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The History of Rock and Roll, Part 34

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.

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."

Atkins has and still does work in a variety of forms (one of his biggest sellers was a Sixties slab of his versions of Beatles songs). Working for RCA in the Fifties, Atkins, as talent scout and producer, reshaped country music by taking it "uptown," adding strings and lush choruses and echo effects. It was hardly a commercial concession -- no matter what genre he plays in, his style remains true to hillbilly's essence. "After World War II," Atkins explains, "people moved to the cities and never moved back to the country. The music became urbanized and got so appreciated, especially after Elvis, that it was a little different type of music. By bringing it uptown a little bit, getting better songs, everything got stronger in the Sixties. But there's always somebody coming along, the Judds or Ricky Skaggs, playing pure country, acoustic type music that brings us back to where we should be."

Years ago the crowd at a show in West Palm Beach -- where Atkins will play live this Saturday -- shattered the guitarist. Every hillbilly in Florida was at the show. Atkins began with some pop music and a few difficult classical solos, he says in Country Gentleman, "to show off my guitar technique." Someone in the audience screamed, "Gimme some hillbilly music." At that point, Atkins recalled in his book, "I collapsed. It was as though somebody had shot me through the heart. I wanted to cry." Today, Atkins seems to have recovered from the experience. "They served whiskey at that show," he says. "When they serve whiskey, the fans start talking back. I play standards, country, and pop. Everything I do has a country aroma, and I have a country odor myself."

The corny joke is as revealing as Atkins's 1992 status in the music biz. He runs his CGP (for Certified Guitar Player) office and the CGP instructional video program. He has his own PR representation and is handled by two booking agencies, one for regular shows and the other for symphony gigs. He just recently produced and played on Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet album. "I record for CBS," he adds. "Columbia. I mean Sony, or whatever they call it these days. I'm always working on things to record, solos. I played a bunch of symphonies in July. I'm very busy. And golf, I play a little golf."

He also negotiates the old Babe Ruth vs. Mickey Mantle vs. Barry Bonds question. "Musicians, like athletes, are the best they've ever been," he says. "That's the way it is. There's great players, like Mark [Knopfler, with whom he's recorded and who owes his entire existence to Atkins's influence]. Hell, they're everywhere." The analogy continues right into the studio. "Now we have these great big amps," Atkins says. "A Techniques turntable. DAT player. A CD player that runs through the system. Upstairs I got this big old ghetto blaster with CD, I can't remember what brand it is. And in my office there's a receiver and amplifier and tape player. I like cheap outfits that don't hype you, though. I've got these little speakers that I listen [to tracks] on. That way I hear it the way people hear it at home."

In 1973 Atkins was recording with Perry Como, who blamed Atkins's stomach troubles on junk food. A doctor came to the studio and examined the guitarist, using a grand piano as gurney. The pain passed until one day a few weeks later when, after playing golf with Jerry Reed and eating more junk, the problem resumed. It was diagnosed as malignant. The subsequent operation, obviously, was successful. Though his wife Leona brought his guitar to him in his hospital room, Atkins didn't feel much like playing, even after he was released and went home. He kept the instrument around as a security blanket. Soon he began playing again. He wrote in his book, "I go home every night and get my guitar and practice until I go to sleep with it in my lap, as I have always done."

"I can't smoke cigars," Atkins says today. "They made my heart do a haircut and shave. It was an intestinal malignancy. So far I've got through it. There was some lady country fan I'd see around town, and she'd go, `Hey, Chet, how's your cancer?' But I'll be playing my Gibson, picking and singing down there, denying my affair with Dolly Parton."

Like Atkins, Herbie Cooper, born in Bayonne, New Jersey, made his career on live radio, at first in Tennessee, later in Miami, where he also played in nightclubs and other fine venues of the day, like the Silver Slipper speakeasy, mostly with a trio. On WIOD radio he had the Breakfast Club show. "We did it in our pajamas," Cooper recalls. "It was about three minutes of music and a bunch of commercials." He's long since retired, living now in South Carolina, out in the country. He's 87 years old, but unlike Atkins, he still enjoys his cigars, sitting on the front porch and, when pressed, recalling the good ol' days, Homer and Jethro, Archie Campbell, Roy Acuff, and, of course, Chet Atkins and their fateful encounter.

"I remember it very well," Atkins says. "He kept telling me something about this thing that I could get some good sounds with. I told him to order me one and I'd try it." Atkins tells the story in his book this way: "After I had been working with the Dixieland Swingsters for a couple of months, the drummer Herbie Cooper suggested I buy a Vib-Rola. When I told him that I didn't know what it was, he explained that it was a special tail piece for guitars that would give a vibrato effect. ...It arrived from someplace in New York. After installing it I wanted to go kiss Herbie. Merle Travis was about the only person in the world using one at that time. I heard him use it, but I thought he was bending the neck of the guitar or something like that."

The device allowed for a slurring sound on notes and a resonant vibrato, something anyone who grew up in the rock and roll generation has heard a million times on a million records. "I loved the sound," Atkins says. "I'm in debt to Herbie. I never would have known."

Plenty of us remain in debt to Herbie Cooper, although he would take the credit, being a card, and make a corny joke out of it. A funny joke. A humor learned in the deep South decades ago, honed on the live-radio circuit, and never abandoned. I love it. I love Herbie Cooper, too. After all, he's my grandfather. Rock and roll.

CHET ATKINS performs at 8:00 p.m. Saturday at the Kravis Performing Arts Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd, West Palm Beach, 832-7469. Tickets range from $15 to $35.


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