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Superstar Chet Atkins, of all people, doesn't quite get it. Asked about a specific technique on a particular song, he mumbles that he barely even remembers the tune. Reminded of his profoundly significant encounter with drummer Herbie Cooper, he shoots back as to how ol' Herbie's doing these days. Prodded about what sort of sound system he currently has, he rattles off the specifications without citing the irony of his youthful experiences involving homemade crystal sets. That Atkins was one of the turning figures in the evolution of rock and roll and that he might be the greatest guitar player of all time goes without saying. Certainly he goes without saying it.
After 51 years in the biz, he still has an office on Music Row in Nashville, still tours, and still speaks humbly, almost naively, about an art/business he helped mold. Still the country boy kickin' dirt down in the East Tennessee holler. As he talks, you keep expecting him to blurt an "aw shucks."
Why would someone of Chet Atkins's stature tour at this point? "I wonder about that myself," he responds. "This old three-story house we converted into an office costs about $70,000 or $80,000 a year to run, so I have to keep money coming in. I love the applause. I love the challenge of going out and taking the chance of embarrassing myself in front of a few hundred people. I like to try to keep 'em smiling and laughing and enjoying. I sing a few songs I've written, play a few solos, with a small group." It's all just another sunny-hot afternoon at Green's Tourist Camp out on Highway 11, five miles from the holler halfway between Luttrell and Corryton, Tennessee, circa 1933. Sure it is. And Chester Atkins is still the overalled, barefoot boy itchin' to play him some of that hillbilly music.
Almost three decades ago, when rock and roll was but a twinkle in the giant corporations' eyes, just about the time the Beatles were jetting across the pond, Herbie Cooper was banging his drums for a big-swing band at a South Florida nightclub. I wasn't there, but he must've been cooking hot, like I've seen him cook on other occasions, spinning his sticks and sparking the heads with intricate speed rolls and double-up, jump-back polyrhythms, clicking fire off the rims, cymbalizing the beat with pure heat. A young punk in the crowd that night walked up to the stage after the set and addressed Herbie Cooper: "Mister, you're a really good drummer. You're almost as good as Ringo Starr!"
What that young fan didn't know -- besides the fact that Cooper was a thousand times the drummer Ringo would ever be -- was that Herbie had as much to do with inventing, or re-inventing, rock and roll as anyone. He never played a lick of it that I know of. But for a chance meeting and a little favor, rock and roll would not have evolved as it did. Atkins played hillbilly, Herbie played big band, and Dire Straits never would have sold a single record if the two hadn't met.
Chet Atkins is now and maybe always was a man out of time. If digital audio recording and VCRs and fax machines had been invented 50 years ago, Atkins probably still wouldn't have been changed by that "progress." He was dirt poor in youth, isolated by the hills of rural Tennessee from the spinning world of the city. That helps explain the trueness of his music -- hillbilly, by definition, is bare-bones stuff; musicians wore cowboy hats to keep the sun out of their eyes, not as an image gimmick. Atkins broke out of the holler long ago, but, remarkably, his music remained forever rooted in the Tennessee soil. Even when artists ranging from the Beatles to the Everly Brothers to jazzmen such as Earl Klugh and George Benson entwined with Atkins, his sound never really changed. Neither did he. "Yeah, I remember as a kid building those crystal sets," Atkins says. "I used a cat whisker and now you can buy a diode. We didn't have those. I would go to sleep at night with headphones on and I'd pull the radio off the table. Then I'd have to find a crystal so I could rebuild it. It's been a long time."
No Nintendo, no MTV, no nothin' -- as a child Atkins worked his little fingers to the bone on the family farm and filled his dreams and visions with the sound of music. Later, after he obtained a guitar, he would sit in a chair and play it until he fell asleep, guitar across his lap. Everybody played something, or at least sang, and Chester's older brother Jim was the first to get out, doing so by taking his long-honed musical abilities to places where money was paid for such prowess. Professionalism may not have been his motive, but it surely was his escape.
Radio was everything then -- not airplay for a hit single, but live programming. In 1925, a year after Atkins was born, WSM -- a 50,000 watt, clear-channel outlet whose signal reached across the nation -- debuted The Tennessee Barn Dance with George D. Hay. The music was pure country, hillbilly as it's properly known, and that was a breakthrough. Until then, America demanded that its musical performers have vocal training, a degree of virtuosity. Hay, known as the solemn judge, didn't buy that for a commercial minute. "The natural qualities of a voice are a lot more important to a song," Hay once told Atkins, "than a bunch of voice lessons." Without that sort of vision, people like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty couldn't have gotten janitor jobs in the music business. The essence of rock and roll -- that musical precision is a lower priority than passion -- is as old as the hills.