Chet Atkins Remembered
As delivered by Garrison Keillor at Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN, July 3, 2001
"I went up home to east Tennessee the other day. I was invited, went and saw a dozen folks that I hadn't seen in 45 or 50 years. Every damn one of them said, 'I'll bet you don't know who I am,' etc. I admitted I didn't and they seemed disappointed. I left there when I had just turned 11. I received an award for just growing up there, I suppose, and I couldn't think of one nice thing to say. Those were some of the worst years of the old man's life, don't you know. But even the bad ones are good now that I think about it.
"Back to the sunny side of life, I played New Bedford, Mass. last Saturday and did very well. I am warmer in the provinces, don't you know. I had a screamer in the audience. Saw her later and she wasn't all that bad, about thirty-five, a feller could run some of that weight off of her and maybe fall in love. Some of the folks had been to my other shows, tho, because when I went into my ad libs, it seemed like they had heard it all before. Anyway I got some bifocal contact lenses the other day for when performing. This morning I got the left one in in about ten seconds, the other one took thirty minutes. I kept jabbing it in my eye and the damn thing kept sticking to my finger. I expect the people to audibly say, 'Who is that young cock up there?' Or I may hear them say, 'How does a man his age see to play without specs?' Anyway, when I got on the plane in Boston, I went to the toilet and get some Kleenex. Well, I opened the door and there sat a lady on the john. I took the time to say, 'Oh, excuse me' (why, I don't know) and got the hell out of there. I'm still embarrassed and it wasn't my fault. This has happened to me three times since 1942 and every time it has been a lady. Well, I probably have walked in on men but that is so uneventful. Anyway, I went back to my seat and composed a personals ad: 'Former star with youthful body and only slight loss of hair, is athletic and enjoys listening to country music, especially his own recordings, desires to meet young beautiful twenty-year-old star. Females only please.' Maybe you could use it on your show.
As ever, Chet"
It's fitting to meet here at the Ryman because it was here, on a Saturday night in the summer of 1946, Red Foley came on The Grand Ole Opry and sang "Old Shep" and then, before the commercial break for Prince Albert in a can, nodded to his guitarist and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Chester Atkins will now play 'Maggie' on the acoustic guitar," and Mr. Atkins did, and afterward Minnie Pearl came up and kissed him and said, "You're a wonderful musician, you're just what we've been needing around here."
He played guitar in a style that hadn't been seen before, with a thumb pick for the bass note and two fingers to play the contrapuntal melody, and at a time when guitarists were expected to be flashy and play "Under The Double Eagle" with the guitar up behind their head, this one hunched down over the guitar and made it sing, made a melody line that was beautiful and legato. A woman wrote, who saw him play in a roadhouse in Cincinnati in 1946, "He sat hunched in the spotlight and played and the whole room suddenly got quiet. It was a drinking and dancing crowd, but there was something about Chet Atkins that could take your breath away."
Chester Burton Atkins was born June 20, 1924, the son of Ida Sharp and James Arley Atkins, a music teacher and piano tuner and singer, near Luttrell, Tennessee, on the farm of his grandfather who fought on the Union side in the Civil War.
Chet was born into a mess of trouble: his people were poor, his folks split up when he was 6, he suffered from asthma, he grew up lonely and scared, tongue-tied and shy. His older brothers played music and he listened and when he was six, he got a ukulele. When he broke a string, he pulled a wire off the screen door and tuned it up. He took up the guitar when he was 9, a Sears Silvertone with the action about a half-inch high at the 12th fret, torture to play. He'd tune it up to a major chord and play it with a kitchen knife for a slide, Hawaiian style, "Steel Guitar Rag". When he was 11, he went to live with his daddy in Columbus, Georgia, where on a summer day you could see the snake tracks in the dust on a dirt road, but at night the radio brought in Cincinnati and Atlanta and Knoxville and even New York City.
That was the music that spoke to his heart.
Chet got a lot of music from his dad, who was a trained singer --- the old hymns and sentimental ballads, which Chet remembered all his life ---- he could sing you several verses of "In The Gloaming" or "Seeing Nellie Home," whether you asked for them or not --- and he knew the fiddle tunes and mountain music that he picked up trying to play the fiddle --- but on the radio he heard music that really entranced him, that was freer and looser and more jangly and elegant and attitudinous. His brother Jim played rhythm guitar with Les Paul when Les was with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians and Chet paid close attention to that, and to George Barnes and the Sons of the Pioneers and the Hoosier Hot Shots, and Merle Travis who he heard on a crystal set from WLW in Cincinnati. (Merle was a big hero of his and he named his daughter Merle; luckily for her, Chet didn't feel so strongly about Riley Puckett or Low Stokes or Gid Tanner.) Chet tried to get the Merle Travis sound, and in the process, he came up with his own and then, he discovered Django Reinhardt and that set something loose in him.
You might be shy and homely and puny and from the sticks and feel looked down upon, but if you could play the guitar like that, you would be aristocracy and never have to point it out, anybody with sense would know it and the others don't matter anyway.
He met Django backstage once in Chicago when Django was touring with Duke Ellington and got his autograph. Chet said, "I wanted to play for him but I didn't get the chance." But in Knoxville, doing the Midday Merry Go Round, he met Homer and Jethro,Henry Haynes and Kenneth Burns, who were hip to Django too and on Chet's wavelength and in 1949 they made an instrumental album called "Galloping Guitar" ---- sort of the Hot Club of Nashville. It got some airplay and that was his first big success and he was on his way.
Chet had dropped out of high school to go into radio and the music business --- first with Jumping Bill Carlisle and Archie Campbell in Knoxville, and Johnnie & Jack in Raleigh, then Red Foley in Chicago and Springfield, Missouri, and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. In Cincinnati, he met Leona Johnson, who was singing on WLW with her twin sister Lois, and after a year of courtship they married in 1946. He wrote in 1984: "Our percolator went out the other day and we counted up…she has stayed with me through four of them. If I were her, I wouldn't have stayed around through the first one, which was a non-electric. After drinking coffee, there would be a residue on the cup and folks would read it and tell your fortune. Anyway, she is mine and she is a winner."
Chet got himself fired plenty of times along the way, a badge of honor for a musician with a mind of his own, and he kept getting fired in an upward direction and wound up coming to Nashville and WSM and the Opry and RCA, under the patronage of Fred Rose and Steve Sholes. He got to see the end of the era of the medicine show and the hillbilly band with the comedian with the blacked-out teeth and the beginnings of rock n' roll --- Chet had a front-row seat, as the guitarist, and he remembered everything he saw and he knew stories about a lot of people in this room that are not in your official press packets. In his recollections, he was kind but he was honest, like the bartender in "Frankie and Johnny" --- "I don't want to cause you no trouble but I ain't gonna tell you no lies."
This was a man who knew the icons close-up --- he could talk about Hank Williams and Elvis and Patsy Cline and Mother Maybelle Carter and who they really were and what was on their minds and what they ate for breakfast. He knew so many giants.
This man was a giant himself. He was the guitar player of the 20th Century. He was the model of who you should be and what you should look like. You could tell it whenever he picked up a guitar, the way it fit him. His upper body was shaped to it, from a lifetime of playing: his back was slightly hunched, his shoulders rounded, and the guitar was the missing piece. He was an artist and there was no pretense in him; he never waved the flag or held up the cross or traded on his own sorrows. He was the guitarist. His humor was self-deprecating; he was his own best critic. He inspired all sorts of players who never played anything like him. He was generous and admired other players' work and he told them so. He had a natural reserve to him, but when he admired people, he went all out to tell them about it. And because there was no deception in him, his praise meant more than just about anything else. If Chet was a fan of yours, you never needed another one.
He was not a saint. He was a restless man. He'd be in a room and then he'd need to be somewhere else. He had deep moods that came and went and that he couldn't enunciate. He had a certain harmless vanity to him. There was an album cover late in his career with a picture air-brushed to make him look about 23 that we had to kid him about. He liked synthesizers more than he maybe ought to have. He sometimes kicked his golf ball to improve his lie.
When he was almost fifty, he had a stroke of good luck, when he got colon cancer and thought he was going to die, and when he didn't die, he found a whole new love of life. He walked away from the corporate music world and fell in love with the guitar again and went all over performing with Paul Yandell, playing with all the great orchestras, notably the Boston Pops, and started living by his own clock, so he had time to sit and talk with people and pick music with them and enjoy the social side of music and have more fun. "I haven't learned to exercise the right of privacy," he said. "Folks are always calling and I drop everything and entertain them." He had a gift for friendship. He was so generous with stories. Some of us are able to impersonate storytellers but Chet was the real thing, and if you drove around Nashville with him, he remembered one after another, it was a documentary movie about country music. Chet loved so many people. He especially loved the ones who seemed a little wild to him and who made him laugh. He loved his grandkids Jonathan and Amanda, and talked them up every change he got, though I don't know how wild they were. Dolly Parton always made him laugh, the way she flirted with him. A few months ago, she came to see him, he was in bed, dying, and she made him laugh for about an hour, telling him things I'm not about to repeat here. He loved Waylon Jennings. He loved Lenny Breaux. Jerry Reed. Ray Stevens. Vince Gill. Stever Wariner. And Brother Dave Gardner, the hipster revivalist comedian who Chet discovered doing stand-up in a Nashville club between sets as a drummer and who said, "Dear hearts, gathered here to rejoice in the glorious Southland. Joy to the world! The South has always been the South. And I believe the only reason that folks live in the north is because they have jobs up there."
He loved doing shows. He never had a bad night. He played some notes he didn't mean to play but they never were bad notes. They simply were other notes. He was such a professional it was hard to bug him but I succeeded when we did a show together and at the end I took his hand and we took a bow together. The next night, he said to me before the show, "Don't take my hand on stage that way, you know what people will think, you being a northern liberal and all." I found that during the bow I could make him flinch just by gesturing toward him.
He liked to be alone backstage. He liked it quiet and calm in the dressing room and he counted on George Lunn to make it that way. I remember him backstage, alone, walking around in the cavernous dark of some opera house out west, holding the guitar, playing, singing to himself; he needed to be alone with himself and get squared away, because the Chet people saw on stage was the same Chet you hung around with in his office, joking with Paul about having a swimming pool shaped like a guitar amp, the joke about "By the time I learned I couldn't tune very well, I was too rich to care," and singing "Would Jesus Wear A Rolex," and "I Just Can't Say Goodbye" and ending the show with his ravishing beautiful solo, "Vincent," the audience sitting in rapt silence. It was all the same Chet who sat at home with Leona, watching a golf tournament with the sound off, and playing his guitar, a long stream-of-consciousness medley in which twenty or thirty tunes came together perfectly, as in a dream, his daddy's songs and the Banks of the Ohio and Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Smile and Stephen Foster and Boudleaux Bryant and the Beatles and Freight Train, one long sparkling stream of music, as men in plaid pants hit their long high approach shots in a green paradise.
He said: "I enjoy the fruits of my efforts but I have never felt comfortable promoting myself. The condition is worsening now that I am on the back nine. My passion for the guitar and for fame is slowly dying and it makes me sad. I never thought my love for the guitar would fade. There are a lot of reasons, as we get older the high frequencies go, music doesn't sound so good. And for some damn reason after hearing so many great players, I lose the competitive desire. Here I am baring my soul. That's good tho, isn't it. I'm not a Catholic but I love that facet of their religion."
Chet was curious and thoughtful about religion, though he was dubious about shysters and TV evangelist. He said, "I am seventy and still don't know anything about life, what universal entity designed the body I live in or what will come after I am gone. I figure there will be eternity and nothing much else. Like pulling a finger out of water. If it as the Baptists claim, I think I would tire of streets of gold and would want to see brick houses. I believe that when I die I'll probably go to Minnesota. The last time I was up there, it was freezing and I remember smiling and my upper lip went up and didn't come back down."
God looks on the heart and is a God of mercy and loving kindness beyond our comprehension, and in that faith let us commend his spirit to the Everlasting, may the angels bear him up, and may eternal light shine upon him, and may he run into a lot of his old friends, and if he should wind up in Minnesota, we will do our best to take care of him until the rest of you come along.
Copyright Garrison Keillor, as appears in The Keillor Reader