Steve, holding the Del Vecchio resonator used on his latest album, My Tribute to Chet Atkins
Steve Wariner has been a household name on the Nashville music scene since the ‘80s when Mr. Guitar himself Chet Atkins signed him to RCA. With a string of radio hits to his name, Wariner walked away from the music business as we know it and created his own label, giving him the freedom to do projects his heart desires to do, without compromise. His most recent project,My Tribute to Chet Atkins, is a perfect example of Wariner following his heart when it comes to his music.

We caught up with Wariner in his studio after a week of working on a new project, tentatively titled
Guitar Laboratory, to talk Chet, vintage guitars, why Telecasters rule, and taking his music into his own hands.

There’s a line in your song “Chet’s Guitar” on the Tribute CD about the heart and the soul and the tone and the touch of Chet’s guitar, yet like you say in your liner notes, nobody can “out-chet Chet.” How did you walk the fine line between honoring Chet’s playing and letting you be you at the same time?

It wasn’t hard for me as long as I kept the focus that I wasn’t trying tobeChet. I wanted to keep the right spirit. There‘s only one Chet. I’ve always been a Tele player, that’s how I was always known, for playing a B-bender and being a Tele guy all through the years, but at the same time I always loved that fingerstyle/thumbstyle playin’ like Chet. It comes from my father I think. He loved Merle Travis and Chet—he had all of Chet’s albums—and was really a good player, too. I was soaking it up as much as I could being around Paul Yandell and a lot of the guys I was hanging out with earlier, Jerry Reed and Chip Young and a lot of studio guys that played that way. Later I was working for Chet and around him. We were real close since we first met and he produced my records. All through the years up to his death we were good friends. I was just around it a lot, and believe me I tried to steal everything I could!

And that’s not a bad thing at all. Not a bad guy to steal licks from.

One of the things about Chet that I always loved, and it’s a great lesson for me, one ofmanylessons, was how enthusiastic [he was]. He never got away from that, even in his very elderly days, even when he got sick. He had that guitar in his hand, he was working on a lick, he was working on music, learning. “Here’s a new thing I just learned!” and I’m thinking, gosh, you’re 70 years old and you’re excited about learning a lick! That’s awesome. I’m hoping that I’ll be that way.

Steve and Chet

So he practiced every day.

Yeah, he always had a guitar in his lap or beside him, but in his hands most of the time. Any given time I could swing by his office and he’d be in there playing, every day. I’d come in and he’d say, “Hey, let me show you this thing I just learned!” Incredible.

How long were you specifically working on the tribute CD?

Since June 30, 2001 when Chet passed I had it in my mind. So many people have done tributes to Chet, so many of my friends did. It was such a loss, and I think a lot of people really wanted to do their version of a tribute and I was no different. I was thinking, “What’s the point of me just doing some of his songs, maybe half as well as he did, maybe not?” One day I was playing around in the studio and I was listening to “Blue Angel” and I thought, just for kicks I was gonna record a version of it—just for fun, see how it turns out. Chet taught me that song many years ago. I’ve actually got him on cassette tape teaching it to me, it’s hilarious.

So I recorded a version of that on my own, and then my engineer, Randy [Gardner], came in one day and I played it for him and he flipped over it. I thought I’ll do another, then another, and I just kept adding on, between my touring and writing “regular” songs. I started just occasionally recording another Chet song and putting them together.

I came up with a soft timeline, starting in the early Appalachian days when he was a young teenager and started filling in the blanks. I thought I’d play the songs in each style of each era, because Chet’s style changed a lot. He always played the same, but his early days are different—it’s more hard-driving and more Merle Travis-y in the early days.

Then I stated writing a few songs. I studied records from each era so I would make sure that I could try to get the guitar sound and the style that he played. Randy Gardner got it from head to toe. He knew Chet real well and had worked with Chet a bunch over the years. I tried to capture his style for each era, and I had the luxury of using some guitars that he’d given me through the years.

What guitars did you use on the album?

I really didn’t have a guitar for the first two songs [“Leavin’ Luttrell” and “John Henry”] that would be representingearlyearly days. I have a couple, but I didn’t have one that really would represent Chet’s early days when he was playing a D’Angelico that Mr. D’Angelico made for him. I was talking to Paul Yandell who worked with Chet for 30 years, and he had an archtop Epiphone, probably from the ‘50s, and one of the pickups in it was Chet’s pickup. It was a beautiful guitar. I played the first two tracks on that and gave it back to him.

When Chet left Gretsch and went with Gibson, they made him a Gibson Country Gentleman. Chet gave it to me, and that’s what I played on “Back Home Again (in Indiana)” and “Leona.” Basically, it’s a Gretsch-orange Gibson. It’s really a beautiful guitar and I’ve left it exactly like he had it, all I’ve done is changed strings. He had a piece of Velcro on the front pickup where his thumbpick would make some noise, and I haven’t changed any of that. The fiddle player on “Back Home Again (in Indiana)” was Jeff Guernsey. I wanted it to be real swing-like. At that time, Chet went to Chicago and recorded a bunch of jazzy swing stuff, so that song represented that. The piano was Tony Migliore, who played piano when I toured with Chet. He conducted the orchestras and arranged the strings and so forth for Chet, so I though it’d be fun to bring Tony in for that.