While Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is not that good at a-pickin', he does have moderate skills in a-grinnin'.
"Mister Guitar" is called that for a reason.
On June 30, 2001, Chester Atkins, Certified Guitar Player, died at his home in Nashville, TN. Unassuming and completely unpretentious, Atkins probably would have been just fine with the fact that his passing didn't generate a big to-do, massive tribute festivals, or anything other than a mention on the evening news.
Chet Atkins, in the world of music, wasn't just great. He was a colossus. Everything—and I mean everything—you hear on popular radio today has been influenced by Atkins, or by the artists Atkins developed, influenced, or both. This all-too-brief documentary from MPI Home Video, originally developed as one of those legendary TNN/Bravo/Canada co-productions (coming soon: the all-new game show "Alcoholic Hillbilly, Gay, or Toronto Maple Leaf?"), barely scratches the surface of the Atkins story. Even in 43 minutes, though, you're left with an idea of the impact Atkins had on the music industry.
First and foremost, Atkins was a brilliant guitarist. He was self-taught, growing up less-than-dirt-poor in ultra-rural eastern Tennessee (as did one of his later discoveries, Dolly Parton). His older half-brother Jim, also a guitarist, served as an early inspiration. Eventually, Jim wound up as a backing musician for Les Paul and Mary Ford; Les wound up selling (at a big discount) a used guitar to Jim to give to young Chet. But it was listening to Merle Travis that changed Chet's musical career forever. Travis was a fingerpicker—he used his index finger to pluck the melody on the guitar while his thumb played the baseline. But his index finger was so fast it sounded like he was using two or three fingers to Chet. So Chet taught himself what is now known as the "Atkins method," a three-fingers-plus-thumb fingerpicking style that is incredibly difficult to learn, but which, when mastered, gives a guitarist the ability to play multiple notes very quickly. Atkins quickly developed the skill to play both lead and rhythm guitar parts at the same time, making his playing sound like that of two guitarists. Or, he could play two songs at once on the same guitar. (If you don't believe me, watch the DVD). Either way, his fingering on the frets was so precise and efficient that it looked effortless, even though in reality it was incredibly complex fingerwork. Beyond his playing skill, which was mainly a physical skill, Atkins also had great musical sense. He could play by ear, and had a great ear for what made a song successful. When he moved to Nashville, in the 1950s, he quickly became a highly in-demand session guitarist, playing on early Elvis Presley tracks, songs by the Carter Family, several Hank Williams numbers, and a number of other high-profile tracks.
His music ear helped him with what became his greatest legacy in music—his years running RCA's Nashville operation, out of the famous Studio B. When Steve Sholes—Elvis' A&R man—was "kicked upstairs" in the RCA organization after his success with Presley, Atkins was asked to take over the job of producing and developing RCA's Nashville roster. In over two decades of work, Atkins helped to create what is now known as the "Nashville sound," a more pop-oriented form of country music that expanded the genre's popularity outside the boundaries of the Deep South and the Appalachians. He also nurtured and developed new talent, such as Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Suzy Boguss, Floyd Cramer, and Charlie Pride. Unlike many musical geniuses, Atkins was infinitely willing to share his talent in order to further the careers of other talented people; and in Nashville, having Atkins on your side counted for a lot.
Later in life, Atkins stepped away from the production side of the business and went back to playing and recording himself. He cut a very successful duet album, Chester and Lester, with Les Paul. He also worked with legendary jazz guitarist George Benson, and Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler. All the while, he stayed the same person he was from the beginning: quiet, shy, unassuming, and humble.
Atkins was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1973; although he beat the cancer then, it returned in the 1990s. He kept performing for as long as he could, but succumbed to the disease in 2000. He lives on, though, in the multiple guitars he designed for Gretsch and Gibson. He's most associated with Gretsch, which put out the massive 6120 Chet Atkins model in 1954—a favorite of rockabilly artists to this day. However, Atkins had a falling-out with the company after the Gretsch family sold out to the Baldwin piano company, and switched his allegiance to Gibson. (He actually forbade Gretsch from using his name in connection with "his" guitar; only recently has his estate allowed the Chet Atkins line to return to Gretsch's lineup. (Gretsch is now owned by the Gretsch family again, although Fender actually manufactures and distributes the guitars.) Gibson was, of course, inextricably associated with his friend Les Paul, an equivalent guitar legend. (You have NOT heard the guitar played unless you've seen Les Paul play live. Trust me on that one.) Atkins' design for Gibson, the solid-body acoustic SST, is popular to this day.
This documentary look at Atkins' life is fascinating, but far too short. It was clearly designed to run in a one-hour television slot, but Atkins deserves so much more. Still, it packs a lot into its 43 minutes, including many, many encomiums from artists who were influenced or inspired by Atkins—a diverse crowd that ranges from Dolly Parton and Amy Grant to Peter Frampton and Steve Howe. A shorter (13 minutes or so) extra feature, "Pickin' with Mr. Guitar," has a tad more footage of Atkins playing (including a tantalizing bit of a live duet with Knopfler on Dire Straits' "Why Worry"), and more stories from the musicians (especially Randy Bachman). My favorite part is where Frampton (who, besides coming alive, also plays a damn fine guitar) demonstrates precisely how his style is a derivation of Atkins' style. Yes, it's kind of a guitar nerd thing—but I liked it.
I'd really love to say "you should watch the more-comprehensive (Documentary X) for a more comprehensive view of Atkins' career"—but unfortunately, there's nothing out there to fill in that blank. This is, unfortunately, it…as far as Chet Atkins documentaries goes. And we're never going to see a Walk The Line-style biopic about Atkins—he was a quiet, unassuming, humble guy, which makes for lousy drama. Until Atkins gets his just due on DVD, this solid but short disc will have to make do.
And Chet's probably just fine with that.
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