Chet Atkins, (June 20, 1924 – June 30, 2001) also known as “Mr. Guitar and “C.G.P.” (Certified Guitar Player), was an American guitarist and record producer who helped pioneer the “Nashville sound”, effectively pushing country over into the pop genre. Through his music, he inspired countless musicians and was awarded numerous Grammy and Country Music Association awards.
Chet was born in Luttrell, Tennessee and started playing the ukulele and the fiddle when he was very young. At the age of nine, he acquired his first guitar from his older brother by trading him an old pistol. As a young player, he was heavily influenced by Merle Travis, and he expanded on Travis’ thumb and index finger picking technique, using his thumb for bass notes and first three fingers for melody lines. Atkins became quite an accomplished player before leaving high school in 1941 to embark on his musical career.
Atkins soon found a job at WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, performing with acts such as Bill Carlisle, Archie Campbell, and the Dixie Swingsters, a swing instrumental combo. After being there for three years, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and briefly worked at WLW, where Merle Travis had performed years earlier. Soon, Atkins auditioned and made his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in 1946 as a member of Red Foley’s group. While he soon became a recognizable figure within the industry, Atkins was constantly criticized by executives for not sounding “country enough.”
In the later 1940’s, Atkins started making records with RCA, and while still not selling hits within the genre, he was working hard as ever, eventually managing RCA’s Nashville studio, and becoming a design consultant for Gretsch Guitars, which manufactured a line of Chet Atkins electric guitars from 1955 – 1980. During the 50’s and 60’s, Atkins found himself balancing between performing, producing, and working as an executive of RCA’s country division. As a producer, he worked for artists such as Elvis Presley, Perry Como, the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, and many others, and he also discovered the talents of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and signed country music’s first African-American singer Charley Pride.
After many years, Atkins had grown weary of his executive and production duties, and he wanted to branch out into jazz, a vision not shared by RCA. By 1982, he had signed with Columbia Records, and he also decided to leave Gretsch to design guitars with Gibson. During his years with Columbia, he demonstrated his ability to push the boundaries of mixing country with jazz and other musical elements, and he even recorded with other notable guitarists such as Mark Knopfler, Jerry Reed, and Tommy Emmanuel.
Sadly, Atkins was diagnosed with cancer in the late ‘90s, and on June 30, 2001, he died at his home in Nashville, leaving behind a legacy that most musicians can only dream of. Over his lifetime, Chet Atkins received 14 Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, nine awards for Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year, and in 1973 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He was also posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.