The History of Rock and Roll, Part 34

If Chet Atkins never met Herbie, there'd be no Dire Straits

As a youngster Atkins bought for four dollars his first radio. His pal Buster ordered a microphone from a comic book ad. The two kids wired the mike to the radio. One would perform, the other acted as audience. Then they switched places. Atkins would hold the mike up and say, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, direct from the beautiful Buster's Lounge, just outside Luttrell, Tennessee, the Blue Network of the National Broadcasting Company presents Chester Atkins, the world's greatest guitar player." Silly boy.

Except this outlandish childhood fantasy actually came true. Though he didn't blaze radio -- his early career was in fact peaks and valleys, successes and firings -- Atkins maintained, always finding a job in one city or another. Since then he's recorded 75 original releases, selling more than 35 million units. You can also hear Atkins on Hank Williams's "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Jambalaya," the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" and "Wake Up Little Susie," on Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." Those are a few of the songs he played on -- you can hear his influence everywhere. He's been honored by the Country Music Association as many times as any other artist, collecting nine Instrumentalist/Musician of the Year awards. Add nine Grammys and note that Atkins was the youngest person ever, at 49, to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Little wonder that many consider Atkins the greatest guitar player of all time. "But I know that's not true," the man drawls. "I know I'm one of the best known, famous, I will admit to that. As far as being one of the best, there're people around now who could play rings around me. I got there first, with the finger style. Earl Klugh and Jerry Reed came along. I guess I play with a certain touch, it touches people's hearts. Oh, I don't know what the hell it is. Maybe I'm better than I think."

When he was nine years old, Atkins acquired his first guitar. Atkins's stepfather, Willie Strevel, had traded his Model T for fifteen dollars and an old Silvertone, meaning he now possessed two guitars. Young Chester had been given a .30-.30 rifle by his father James, who also gave a gun, a Stevens .22 single shot, to Chester's brother Lowell. Chester made a deal: one year of milking the cows in exchange for Lowell's gun. He then traded the two guns to his stepdad for the Silvertone.

The Luttrell kids never had any toys to speak of -- building a wagon out of log slices and spare boards was as close as they got, and the wagon didn't roll very well. Of that time, Atkins wrote in his 1974 book Country Gentleman that "the guitar was different. It was not a toy. It was life itself to me. I dreamed of someday becoming a great star, though using it to make money never crossed my mind. I couldn't imagine getting paid for anything as wonderful as playing the guitar for people. I would have paid to play on radio -- if I had had the money."

As he taught himself to play both guitar and fiddle, Atkins was drawn to the unique style of Merle Travis (for whom Atkins would later name his daughter). The poor health common among those in the hills of Depression era America struck young Chester, too, and he moved down to Georgia when he was eleven to stay with his father and new stepmother. A shy outsider, Atkins kept to himself a lot, and when he was alone he played guitar. While in Georgia during the winter of 1934-35, Atkins tried something knew. He set aside his pick and began finger picking, like Travis. Years later Atkins would combine that finger-picking style with the innovative chording techniques of D'Jango Reinhardt. By 1952, Atkins was using his thumb and forefinger to play right-hand harmonies while simultaneously plucking notes with his ring finger. His invented approach has lent itself well to pop, country, jazz, classical. He's recorded ten symphony albums.

In the Fifties Atkins worked for RCA, began recording, and cut a song called "Kentucky Derby" that perfectly illustrates the unlimited potential of a guitar in the hands of Chester Burton Atkins. On the song he duplicates the track bugle call, creates the feel of a day at the races, plucks a series of sounds that today's studio wizards could never manufacture. "I just played all that," Atkins says. "A good friend used coconut shells on gravel for the backing. I haven't even heard that song in many years. I couldn't even play it now."

Today Atkins, who achieved high status as a producer as well as a performer, has the requisite drum machines and other high-tech gear in his home studio. But it's not as if he needs it. "I've never done that," he says. "I just play one guitar." On "Kentucky Derby," "Mountain Melody," and dozens of others it sounds like ten. "I tried to do [overdubs] but I was never good at it. I admire Les Paul more and more when I try to do something like that. I improvise all the time, 'cause it's tough to remember an arrangement. If I make a mistake or get off track, I just jump back on it as quick as I can."

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