Each year in August, the County Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville opens a focused exhibit on one of the members of the Hall of Fame. This year, Chet Atkins (1924-2001), was honored.
Widely regarded as one of, if not the best, guitarists Nashville has known, Atkins was called the “Country Gentleman.” Throughout a career of more than 50 years, he garnered no salacious headlines nor displayed poor behavior. He was married to the same woman for 55 years. In his teenage years, he developed a unique thumb-and-two-finger playing style which brought him fame and adulation for the rest of his life. The exhibit notes that while using three fingers to articulate chords and melodies, he sounded like two or more guitars playing simultaneously.
“Chet Atkins was country music’s ultimate Renaissance man, one of the greatest instrumentalists in American music history and a true musical savant,” said Museum Director Kyle Young. “His signature guitar licks shaped recordings by scores of legendary artists, including the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley and Kitty Wells, and his playing influenced future rock gods Duane Eddy, George Harrison, Mark Knopfler and many more.
Atkins began a recording career, signing his first contract in 1947, but not without setbacks. He was fired by a station in Missouri for sounding too “hillbilly.”
He found work as a session musician, a member of the “A Team of Studio B,” and broke through with his first hit, “Mister Sandman,” in 1955. Atkins spent time as a producer and was named vice president of RCA. Eddy Arnold, Skeeter Davis, Bobby Bare and Floyd Cramer were some of Atkins’ success stories. In 1965, he signed one of the first black country singers, Charley Pride, to RCA.
“I was in show business and happy to be in it and never thought of doing something else,” Atkins said. “It never entered my mind that I should wise up and get a real job.”
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, and from 1967 to 1988, he won the Country Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year award 11 times. In the same year that he won his 15th Grammy award, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died four years later, at age 77, in 2001. The exhibit features many personal photos and belongings. Curators have created Atkins’ basement where mementos of his hobbies – golf, photography and ham radios – can be seen. His workbench has been reassembled as he left it in 2001 upon his death with his harmonica, tools, and ashtray on display.
Elsewhere, visitors can see the envelope from the awards night when he won Best Instrumentalist. There are photos of Atkins and JFK after a performance, a photo of Atkins golfing with Jimmy Carter, a slot machine he owned and videos of Atkins performances and interviews.
“Years from now, after I’m gone, someone will listen to what I’ve done and know I was here. They may not know or care who I was, but they’ll hear my guitars speaking for me,” said Atkins. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is located at 222 5th Avenue. South in Nashville, Tenn. For complete information, visit www.countrymusichalloffame.org. Extensive supplemental material on Chet Atkins, including musical
performances, is available on the website. Visitors to Tennessee will find a wealth of information from the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development. Call them at 615-741-2159 or visit www.tnvacation.com.