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FINGER-PICKING GOOD : He Makes Like He's Just One of the Boys, but Chet Atkins Is a True Guitar Pioneer

June 04, 1992|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Chet Atkins was on TV the other week on a show honoring the Country Music Hall of Fame, of which he was the youngest inductee (he was 49 when tabbed in 1973). He was jamming with several of Nashville's hottest musicians, all a couple of generations his junior, in a session recorded in RCA's fabled Studio B, where decades ago Atkins helped launch modern country music and a fledgling new style called rock 'n' roll. The studio is now a museum, which led Atkins to quip, "I guess that makes me a museum piece."

If so, the guitarist, who turns 68 on June 20, is at least a touring exhibition, and one that grows in worth by the day. He still hits the road for a comfortable 30 dates a year, playing in contexts as varied as symphonic concerts and club dates with the likes of Leo Kottke, with whom he performs at the Coach House Saturday. And he still has a guitar in his hands at every idle moment, trying to expand and improve his already impeccable craft.

Over the phone Atkins more than lives up to his nickname of the Country Gentleman, fielding questions with a modesty and dry wit that would never lead one to suspect that without his influence Nashville and country music might not be the forces they are today.

As a producer and A&R (Artists and Repertoire) man in the '50s, he was credited with shaping "the Nashville Sound," an infusion of country music with pop styles, without which country might never have weathered the rock age. His studio credits include formative work with Elvis Presley, Don Gibson, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings and a host of others.

While the Nashville Sound eventually came to represent the production cliches that threatened to choke the life out of country, when Atkins introduced them they were fresh, expanded the music and brought it new listeners. Atkins always was on the lookout for new sounds, and pioneered some of the studio techniques and technical advances that have reached throughout the recording industry.

As a guitarist, which Atkins first and foremost has always been, he brought respect to a music that had been dismissed as "that hillbilly noise." Country had a few stellar instrumentalists before him--including Merle Travis, who was a huge influence on Atkins' playing--but it was Atkins' remarkable finger-picking style that set a standard for musicianship that put country on a footing with jazz and other musical art forms. His guitar albums have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and Guitar Player magazine names him the most influential instrumental stylist in popular music.

The line of guitars bearing his name that he helped the Gretsch company design in the '50s and '60s were adopted by newer generations of musicians, including Atkins fan George Harrison of the Beatles, and are now so rare and valued that they sell for about $5,000, a sum beyond the reach of most working musicians. He continues to design new guitars with Gibson.

Not bad for a fellow who describes himself as "a dim bulb in the marquee of show business," a phrase he borrowed from his friend Garrison Keillor.

"I haven't been real big where people had a chance to get tired of me," Atkins said. "The reason I've had such longevity, I think, is that I've never been a fan of myself. I can't stand to hear my records. I've never gotten it the way I wanted, never got the sound I wanted, never phrased the way I wanted, never used substitution chords the way I wanted. I'm constantly fighting mediocrity with all my energy, afraid that it might catch up with me."

Growing up in rural east Tennessee, asthma left him in such poor health that he missed months of school, which only increased the shyness and feelings of inferiority he felt as a child. When he was 8, he got a guitar--a beat-up acoustic (electric guitars didn't exist yet)--and it became his solace.

As he explained in his 1974 autobiography, "Country Gentleman": "That guitar, and the others that followed it, would absorb almost every moment I could find for it for the rest of my life. I would lean on it for the love I never seemed to have enough of and depend on it for the friendships I didn't always find."

He pestered local musicians to teach him their licks, or got them off his crystal radio. The reception was so poor, though, that he could barely make out what Merle Travis and others were doing, so he developed his own distinctive finger-picking style. When he did finally get a newfangled pickup and amplifier to make his guitar electric, he encountered another problem: neither his family nor any of their neighbors had houses with electricity.

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