Chet Atkins, who, as an artist and as head of RCA Records in Nashville for almost 20 years, was a major force in defining the “Nashville sound,” passed away on June 29, 2001. Born June 20, 1924, on a farm outside Knoxville, Tenn., Atkins’ first job was playing violin for a local radio station; he honed his distinctive finger-picking guitar style as a touring guitarist during the 1940s. Atkins released some 75 albums under his own name, selling more than 75 million copies in total, and worked consistently as a session player. He appeared on hundreds of records, including such classics as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Wake Up, Little Susie.” Atkins’ influence reached far beyond country music, and musicians such as George Harrison, Mark Knopfler, George Benson and Larry Carlton readily acknowledge his influence.
As a musician, record company executive and producer, Atkins was creatively involved with hit recordings by Eddy Arnold, Bobby Bare, Suzy Boguss, The Browns, the Carter Sisters, Ray Charles, Skeeter Davis, Jimmy Driftwood, the Everly Brothers, Red Foley, Larry Gatlin, Don Gibson, Merle Haggard, Homer & Jethro, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Garrison Keillor, Doug Kershaw, the Louvin Brothers, Ronnie Milsap, Mickey Newbury, Mark O’Connor, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Charlie Pride, the Pure Prairie League, Jerry Reed, Jim Reeves, Junior Samples, Hank Snow, Sons of the Pioneers, Red Sovine, Ray Stevens, Ernest Tubb, Steve Wariner, Dottie West, Slim Whitman, Roger Whittaker, Hank Williams and Faron Young.
Atkins also worked with guitar manufacturer Gretsch to develop the Tennessean and Country Gentleman guitars, both of which found favor with country, jazz and rock players. In 1982, Atkins and Gibson introduced the CE (Classical Electric), an innovative, solid-body electric classical model used by Willie Nelson and Earl Klugh.
A legend whose career spanned more than five decades, Chet Atkins was an American icon. His nickname, The Country Gentleman, could not have been more appropriate.