Chet Atkins Dead at 77

Chet Atkins, whose guitar style influenced a generation of rock musicians even as he helped develop an easy listening country style to compete with it, died Saturday. He was 77.

Funeral director Bill Ritter of Roesch Patton Funeral Home, which is handling the funeral, said Atkins died at home.

Atkins had been battling cancer for several years. He underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in June of 1997, and he had a bout with colon cancer in the 1970s.

A Long Legacy

Atkins recorded more than 75 albums of guitar instrumentals and sold more than 75 million albums. He played on hundreds of hit records, including those of Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel), Hank Williams Sr. (Your Cheatin' Heart, Jambalaya) and The Everly Brothers (Wake Up Little Susie).

As an executive with RCA Records for nearly two decades starting in 1957, Atkins played a part in the careers of Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold and many other stars.

At the same time as Owen Bradley at Decca Records, Atkins crafted the lush Nashville Sound, using string sections and lots of echo to make records that appealed to older listeners not interested in rock music. Among his notable Nashville Sound productions are The End of the World by Skeeter Davis and He'll Have to Go by Reeves.

"I realized that what I liked, the public would like, too," Atkins said in a 1996 interview with The Associated Press. "Cause I'm kind of square."

Chester Burton Atkins was born June 20, 1924, on a farm near Luttrell, Tenn., which is about 20 miles northeast of Knoxville. His elder brother Jim Atkins played guitar first, and went on to perform with Les Paul. Chet Atkins' first professional job was as a fiddler on WNOX in Knoxville, where his boss was singer Bill Carlisle.

"He was horrible," Carlisle said at a tribute concert to Atkins in June (1997). "But I heard him during a break playing guitar, and decided to feature him on that."

Atkins unique fingerpicking style, a pseudoclassical variation on that of Merle Travis with influence from Django Reinhardt, got him hired and fired from jobs at radio stations all over the country. Atkins sometimes joked that early on, his playing sounded "like two guitarists playing badly."

During the 1940s he toured with many acts, including Red Foley, The Carter Family and Kitty Wells. RCA executive Steve Sholes took Atkins on as a protege in the 1950s, using him as the house guitarist on recording sessions.

RCA began issuing instrumental albums by Atkins in 1953. George Harrison, whose guitar work on early Beatles records is heavily influenced by Atkins, wrote the liner notes for "Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles."

Sholes put Atkins in charge of RCA Nashville when he was promoted in 1957. There, he helped Nashville survive the challenge of rock 'n' roll with The Nashville Sound. The lavish sound has been criticized by purists who prefer their country music raw and unadorned.

Atkins was unrepentant, saying that at the time his goal was simply, "to keep my job."

"And the way you do that is you make a hit record once in a while," he said in 1993. "And the way you do that is you give the audience something different."

Major Collaborations

Atkins quit his job as an executive in the 1970s, and concentrated on playing his guitar. He's collaborated with a wide range of artists on solo albums, including Mark Knopfler, Paul McCartney, Eric Johnson, George Benson, Susie Bogguss and Earl Klugh.

At the time he became ill, Atkins had just released a new CD, "The Day Finger Pickers took over the World." He also had embarked on regular Monday night performances at a Nashville club.

"If I know I've got to go do a show, I practice quite a bit, because you can't get out there and embarrass yourself." Atkins said in 1996.

"So I thought, if I play every week I won't be so rusty and I'll play a lot better."

Survivors include his wife of over 50 years, Leona Johnson Atkins; and a daughter, Merle Atkins.

The funeral is 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Ryman Auditorium.