Chester Burton Atkins was born in 1924 near the Appalachian hamlet of Luttrell, Tennessee. Music ran in his blood. Chet’s grandfather was a country fiddler, his mother played piano and sang and his father was an itinerant piano teacher who sang with touring evangelists. At age 18, Chet auditioned at WNOX in Knoxville and was hired as a fiddler by Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle. By 1942 he had his own little solo instrumental spot on WNOX’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round show and by 1943 he was touring with Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright.
Soon after moving to Nashville in 1950, Chet was backing Hank Williams and The Louvin, and by 1954, people were beginning to call him “Mr. Guitar.” Chet played on Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel,” and went on to perform on other Presley hits like “I Need Your Love Tonight,” “A Big Hunk of Love,” “I Got Stung” and “A Fool Such as I.”
Chet began working for RCA Records in the early ‘50s and by 1968 had made it through the ranks to become a VP. In this role, he propelled a galaxy of country stars to fame — Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Charlie Rich, Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves, Charley Pride and Eddy Arnold were all signed and/or produced by Chet. He also led the sessions for The Everly Brothers, and was the man that got them their first recording contract. Chet was in the studio when the Everlys created the 1957-62 tunes that would eventually make them members of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, including “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”
Throughout his time as a record exec, Chet continued to perform as well. As an artist, he collaborated on albums with the likes of Les Paul, Lenny Breau, Jerry Reed, Hank Snow, Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Django Reinhardt. Later, a new generation of performers lined up to collaborate with the legend, including Suzy Bogguss, Mark O’Connor and jazz greats George Benson, Larry Carlton and Earl Klugh. Chet is also Emmylou Harris’s banjo teacher.
In 1973, Chet Atkins became the youngest person ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1974, he published his autobiography, Country Gentleman. In 1977 he developed his own model for Gibson Guitars. In 1987 Chet introduced an instructional video, Get Started on the Guitar, which has since outsold all other home videos of its type. In 1996 Chet completed and released an advanced guitar instructional video, The Guitar Of Chet Atkins.
Known as “Mr. Guitar,” Chet Atkins recorded hundreds of albums during his 40+ year career. While he was credited with helping to create “The Nashville Sound”, through his work as a session musician and producer, Chet had an equally deep love of jazz — even playing the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. His style influenced such pop greats as Mark Knopfler, Duane Eddy, George Harrison, The Ventures, George Benson and Eddie Cochran, as well as thousands of country pickers. He won nine CMA Awards as Musician of the Year, four Playboy jazz poll honours and thirteen Grammys®, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from NARAS. Atkins passed away in his Nashville home, after a battle with brain cancer, on June 30, 2001.
The album he recorded with Mark Knopfler in 1990, Neck & Neck, was one of the few returns to country music Chet made in the latter part of his career. The album reached #127 on the Billboard 200 and #27 on Billboard’s Top Country albums.