Missing Chet

Chet Atkins album cover Just sitting listening to this Chet Atkins standard (Me and My Guitar) today. While I bought this from a used record store this weekend primarily for one cut–the haunting version of Don McClean's "Vincent," it's a great album all the way around and one that I think will wind up toward the front of the box where my more frequent listens seem to be.

This 1977 album shows the changing Chet Atkins as he moves from the twangy Gretsch Country Gentlemen days of his early career–when he was also one of the top producers and A&R people at RCA records. This one includes much more of a jazzy sound–still some twang–and it's also much more focused on melody. 

And, listening today, I'm carried back to an early Doc Watson festival in my hometown of Wilkesboro, N.C., where I watched in near suspended animation as this old man with his glasses and slightly geeky looking clothes redefined guitar playing for me all by himself on that stage. I can remember staring at his hands and the casual body language as he played incredibly complex passages as if he was just standing at the kitchen window washing dishes. It was one of those moments in my life where music has moved me to tears. It was simple stuff that he was playing–at least it seemed so until you realized that the vocals you thought you were hearing somehow were just Chet playing guitar and that the parts were all coming from the hands of that old guy on stage.

Many Americans got to know Chet Atkins through his friendship with Garrison Keillor on the radio in his last years. They certainly heard some great guitar playing and a quiet man with a wickedly funny sense of humor ("I Still Write Your Name in the Snow") but you hope that some of them–at least a few of them–dug deeper and found a little of this Chet. This amazing guitar player who has been mentioned on the top influence list of artists like George Benson, Steve Lukather and Mark Knopfler. In fact, it was Knopfler who said he would be pleased to spend the next five years just learning how to play the guitar from Chet Atkins. I miss him.

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