Chet Atkins, a seminal figure in country music as an innovative guitarist and producer who was instrumental in shaping "the Nashville sound," died Saturday in that city. He was 77.
Atkins, who battled cancer for several years and had a tumor removed from his brain in 1997, died at his home, a funeral director said.
More than any other single figure, Atkins turned the twangy country sound of the 1950s into the more polished pop-friendly style that country music is today.
As a producer and A&R (artists and repertoire) man, his musical vision, including the introduction of string sections, allowed the new country sound to fit easily into pop music radio formats as well as those of country stations. Listeners turned off by rock music gravitated to Atkins' vision of country music. And although some country purists criticized his innovations, many historians have saluted his vision.
As a talent scout, Atkins was golden. His first RCA signing was Don Gibson, who enjoyed an immediate hit with "Oh, Lonesome Me." Atkins also signed Jerry Reed and Waylon Jennings and was instrumental in signing Charley Pride, one of the first African American country singers.
Atkins' studio credits include formative work with Elvis Presley, Gibson, Jennings, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.
Of his approach as a producer, Atkins said in an interview for the Country Music Encyclopedia: "What I do is listen a lot during a recording session and try to pick up some little something from the musicians playing on the session that might make the record more commercial.
"A lot of us producers have picked up reputations as specialists with the help of some musician who tried just a little harder or experimented with an unusual sound."
As a leading guitarist, Atkins performed on more than 75 albums that sold tens of millions of copies around the world. His playing can be heard on legendary recordings such as Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and the Everlys' "Wake Up, Little Susie."
Respect for Atkins went well beyond the country boundaries of Nashville. He shared the stage or time in the recording studio with jazz musicians (including George Benson, Larry Carlton and Earl Klugh), rock musicians (including an entire album with Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler) and several symphony orchestras.
Other recording partners over the years ranged from Les Paul to Ravi Shankar. The Beatles' George Harrison was one of many rock fans of Atkins.
Several years ago, Guitar Player magazine named Atkins the most influential instrumental stylist in popular music.
Leo Kottke, himself a noted guitarist who shared billing with Atkins, told a reporter for The Times that Atkins' style has become so influential and pervasive that people forget it all started with one man.
"He's an essential guy, I think," Kottke said. "He's pretty much invented the sort of finger style that everybody who plays with their fingers is involved in now. There were players before him, but Chet was the first guy to synthesize a lot of these influences and really come up with something.
"He makes like he's just one of the boys, but he's an originator, a creator, and you can feel that in his playing," Kottke continued. "He probably has the best touch there is, in the kind of soul he gets out of his playing. He captures a special point in time every time he plays."
Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, recalled Atkins as a quiet, self-effacing man.
"In the times I interviewed him," Hilburn said, "he was invariably gracious, more eager to talk about some new talent he had just seen than any of his early accomplishments.
"Besides asking him about some of his work with legendary artists, I'd often ask how he spotted so much raw talent," Hilburn said. "But Atkins would just shrug and say anyone could have spotted the talent.
"That's not true," he said. "Atkins' ability as a guitar player helped him make memorable music in his early days, but it was his insight into the creative process that helped him spot great talent and his compassion as a human being that helped him coax the best out of an artist."
The guitarist was born Chester Burton Atkins on June 20, 1924, near Luttrell, Tenn. His father was was a music teacher, piano tuner and evangelical singer.
While young Chet was growing up in rural east Tennessee, asthma left him in such poor health that he missed months of school. When he was 8, he got a guitar--and it became his solace.
As he wrote 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."
Early on, Atkins had a broad musical diet.
"My dad was a classical piano and voice teacher, so I grew up hearing that music," he said in an interview with The Times. "Then I heard a lot of religious and gospel music.