20 Years Ago: Chet Atkins Dies
Twenty years ago today (June 30, 2001) was a sad day for country music: It was on that date that guitarist, singer, producer and music industry executive Chet Atkins passed away. He was 77 years old at the time of his death.
Atkins grew up with a love of music and, due to his chronic asthma, spent much of his time indoors honing his craft. The Tennessee native dropped out of high school in 1942 and landed a job at WNOX-AM in Knoxville, playing guitar and fiddle; he also became a member of the station's Dixieland Swingsters.
Atkins went through a series of jobs in various states, impressing people with his unprecedented guitar skills but frequently getting fired for not sounding country enough. But while working in Denver, Colo., he caught the ear of Steve Sholes, then the head of RCA Victor's country division, who convinced Atkins to record for them.
Atkins' first project, recorded in Chicago and released in 1947, did not sell, and he returned to Knoxville, working with June Carter and Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters. Together, they moved to Nashville in the mid-1950s, and Atkins found work as a session player and performing on WSM-AM and at the Grand Ole Opry. (He later became a member of the Opry as part of the Carter Family.)
Atkins' debut album, Chet Atkins' Gallopin' Guitar, was released in 1953, but RCA Victor's Sholes recognized his talent in other areas as well, and soon, Atkins was doing session work for other RCA artists in addition to recording his own records. He became known for his own unique style -- a fusion of country, pop and rock -- later dubbed the "Nashville Sound."
As Atkins' albums gained in popularity, so did his reputation as a producer and session player, and he became first the manager of RCA Victor's Nashville studio, then the head of the label's Nashville division in the late 1950s. He remained at RCA throughout the next few decades and is credited with helping discover several legendary artists, including Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Charley Pride, among others.
Atkins officially left RCA in 1982, although he continued playing and making records. He was a frequent guest at the White House, performing for every president from John F. Kennedy through George H.W. Bush, and collaborated with numerous artists from multiple genres.
In 1996, Atkins was diagnosed with cancer; he had a brain tumor removed in 1997, but his health saw a marked decline throughout his remaining years. He died at his home in Nashville, survived by his wife Leona, who passed away in 2009, and son Merle. Atkins' funeral service was held at the Ryman Auditorium, with stars and fans filling the pews to pay homage to the musical icon.
“I’ve lost a friend, a cohort and a fellow artist in Chet Atkins," Eddy Arnold said. "We won’t ever see the like, the talent, in one man. If you ever heard of any man, anywhere, who had it all, it was this man.”
''He changed my life,'' Pride added. ''Everything that ever happened to me started with him.''
Throughout his illustrious career, Atkins won dozens of awards, including numerous Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
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