Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player, Honorary Audio Engineer
We got a nice surprise in the mail today: 3 copies of the March 2003 issue of Mister Guitar magazine, the journal of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society. The cover story is by yours truly -- it's an edited version of a piece I wrote about Chet Atkins when he addressed the Audio Engineering Society convention in 1999.
Here's the unedited version, published online in September, 1999:
It began with these words, projected on a large screen:
"Warning: Attempting to play guitar like Chet Atkins can lead to numbness in fingers, sleeplessness, and feelings of inadequacy."
And then a quotation from the man himself: "I told my dad I wanted to be a musician when I grew up, and he said, 'Son, you can't do both.' " A video presentation followed, chronicling Chet's progress from the hills of East Tennessee (near Knoxville) to the plateau of Middle Tennessee (Nashville) and all over the world along the way. Atkins, who uses the initials c.g.p. (certified guitar player) after his name, seemed to be looking at his hands in every clip they showed. To what end, I couldn't say, since his fingers often moved faster than the eye could follow.
The video ended as it had begun, with a screenful of text:
"And now, will you please welcome Mark Knopfler."
So we did. Knopfler said he understood those feelings of inadequacy very well - he first felt them when he listened to Chet Atkins records as a boy. "It was like guitar playing from another planet," he said. As we know, Knopfler grew up to be quite a guitar player himself, and a few years ago, Atkins called him up in England and asked him to come to Nashville to record with him. Knopfler wasted no time getting to the airport. When he landed in Nashville, Atkins was there to meet him, asking, "Want to go to the Gibson factory?" Eventually, they made it to Atkins's house, where Knopfler worked up his courage and got out his guitar. "I'm just trying not to shake, you know, and he says to his assistant, 'Hey Paul. He's got a thumb about as long as my foot.' I think that's what he said. Foot. Yeah, that was it.
"All sorts of people in Nashville got into the business through Chet, fed their families through Chet. And in listening to him tell the story of a small boy walking on a dirt road in the winter with no coat because his family didn't have money for one - he was that boy - I have learned that poverty engenders something: tremendous determination. Chet Atkins picked his way through poverty, picked his way to being the most admired guitar player in the world, and then he became one of the most successful producers in music," Knopfler said.
"Radio was probably the thing that fired Chet up most. He built his own radio when he was nine years old. Radio was exciting then." Knopfler was interrupted by applause at that point. When it subsided, he went on. "He gave up on the corporate system when it got to the point when he was having to fill out corporate performance reviews and all that. You know, 'Is your artist doing A, B, other? Is your artist male, female, other? Has your artist got one testicle....?' " More applause.
Chet Atkins was the first to mic a bass drum, on the song "Oh, Lonesome Me." He was the first to include the pedal steel guitar on a country song (seems like it's always been there, doesn't it?). "The records he made himself, he made at home. The record that we made, we made at home," Knopfler said.
Then Atkins himself made his way to the stage, slowly. He had helpers on either side as he walked, as well as a cane. We gave him a standing ovation. Knopfler's admiration and affection for Atkins was clear as he helped the c.g.p. onto a stool behind the podium, then stood at the back of the stage while Atkins talked. Atkins apologized for his condition: "I've had a brain tumor and a stroke and I can't remember a damn thing." He did fairly well, all things considered. At times he seemed to forget what he was talking about, or he'd pause to search for a word. But he'd look at his notes and get back on track, even if he wasn't at the same place on the track he'd been before. I've done my best to reproduce the highlights here. Tapes of the awards ceremony and keynote address are available at Confcopy.com, tape #01 of meeting #AU9901.
"Is Les Paul here today?" Atkins called out. The spotlight was on him, and the rest of the room was dark. And silent. "Hope he's not sick. I woulda come to yours, you know.
"My first guitar belonged to my brother Jimmy Atkins. Some of y'all might remember him. He came in one day from school, and I was playing with his guitar. I wasn't even old enough to go to school then, and I didn't know what to do with it. I put rocks in it and I was dragging it through the dirt and grass. That was in 1929."
At one point, Atkins got a little close to the mic and it popped. "Pardon the p," he said. My first engineer that came to Nashville, he wouldn't let anybody get close to a mic, afraid they'd pop a p, like I just did.
"The first radio I build, I got the coil out of a model T Ford. I took a wire from - what do you call that thing? - and I wrapped it around a piece of cedar wood. I put up an antenna and got WNOX in Knoxville. That was in 1935. The earpiece was one of those old-fashioned telephone receivers. Then I got to having asthma so bad, my mother wrote to Dad and told him to come and get me. I was too dumb to know how sick I was. If I hadn'ta been, I mighta died.
"That's a J-O-A-K," he explained.
"I built my second radio in 1938 or '39, bought the parts from Allied Radio in Chicago. I think that's now Radio Shack. For the tube I used an RK 43 dual-purpose tube. I saw the schematic in a magazine. We were building a school; it was one of Mrs. Roosevelt's things. Some of these days I'm going to build another radio, if anybody knows where I could get one of those RK 43 dual-purpose tubes.
"I feel kinda strange talking to all you engineers. My interest & knowledge of electronics is pretty weak.
"Merle Travis turned me onto fingerpicking. I already played finger-style, but not like I do now.
"I built a ham radio during the war, but they wouldn't let me use it. I went along with them. You don't want to play around with the government during a war."
At his first New York recording session, with Red Foley, "I sat there all day with my guitar in my hands and my amp turned on. And then Red - no, not Red Skelton. But I do have a drawing of a clown he gave me in a guitar case somewhere. I hope I still have it. I hear they're real valuable now. I sat through two sessions, and they never offered to use me. And finally on the last tune, a song Fred Rose had written, 'Lonely River Keep on Rolling,' they asked me, 'Could you play something along with this?' And I was just an arrogant kid from East Tennessee, I said, 'That's what I'm here for!' That song with Red was a slight hit, and I really enjoyed popping a dime in the jukebox and hearing myself play."
Atkins worked on several radio shows, and got fired several times. "I moved to Nashville in 1951. I was working in Springfield, Missouri, for $75 a week, and being no dummy, I called Fred Rose and asked him if he'd pay me that much. He asked me if I'd come and try to write some songs with Hank Williams. I came down here, and we were sponsored by Martha White Flour." Atkins began singing, not the Martha White theme, but the Powdermilk biscuits theme from A Prairie Home Companion. "Oh, wait. Garrison's not here," he said.
"I got a contract with RCA, so I came up here and recorded for 2 or 3 months. A fellow in Cairo, Illinois, designed an amp and brought it to me. I had been looking all over for echo or something to provide roominess. That was it. And there was some guy at Gretsch who kept after me to play one of their guitars, and finally I just said, 'I don't like your guitars.' And they guy said, 'Well, how about if you design one of your own?' I said sure. I wanted to be like Les Paul. So I called up Les and I asked him what royalty I should ask for for that, you know, like 3 percent or 5 percent of retail or wholesale. I don't know much about money. I never look at it or count it. Anyway, I forget what he told me."
Atkins was assigned to work with Elvis Presley in 1955, "and then they put me in charge of the country roster. I've always been good in the studio. My dad was a classical musician and my brother was a pop musician, and I - I don't know what I was. I was better than some of the older musicians, though, because I knew three chords instead of two."
Mark Knopfler stepped forward to help his mentor down from the stool and off the stage. We gave him another standing ovation.
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @5:31 PM