and taking it to places it had never been,
including pop radio, major symphony halls,
and even the White House.
Where there had been 6-string chunk
and jangle, he brought intricacy and grace.
Mother Maybelle Carter, whom Chet
revered, had already enlivened the country
strum with melody notes that seemed to float
above a steady harmony part. Chet developed
that idea with his fingers, because melody
was his beacon and the secret of his popular
success. Chet, also via radio, copped from
Merle Travis and taught himself to weave
bass lines and melodies together in lacy pat-
terns, backed by a fingerpicking bounce. And
although the great Andrés Segovia imperi-
ously snubbed Chet when they met, Chet
fused Segovian technique and sophistication
with Travis’ walking bass lines and Maybelle’s
mountainside soul. This remarkable approach
was mature by 1950, and Atkins spent the
next 50 years refining it even further.
Photo courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
approach—arguably the apex of guitar
artistry in country—lives on in careers like
Tommy Emmanuel or the much younger
Ben Hall. And there’s a marvelous annual
gathering of the Chet Atkins Appreciation
Society every year in Nashville. But
America, and American music, could use a
lot more Chet Atkins and his musical values.
A special, yearlong exhibit at the
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
in Nashville will help rectify this situation.
It fills only one room, but with video, documents, and a painstaking reconstruction
of Chet’s workbench, Chet Atkins: Certified
Guitar Player offers a concentrated dose
of all that Chet accomplished as an artist,
executive, producer, and human being.
There are cases full of guitars, Grammy
Awards, photos and correspondence, but
the workbench—exactly as Chet left it
upon his death in 2001—is a highlight. It
feels a bit like stepping into the cover of
Chet Atkins’ Workshop LP from 1961. It’s
full of vacuum tubes, pickups, homemade
effects boxes, snapshots, and a soldering
iron. It looks like the inveterate tinkerer
just stepped out of the room. It’s a micro-level look at an outsized legacy.
The exhibit tells Chet’s story in a variety
of ways, but most absorbing for lovers of
the instrument will be the guitars themselves. Since Chet’s death, the Hall of Fame
has been the official caretaker of Chet’s
instruments, and seven or eight, including
the D’Angelico Excel described below, have
been on permanent display for years. But
another baker’s dozen were pulled out of
storage for this exhibit. From the primitive
Sears Silvertone to the sublime classical
electrics, one can trace a story of passion
and professionalism in these instruments.
He didn’t collect for collection’s sake; he
regarded the instruments as tools of a
trade. He is said to have had one guitar or
another in his hands nearly every waking
hour of his life.
Chet’s biography is not of special interest for its personal dramas or his profound
complexities and paradoxes, as is the case
with so many musical masters. That just
wasn’t him. Chet was as well-liked and
well-adjusted a man as there has been on
Music Row, and he was married to the same
woman, the beloved Leona, from the 1940s
until death did them part. His story is written almost entirely in music and with the
guitars he played.