The life, achievements, and guitars of Chet Atkins are back in the spotlight at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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.

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