Chet Atkins (1924-2001)
One of the finest guitar players of his generation, Chet Atkins helped to originate the "Nashville Sound" and played a vital role in turning Nashville, Tennessee, into the home of country music. In addition to his own performing, Atkins discovered and produced some of country music's greatest artists.
Determined to become a famous musician, Atkins began his career at age eighteen, when he landed a job with the Knoxville, Tennessee, radio station WNOX as a staff musician. Over the next several years he worked with the country music acts Homer and Jethro and the Carter Family. A few of his instrumental tunes received some airplay during this time, namely "Galloping on the Guitar," and "Main Street Breakdown," both from 1949, but they did not become popular enough to allow Atkins to embark on a solo career, which was his real ambition. During the late 1940s Atkins balanced the demands of an itinerant musical career with a family. He married singer Leona Johnson in 1946, and the couple had a daughter, Merle, in 1947. In 1950 the Grand Ole Opry offered the Carter Family a spot on its roster of musical acts, and Atkins settled down, making Nashville his permanent home.
Prior to World War II
RCA established its first Nashville recording studio in 1954 and put Atkins in charge of its daily operations. In 1956 he played on Elvis Presley's hugely successful RCA debut "Heartbreak Hotel," which secured Atkins's place within the company. Atkins became manager of operations at RCA in 1957 and soon convinced the company to build the legendary RCA Studio B, the first permanent record company office in Nashville.
It was in Studio B that Atkins helped create what became known as "the Nashville Sound." Responding to changing musical tastes and the dominance of rock and roll in the youth market, Nashville artists began recording a more sophisticated country music aimed at older listeners, who usually favored such mainstream crooners as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. Relying on a small group of musicians called the "A Team," Atkins would often downplay or remove traditional country instruments from recording sessions, replacing them with strings and woodwinds. Although other Nashville producers were beginning to do the same thing, Atkins is credited with creating the first Nashville Sound recording, Don Gibson's 1958 hit, "Oh Lonesome Me."
The Nashville Sound proved hugely popular, and during the 1960s Atkins kept busy producing sessions for popular artists and signing new acts, including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton. During this time he also embarked on a solo career, which slowly became his main pursuit after he began to remove himself from the business side of operations during the 1970s. Studio B closed in 1977, and Atkins spent the 1980s and 1990s making solo albums for Columbia Records. He died from cancer on June 30, 2001, at his home in Nashville.
During his lifetime Atkins received numerous awards and accolades. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973 and received nine Country Music Association awards for Musician of the Year over the course of his career. He also won more than a dozen Grammy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993. In 1995 Atkins was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Chet Atkins, with Bill Neely, Country Gentleman (Chicago: H. Regnery, ).
Joli Jensen, The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, and Country Music (Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998).
Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., 2d rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).
Bill C. Malone and Judith McCulloh, eds., Stars of Country Music: Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Rodriguez (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, ).
Michael Streissguth, Voices of the Country: Interviews with Classic Country Performers (New York: Routledge, 2004).
Christopher Allen Huff, University of Georgia
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