The Essential Chet Atkins

Chester & Lester  by Chet Atkins and Les Paul (1975)


Despite many long years as a connoisseur of the history of American country music, I've never quite got my head around Chet Atkins - though he is universally acknowledged as perhaps the best country guitar picker ever, and even more important as a producer and architect of the "Nashville sound" in the 1960s.  I've got a couple of newly released collections of Chet, and I'm trying to get a bead on this major figure.

For starters, I'm trying to figure out how Chet Atkins was "country" music.  He didn't seem to give a rat's patoot about being "country."  He could play country sounds as an accompanist, but hardly anything on the two CDs of essential Chet recorded under his own name sounds at all rural.  They're not country songs, nor identifiably country in style.  He made his bones with an instrumental arrangement of "Mr Sandman" in 1954.  It's pretty nifty, but it ain't country.

He might be about as well considered to be a pop stylist a lot of the time.  One of his couple of main inspirations was Les Paul, the original fancy pop music guitar player.  The 1975 Chester and Lester album brings that side out.  These are two of the top name guitar players in the history of recorded music, and it's educational to hear them lined up - one in each speaker.  Together, their idea of repertoire ran to pop standards like "Moonglow" and "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me."  Chet is enough of a chameleon stylistically that he sounds pretty much like Les Paul.  I find myself needing the simple devise of separating the parts to each speaker to figure out which one played which of those fancy little licks.  I don't know that this album is particularly a fun party record, but certainly it is required listening for anyone who fancies themselves to be a student of guitar.

Left to his own devices though, Chet seemed to veer into sounds and harmonies that are distinctly jazz.  I don't remember hearing of him much running with jazz cats, but some of this stuff seems like some idea of smooth jazz.  If someone played this recording of "A Taste of Honey" and told me it was George Benson, I'd have found it easy to believe.  It sounds like pretty much a straight shot down the center for Atkins stylistically that he recorded "Take Five" in 1973.  Listening to them back to back, Atkins solo guitar arrangement seems at least as meaningful to me as the Dave Brubeck original. 

He named a 1964 album Progressive Pickin' - which would seem to be as opposed to traditional country style.  He was a distinctly cosmpolitan character, reaching out to record "The Third Man Theme."  He was from Tennessee, but he didn't wear cowboy boots or hat.  He didn't particularly do any songs about Mama or prison.  He didn't particularly care for having his music described by any genre.

Yet Chet Atkins was undeniably a central character in the history of country music as a player, producer and record executive.  Country music fans were the ones buying most of his albums.  Plus, other than his own, he mostly played on country records.  The Carter family were early friends and boosters of Chet Atkins.  There's Chet Atkins pickin' up a storm on June Carter's 1949 "Root Hog or Die."  That's country as you wanna be, right there. 

In all of these three discs, I found exactly one standout moment with Chet Atkins at his most truly and fully country, a duet with his original guitar hero Merle Travis.  "Is Anything Better Than This" is a Shel Silverstein song with a rare Chet Atkins vocal.  The pure homeliness of his voice has a charmingly down home effect. 

Atkins may have been even more important to country music as an executive, after being put in charge of RCA Nashville in 1957.  When country music was taking it on the chin commercially from this upstart rock and roll, Chet Atkins engineered the "Nashville sound," which made RCA country music much more marketable to pop radio.  You might say they de-twangified the sounds somewhat, avoiding steel guitars and fiddles most obviously.  The 1957 Don Gibson hit recording of "Oh Lonesome Me" makes a case in point.

Some would argue that this was bad for country music as an artform.  Chet was universally admired, but it was just this what might be considered watered down corporate country music would seem to have been exactly what the country outlaws were rebelling against.  But Chet Atkins brought the head future outlaw Willie Nelson to RCA.  He also brought in Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Dolly Parton among others. 

Special note must be paid to his sponsorship and partnership with Jerry Reed.  Personally, I'd pick Reed as the greatest country guitar picker ever, and Chet was sharp enough to pick on that.  Besides getting Jerry Reed records made, you can hear the Nashville Sound idea coming out of Reed with stuff like "A Thing Called Love."  This kind of thing was very masculine and effective coming from Reed, and mixed among all the guitar stuff.

Probably just about my favorite thing on this was a Chet Atkins performance of an instrumental "Get On With It" co-written by Jerry Reed.  Also, they recorded multiple albums together.  Jerry Reed definitely brought the country out of Chet.  But more importantly, he inspired a more aggressive attack from Atkins.  Their collaboration on "Cannonball Run" is a real interesting instrumental conversation, if you know how to tune it in.

Knowing how to tune Chet Atkins in is the thing.  He was doing all kinds of beautiful arcane math, but it mostly didn't seem that passionate.  To some extent, modern senses get a little over stimulated with, say, Eddie Van Halen flying through the air in these great screaming leaps.  But there was at least as much going on in Chet's mind as Eddie or the Edge.  It's just quieter and more contemplative.

There was a telling bit of personal detail buried in the liner notes that goes a long way towards explaining Chet.  Apparently it was routine for most of his life that night after night, wherever he was, he would end his day falling asleep sitting in a chair with his guitar in his hands.  That's just a perfect representation of the very quiet and personal nature of his vision.

One thing that does strike me as being particularly "country" about Chet Atkins was his quiet modesty.  This was not a lack of self-esteem.  He knew he was good - but he just didn't carry on about what a big stick he swung.  In the main classic expression of that, he came up with a title that he figured should be reserved for himself and a few select pickers, he would consider himself, per one of his album titles, a Certified Guitar Player. Fair enough.








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