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Experienced, to Some Degree : Chet Atkins, CGP, Still Picks His Spots in a Career That's Been Anything but Abbreviated

October 04, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chet Atkins could have gotten a Ph.D. in recognition of his half-century as a guitar ace, but he is a wryly self-effacing sort who is content to remain a plain old CGP.

"Chet Atkins, CGP"--for "Certified Guitar Player"--is how he has been signing his name since 1983.

"There was a photographer--he's dead now--who did a cover for my album, 'Yestergroovin'.' He called himself 'Hillbilly Snapshooter,' and once in a while he would abbreviate it. That's where I got the idea: 'I'll give myself a degree; I always wanted one,' " Atkins, who plays Thursday at the Coach House and Friday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, recalled last week from his office in Nashville, Tenn.

Nobody could deny that he put in the requisite course work before his self-certification. Drawing on his key influences--Merle Travis, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt--Atkins developed a style of his own that laid the basis for much of the twanging that has come out of Nashville since the 1950s.

Atkins also was one of country music's leading record producers from the late '50s through the 1970s, adding strings and lush backing choruses to create a pop-influenced style that came to be called the Nashville Sound.

His diverse interests are reflected on his scores of albums, with cuts ranging from "Slinkey," a 1958 rock 'n' roll instrumental that anticipated the reverb-soaked, Southern California surf-guitar sound, to sweet offerings of standards and pop ballads.

Atkins could further justify his CGP degree by noting that he backed Hank Williams on stage and in the studio (cutting "Jambalaya," "Kaw-Liga" and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive"), played rhythm guitar on Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" and performed on many of the Everly Brothers' hits.

And he could point out that his fans include George Harrison, who wrote liner notes for the album "Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles," and Paul McCartney, who had Atkins play on one of his solo B-sides.

Last year, Atkins says, he had a chance to add another set of initials to his signature, when Cumberland College in his home state of Tennessee wanted to award him an honorary doctorate.

"I've been offered those things, but I never did accept," Atkins, 71, said in his courteous, husky-voiced drawl. "I don't want a degree unless I earn it. I'd rather be a CGP."

On his recordings lately, the CGP has come off as more of an SPG--for sociable guitar player. Duets and collaborations have been the rule for Atkins in the '90s, including albums made with singer Suzy Bogguss and singer-guitarists Mark Knopfler and Jerry Reed. "Read My Licks," billed as a solo release last year, featured a slew of guest pickers and singers, including Knopfler, George Benson, Bogguss and Steve Wariner.

Now, because of feedback he has been getting through his fan club, Atkins is at work on a truly solo album that he likely will title "Almost Alone." Atkins says that, except for a few string embellishments and a bit of outside guitar help, it will be just himself, his guitar and his foot tapping out a beat on the floor.

"My old, devoted fans want that; it's the way I used to play," he said. "It's tough playing a tune [unaccompanied] for two or three minutes and keeping it interesting musically. I've done it before, but not for a long time."

Atkins isn't one to minimize the difficulties of playing the guitar well enough to be a certified practitioner of it. He does, however, consistently play down his own accomplishments with light, self-critical quips. It's worth noting that the Country Music Hall of Fame certified Atkins' career by inducting him in 1973, a full 10 years before he decided to certify himself as a "guitar player."

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Atkins was born in Luttrell, in eastern Tennessee, and was playing guitar by age 6. He says that as a small boy he announced his intention of becoming famous playing it. His older brother and stepfather (Atkins' parents divorced when he was 6)--were not just critical of his intentions, he says, but cruelly mocking.

"I was put down all the time by my family and everybody. They would make fun of me when I would express my ambitions. 'You jug-eared bucktooth, you'll never do that.' But you need that; it makes you try harder, and I had enough of that to go a long way. I had low self-esteem."

Troubled by asthma, Atkins moved south to Georgia for most of his teens, where he lived with his birth father, a singer and music teacher. Atkins said his dad recommended he concentrate on piano or violin instead of the guitar, but by then--around age 12--there was no turning back.

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"When you're young, you take it to the bathroom; you sleep with it. Those are the people who excel, people who are eaten up with the guitar and love it. I was that way. I suppose my passion for the instrument has dissipated somewhat, but I still love it. I still can't be anywhere without a guitar, and I love to play all the time."

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