Chet Atkins (1924-2001) is arguably the finest guitarist this country ever produced. His years at RCA and Columbia resulted in a catalog of over eighty albums spanning country, jazz and classical. Taking the ‘thumb picked’ style of Merle Travis to tremendous heights, he was an inspiration to others and a mentor, as a producer, to hundreds of recording artists.
Well, one of the people he inspired was me. I had spent years trying to learn the style and had even bought a Gretsch Tennessean guitar (because I couldn’t afford a pricier model) that I had drastically rewired to the way I thought his personal Country Gentleman guitar had been modified.
In the middle sixties I was working at Gelb Music in Redwood City and I had an opportunity to meet him through the auspices of a guy named Sheldon Bennet, an older gentleman who taught guitar and played wonderful Western Swing guitar on a blonde Gibson L-5.
He knew Chet personally and he knew of my obsession with him so he offered me a deal. I did not drive in those days so his offer was that he would drive us to a Chet appearance if I would pay for the gas. The trip was about three or four hours from our area to South Shore Tahoe in Nevada.
Needless to say I took him up on it, threw my guitar in the back of his van and had a thoroughly enjoyable ride listening to Sheldon tell stories of his younger days as a professional musician on the road.
We finally rolled in and went to the dressing room provided and suddenly
There he was.
Those of you who have met their favorite artists understand me when I say he didn’t look anything like his pictures… He did, of course, but when you see your favorite artist right in front of you, it is a contradiction, an adrenaline laced anticlimax. Seeing the person as an actual three dimensional live critter can be disorienting.
Chet was a quiet, soft spoken individual and I was all but petrified and nearly speechless, so we were at a real loss for conversation.
It suddenly hit me what an intrusion a fan can be to an artist. Even though it is the fan that pays the artist’s bills I fiound that when you finally meet them you and they are, after all, absolute and total strangers.
Chet was at a loss what to do to put me at my ease… he offered me a drink from the bar provided in his dressing room. I declined and hit on an idea. My guitar would rescue me.
“I brought my guitar. I did some modifications I’d like to ask you about.”
Aha! A common interest!
“Let’s have a look” he said and off I went to the parking lot to get my guitar.
When I got back in the casino I of course had no idea how to get back to the dressing room but I had no fear. I walked up to a security guard and, clutching my guitar, intoned in as deep a voice as I could muster, “I need to hand deliver this guitar to Mr. Atkins” and was politely ushered back to the dressing room.
Both of us loosened up talking about my guitar. I was gratified to find out that my rewiring scheme (separate individual tone switches for each pickup) was spot on with his guitar’s.
I made no move to play it for him because I was just too nervous. He picked up a classical guitar he had on hand and said “Let me show you a new thing I’ve learned” and proceeded to demonstrate the beautiful technique now called “cascading harmonics” by most guitarists.
“Y’ see, you pick this string as a harmonic and this one fretted and you alternate like so…” and he played this rippling series of what sounded like it was all harmonics. Did I see? I did not see! I was too excited to see squat! It was years before I understood how it was done and now many guitarists use the trick but looking back on it I appreciate his effort to send me away with something to learn.
I asked him if he would “run off about fifty feet” of Chopin’s Minute Waltz that he had recorded some years back and he played it perfectly as if he had just come out of the studio from recording it.
It came time to leave the room so he gave me an autographed picture and the meet/greet was over.
Sheldon and I had dinner with him later that day which put the cap on a perfect day.
I was pretty quiet on the way home…
Some years later my son and myself had occasion to meet him backstage after a show in Oakland. His ’59 Country Gentleman was laying in its case and I remarked that it had a wider fingerboard than I was used to seeing.
“Ah, that’s just and old Gentleman they’d put a wide neck on for me.” he said. That happened to be his favorite recording electric before the electric classical was made for him by Gibson and as such was the most recorded guitar in American musical history I think…
Met him twice. And now that he’s gone I can think of a thousand questions I should have asked him…
The man is THE Country Gentleman….