions that Chet produced and played on. My whole sensitivity, my whole approach, my whole way of listening to music stems from all that.”
In the end, Atkins viewed what he played not as rock and roll, country or pop but an amalgam that he referred to, simply as American music. “I just try and play things that give me chills, to express myself from the heart through my music,” said Atkins. A musician who came to epitomize the term country gentleman, Atkins offered his own epitaph to writer Alanna Nash back in 1981: “I’d like for people to say that I played in tune, that I played in good taste, and that I was nice to people. That’s about it.”
Atkins died of lung cancer at age 77 in 2001.
Inductee: Chet Atkins (guitar; born June 20, 1924, died June 30, 2001)