Refinement. It’s a word we’ve come to associate (sometimes incorrectly) with luxury brands and upscale dining. Musically, maybe the term conjures up a string quartet. It’s not what you see emblazoned on welcome signs to little Appalachian Mountain towns like Luttrell, Tennessee.
But to properly consider the career of Chester Burton Atkins, native son of said mountain town, the true meaning of refinement (“to make improvement by introducing subtleties or distinctions,” says Webster) could prove more than a little useful. Chet’s not the only small-town kid to become a major-league musician, cultural force, and executive, though few have achieved so much with such humility. But on the guitar, where nails meet strings, Chet stands pretty much alone. He didn’t just create new techniques, à la Earl Scruggs and the banjo. He brought refinement from a most improbable place to a most improbable genre. His genius was in taming the wild hillbilly guitar 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 patterns, backed by a fingerpicking bounce. And although the great Andrés Segovia imperiously 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.
The accolades have been many, and Chet was well rewarded on Earth as he is, one trusts, in the beyond. But it is unfortunate that among the general public nowadays, Chet is not as well known as he might be in the pantheon of great American musicians. He’s at a seeming disadvantage to fellow instrumental pioneers who also did a lot of singing, such as Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, or Bill Monroe. Popular music has methodically purged instrumental music— Chet’s purview—from radio, television, and Top 40, so parts of whole generations have grown up never having heard a solo guitar tune. Guitar playing in pop music has all but vanished in the mix, and country guitar has become largely indistinguishable from rock guitar of the 1980s. Chet’s 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 microlevel 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.