HE WASN’T the most accomplished guitarist in country music. There were those in Nashville who could fashion half a dozen great licks in the time that Chet came up with one.
But Chet had the edge. He knew what was right at the time, could make the most unlikely material eminently saleable. Which is why, after years as a sessionman, RCA made Chet an A&R man. Given the job, he not only began to turn RCA’s fortunes around, he also turned Nashville around. He drafted in all the friends he’d played with in the city’s Printer’s Alley clubs – musicians like slip-note pianist Floyd Cramer and kick-ass saxman Boots Randolph. Between them they came up with something that moved beyond the country’s traditional downhome approach and reached deep into pop territory. Dubbed the Nashville Sound, it turned Atkins and his friends into superheroes.
They not only became stars in their own right, they additionally shaped backgrounds for everyone, from Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold through to Elvis and Perry Como. The ability to create sounds that sold turned Chet into the most important man in Music City.
But he had dreams beyond cash-flow. His own particular heroes included not only Hank Williams but also Django Reinhardt. Eventually he fell out with RCA because be wanted to make a jazz album. “I’m just a hunched-over guitarist,” he once observed. “The other stuff is just a hobby.” So he moved on, made his dream album with George Benson, Larry Carlton, Mark Knopfler and Earl Klugh, then linked again with Mark Knopfler for the Grammy-winning Neck And Neck album. His influenced waned. But not his will to create music that was different.
Eventually, he had a battle with cancer on his hands. Nashville, wishing to honour Chet while he was still around, erected a bronze statue of him last year. On June 20, it became a memorial as Chet took his final bow at the age of 77.
© Fred Dellar, MOJO, September 2001