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.
Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, near Luttrell, Tennessee. Many members of his family played musical instruments, and his father made a living by teaching piano and singing with touring evangelists. Atkins’s parents separated when he was six; they later divorced, and his father moved to Georgia. For the next several years Atkins’s older brother, James, a working jazz guitarist who at one time played with guitar pioneer Les Paul, served as his younger brother’s musical inspiration. The young Atkins quickly became a proficient guitarist and fiddler, and often played at local square dances. In 1936 he went to live with his father in Harris County, Georgia, in the hopes that the drier climate would ease his asthma. As he continued to improve his guitar and fiddle playing, Atkins learned to read music from his father.
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 (1941-45) the Opry dominated Nashville’s musical landscape, but in the late 1940s New York–based record companies, taking advantage of the growing number of country musicians who called the “Music City” home, began to establish divisions in Nashville. Atkins found steady work as a studio musician, playing on tracks by such legendary country artists as Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Faron Young, and Webb Pierce. He developed a close relationship with RCA executive Steve Sholes, who quickly came to rely on Atkins’s skills as both a musician and a session leader. By 1953 Atkins was producing recording sessions on his own.
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.