The End of an Era: The passing of Chet Atkins in Nashville on June 30 serves as a point of perspective for the city's music business and its studio community. Atkins, 77, was known the world over as an innovator in the playing and the design of guitars, and the Gretsch Country Gentleman, named for him, is a fitting ongoing memorial.
But Atkins, along with Owen Bradley, who passed away four years ago, was largely responsible for creating the business structure of the music industry as it continues to exist in Nashville today — one in which record producers continue to run major record labels. As far as the music business is concerned, nothing in Nashville would be as it is today without Atkins and Bradley.
The same goes for recording studios. As president of RCA Records in Nashville for over 30 years, Atkins expanded the company's studio operations there. The studio's technology was improved and kept up to date. More importantly, under Atkins' guidance, the studio became an extension of the art of making records, not mainly the science of it, as was the case with the EMI model. Bradley's Quonset Hut, as his studio on Music Row was called (before Music Row was called that) accomplished the same thing before, and after, it was incorporated into the Columbia Records office.
RCA Studio A, later to become Javelina Studios, was very much Atkins' creation. RCA Studio B, now a museum, was built earlier, during the term of the late Steve Sholes, Atkins' predecessor as head of RCA Records, but according to Fred Bogart, who for years ran a production company out of Studio B, “Chet had lobbied for Studio B 'til it was built in 1957. He had always wanted a studio here where he could record RCA artists with the best technology of the time.”
“Chet was a major influence on the coming of larger rooms to Nashville,” recalls East Iris Studios manager Milan Bogdan. “He was an advocate of square footage in a studio. He also taught the engineers here a few things. I remember him teaching me how to mike a kick drum, showing me that you needed to pull the microphone back from the drum to give it more air and more bass instead of the tight-miking they always did — and he was right. And even though he loved that amp sound, he was also pretty good at getting direct guitar sounds off a board.”
In fact, it was on Atkins' first foray as a full-fledged producer, on Don Gibson's 1955 hit “Oh Lonesome Me,” that Atkins went against the sonic conventions of country music and had recording engineer Jeff Miller place the microphone directly in the kick drum rather than rely on ambient or overhead microphones to pick up the kick. He also chose to use drummer Troy Hatcher rather than one of the session regulars at the time, favoring the more aggressive drumming that Hatcher had brought to Gibson's demos. It was a bold move for the time, considering that the Grand Ole Opry still frowned on any drums at all onstage at the time.
Atkins was also aggressive in incorporating strings into country productions, in the process creating what would come to be known as the “countrypolitan” sound, which propelled hits that Atkins produced for Jim Reeves, Eddie Arnold, Skeeter Davis and many others over to pop charts.
Temperamentally Atkins was somewhat opposite Bradley. Atkins was known for a laid-back approach to record production, one that has been summed up as “pick the right songs, pick the right players, sit back and let it happen.” That's how Norro Wilson, one of the generation of Nashville producers who came in after Atkins and Bradley, and who produced one of Atkins' last solo records, remembers his mentor. “He did not go for 40 takes of something,” recalls Wilson. “He would just let it happen in its own time. He knew how to make a recording studio a comfortable place for the artists and the musicians. That made a big difference in the quality of the recordings, and it made studios realize that they had to be more accommodating to artists and producers, too.”
Wilson says that Atkins particularly liked Studio A because it emulated the large RCA studio in Manhattan; he says that Atkins wanted RCA New York to know that Nashville's records were on par with any records made anywhere else. “But what really brought that across was the fact that Chet Atkins was not just a producer or the head of a record label,” adds Wilson, “he was also a star! That was the image he brought with him. You just never had that in the music business before — a star recording artist who was also a hit record producer and head of a major record label.”
Atkins never stopped being a studio rat. Wilson remembers that Atkins was the first major artist/producer in Nashville to have a home studio. And he still did session work even after he passed the 70-year mark. Engineer Bob Bullock, who worked on part of the 1994 Grammy-winning A Tribute to Bob Wills record, recorded Atkins' guitar overdubs on one song at Emerald Studios. “He walked in and was a total professional,” recalls Bullock. “Not a star, not some big name. Just another musician. You could imagine him walking into a recording session 50 years earlier the exact same way. Nail the part and then head on out. No wonder guys like Mark Knopfler and Les Paul would come here to record with Chet. He was always a musician first.”
I had my own encounters with Chet Atkins over the years in Nashville. Most of the time, it was in passing, like seeing him at the Bellevue Mall shopping for Christmas gifts, or having breakfast at the Cracker Barrel restaurant on Charlotte Avenue, which he did regularly. One time was for an interview for a book I was writing about the music industry in Nashville in the late '90s. We sat in his office off Music Row on a dreary winter's morning, and he graciously answered my questions. He looked tired then, but never talked about his illnesses. He probably got a kick out of telling me the story about how he decided he had to retire from RCA — the day he came to work and looked down and realized his shoes didn't match. As it turns out, it wasn't the first time he had told that story, and it made me realize I had to start digging a little deeper into the archives for research. So in that sense, he had an effect on me as a writer, as well.
The same week of Atkins' passing, two more lights of an era past went out. Johnny Russell passed away on July 3 in Nashville. A recording artist and songwriter, he co-wrote “Act Naturally,” which was recorded by both Buck Owens and The Beatles. And Roy Nichols, longtime guitarist for Merle Haggard, died the same day in Bakersfield — the “other” Nashville.
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