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Performing Songwriter Cover

In Memoriam: Chet Atkins

Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issue #57, August 2001

The first time I met Chet Atkins in the flesh, he grinned, handed me a Gibson, and said "Play me something pretty". Now I'd seen him playing my songs on TV, and I knew there'd be nothing pretty about it if I attempted to play as well. So I demurred, saying I wasn't a guitarist but a songwriter. "Horse hockey. I've heard your records. Now, sit back and play something pretty." Not a request, but a command. I played whatever came to mind, then we went to lunch.

That was the thing about Chet. He was interested. Whether it was a guitar piece, a bad joke, a new piece of technological wizardry, he demanded you show it to him right now, or pay the price. The price was usually lunch – half a tuna sandwich with pickle on the side, dry bread.

Great artists have one thing in common; there's no ego involved when they're in pursuit of their art. Oh, Chet would strive to out-dazzle anyone who dared to walk on stage with him. That was his job. But he loved to hear a good player, and if it was something new to him (as much of my guitar work was, since I couldn't manage to play in anyone else's style), he'd make you repeat it until he had it down. Then you'd go to lunch. We bonded over tuna fish.

I came to Nashville in 1986 with all the assumptions Northerners make about the South; that people here were more bigoted, more ignorant, and generally more foolish than their Northern counterparts. When Chet and I started to pal around, I learned just how wrong I was. Shortly after becoming friends, we went out to dinner with Chet's wife Leona at the country club they belonged to. I was uneasy making conversation with her at first. Chet and I usually talked about music and told dirty jokes, neither of which seemed appropriate. Somehow we got onto the subject of country clubs, and I asked why they didn't belong to the "top club" in town. Leona leaned forward, a look of horror on her face, and said "Because those people still use the 'N' word there." She sat back, shaking her head.

I did some asking around and discovered that Chet was known for walking the thin line between the good old boys and the liberal faction. It was understood that Chet was a giant, beloved by all. It was also understood that you didn't mess with those he considered "his". When Charlie Pride (who is black) came to Nashville, determined to make a name for himself in the white bastion of country music, Chet made sure they were photographed together for the papers. He took Charlie to breakfast at the Pancake Pantry, ignoring the stares. He made sure Pride was treated with respect – not because Chet was a bleeding heart liberal, but because he thought it was fair. There wasn't a bigoted bone in Chet's body, and he defended the right of anyone with talent to enter the arena. He remembered well enough what it had been like for himself.

Imagine a lanky kid from the mountains, determined to play better than anyone else but with an accent thicker than molasses. He's from a rural area where there's no electricity in his house, so when he finally gets a guitar pickup, he has to go to the schoolhouse to plug it in. He persists, studying everyone from Django to Maybelle Carter. Then he makes his way to the big city of Knoxville, where everyone he runs across makes fun of his speech, his clothing, his way of eating. A big comedown for a rural boy with dreams in his heart.

He never forgave them. Years later, speaking of that time, his lips would compress and anger would flare behind his eyes. To Chet, it was unforgiveable that they would judge him by his appearance, rather than his worth as a musician. Perhaps that's why he was color-blind.

I discovered how honorable he was, and how fiercely he defended "his own", when I began releasing records again in 1992 after eleven years of silence. The press made a huge fuss over my being gay, featuring "the news" on CNN, Entertainment Tonight and the like. I expected some flack from the Nashville industry; no matter how many people knew, it was different reading it in the papers. I was worried about Chet; I adored him, and didn't want anything to change our relationship.

Nothing changed; I still got invited to "spend some time playing and talking", we still went to lunch, and I forgot all about it. A while later I asked Chet whether it had bothered him, and he said with a glint in his eye, "Well, I kinda thought you might be getting sweet on me, but I guess with all this, you weren't." I laughed, threw my arms around him, and said "Chet, if ever I'd be sweet on a fella, it'd be you." We both smiled and he ruffled my hair, then asked "Haven't had any problems in town, have you?". No, no problems, much to my surprise. He nodded and we went to lunch.

Later I discovered that when the television and magazine articles appeared, Chet had called a bunch of friends who might have a problem with it and told them that any problem they had with me, they would have with him. One told me he said "She's mine, you know." His protection meant a lot in a town where, fifteen years after my arrival, people still say "She's pretty new around here."

Around that same time my partner and I bought a house, and we held a "Moved but not unpacked" party for all our friends. Chet and Leona came, and he spent a few hours fiddling around with the antenna of an old Phillips radio we'd bought. I thought nothing of it until he left, when several people came up and said "Chet never goes to parties. Chet never goes anywhere! How come he was here so long?!" I asked my partner what she thought, and she said "Honey, he's just serving notice to the community that we're all right with him."

Chet was an inveterate tinkerer, with a basement full of gadgets. He loved toys, mechanical marvels; I brought him a wind-up spider once and he played with it for half an hour, figuring out how it worked. His contributions to electronics in music are largely unknown, yet he's responsible for a ton of innovations, including the first solid-body amplified "acoustic" guitar. People like me, who started amplifying our guitars with Piezo pickups and then went to solider bodies to cut down on feedback, owe him our ability to compete with bands and loud electric guitars.

He loved jokes; some of the best memories I have are of sitting around a meat & three restaurant with Chet and his friends, listening as they told the worst dirty jokes in the world. He'd set you up, too. We went to lunch with Billy Edd Wheeler, years ago, and I was nervous because Billy Edd had written one of my favorite songs. "Shoot, he's just a hillbilly from the mountains. Be patient, he's not real good with words. Nice fella, though," said Chet. I spent the day talking down to Billy Edd, keeping my vocabulary simple and staying away from deep topics. He told us about his college days, how he'd tinkered with this and that before finally coming home to the South. He offered up a lot of dirty jokes. I wondered why they were friends.

At the end of the night he slipped and made a comment about the new Tom Stoppard play. He sounded suspiciously intellectual. "Where did you go to school?" I asked. He said it was up North, nothing special. "And what did you study?" I wondered. Just some plays here and there, he replied. "And what was the name of the school?" Yale Drama, he told me. Chet roared while I stood there with egg on my face.

Chet loved to be around women, all women. Big, small, short, tall, he made polite passes at them all. In part it stemmed from his era, when flirtation was considered the duty of a polite male, and women were expected to enjoy it. In part, it was just a genuine fascination with femininity. The passes were always subtle, no follow-up necessary; just a bit of gentlemanly flirting. A friend of mine, a singer who'd known Chet for decades, was laughing about it one day, saying she'd been flattered and amused. She asked if I'd been flattered, too. "He's never flirted with me", I replied. She was astonished – "Never? ...honey you must be the only woman in Nashville he's never made a pass at!" I thought about that for a while, getting more and more upset. How come? Wasn't I pretty enough? I knew he found me attractive; he was good about telling me a new haircut looked nice, or a new shirt flattered my figure. It bothered me that maybe he was just being polite.

The next time I saw him, I told him it troubled me. He looked astonished. "Shoot, Janis. You're brilliant. You're a genius songwriter. You're... you're... you're a musician!". I laughed with relief; it wasn't that he found me unattractive, but that his main interest in me was musical – the way my brain and hands worked. The rest was unimportant.

His protection continued, though sometimes he reached an impasse. He invited me to perform with him on Prairie Home Companion, then told me sadly that it hadn't worked out. The show refused to have me on, saying I wasn't "family entertainment". Chet's lips were white when he told me, full of apologies. He refused to go into exactly what had been said, but I later discovered they'd had a shouting match over it, culminating in Chet calling the man who'd decided a "full-fledged upside-down-and-sideways all-kinds-of-fool". They didn't speak for some time, and Chet took great pleasure in introducing me to him backstage a few years later. He had to shake my hand as Chet stood there, grinning. It was as sweet for Chet as it was for me.

I realized he was getting frail for the first time at a show one January in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It featured Michael Hedges, Keb Mo', and Chet, with me sandwiched inbetween. I was completely unnerved at the thought of following Michael, a "real" guitarist, but Chet kept telling me not to worry. "You're prettier than he is by a long shot" he'd say, grinning.

It was an old theater, and the dressing room had no heat. Chet stood around trying to get his hands warm, worrying about the effect of the cold on his playing. We ended up standing at the side of the stage, face to face, our hands stuck under each others' armpits for warmth. He seemed fragile at that moment, an old man worried about his health. I walked him onstage because he was concerned about his sight; at the end of his set I walked him off.

Months later he had surgery for a brain tumor. Rumors were rampant; he'd never play again, he couldn't see, he couldn't speak. The city decided to honor him with a big concert at the Ryman Auditorium, and he asked if I would play. There I was, again sandwiched between real players like Marty Stuart and Mark Knopfler. I stepped forward and told a story: years ago, Chet asked why I didn't take guitar solos. "I can't play as fast as those guys do, Chet." He considered this for a moment, then said "Heck, if you can't play a whole lot faster, play a whole lot slower!" That's how the guitar solo in "Welcome To Acousticville" was born. I played the song, then took the solo, winking at Chet on the end chord. He rose slightly, tipped his hat at me, and winked back. They caught it on tape, and it's one of the proudest moments of my life.

After the surgery he stopped playing in public. I would sit around listening to him plucking away, and wonder why. He was still learning new licks, trying to teach me harmonic runs (a lost cause, but one he never gave up), and sounding great to my ears. I asked why he refused to play for an audience any more, and he replied "Maybe they can't tell, but I can. I can't play as fast any more, and I know I'll never play the same."

One of the things I learned from Chet toward the end of his life was how to behave like an honest star. Unfailingly courteous and cordial to his fans, he was conscious of their love for him, concerned that they'd worry over his health. As his strength declined, it became more difficult for him to go for lunch; he had trouble walking and it was hard to get in and out of a car. He'd shuffle around the office in slippers, but he still loved company. One day I arrived to find his doctor there, showing Chet a new walker. It was three-wheeled, and seemed to give him an easier time balancing than the old one. He practiced up and down the hall, then said "All right, let's go get lunch." We opened the door and handed him the walker. Chet looked at both of us in annoyance and said "Heck, I'm a star! I'm not going out with that thing in public!" He'd worked too hard and too long to let down any fans who might perceive the walker as an admission of defeat. We went to lunch with Chet using our shoulders for support instead.

I visited him at home for the last time, bringing my friend Philip with his new guitar. Chet ran his fingers along the strings and played a few runs, complimenting the instrument and showing us a new amp "some company sent". Then we ate the tuna sandwiches I'd brought. He was thinner than ever, so frail the whites of his bones seemed to show through the skin. He spent the afternoon holding my hand as I snuggled against him on the couch, cracking the occasional joke as people came and went. I was leaving on a long tour the next week, and wondered if it would be the last time I saw him. I hoped not; I'd always kept up with him by sending postcards of large-breasted women from around the world. I still had a stack of them to go.

That night I thought a lot about all he'd taught me.

It was Chet who taught me to make my playing look effortless. He understood that for the guitarist, the flashiest licks are usually the easiest. Once you've gotten them into your muscle memory, they're yours for life. It's the slow ones that stay difficult, competing with the hand's desire for motion and the heart's insistence on speed.
It was Chet who taught me that you don't have to wave flags, or shout expletives, to make things change. You just have to live your life as though everyone else's bigotry doesn't exist, and make a point of doing the right thing in public.

It was Chet who taught me that the occasional bad joke keeps morale up better than an expensive gift. That it's nice to get awards, but more fun to sit in the basement and tinker with a new toy. That it's great to be acknowledged as one of the greatest guitar players in the world, but it's better to learn a brand-new lick. That if you behave humbly, sooner or later you will find yourself truly humble, and that humility is something we all need to learn.

My partner called me backstage at a concert in Helene, Montana, to give me the sad news. It hit me harder than I'd expected; even after seeing him the last time, I couldn't imagine he'd die. Life in Nashville without Chet was unthinkable; he'd been there for me almost from the week I arrived. I could count on him to explain why certain people didn't invite me to write with them, or ask me to their homes for dinner. I could count on him to make it all right, or make me not care.

I remember mumbling something, asking her to give me Chet's home number so I could call the family. I spoke with his wife, who was as gracious as ever, and explained that I was on tour and would be unable to attend either the funeral or the memorial. I arranged to send a donation to the hospice that had cared for him those last weeks, as she requested. Then I walked onstage and told Chet stories until the heartache eased a bit. The empty space inside me lingered for weeks, as I kept pulling postcards out of my bag to send him from the road.

Some critics have said that his playing was lacking in "soul", and dated. I beg to differ. It was clean as polished marble, thoughtful and precise, but there was heart behind every lick. And humor. Several years ago I recorded a track to a song of mine called "Memphis," then asked Chet to overdub the lead. I explained that I also hoped to have Willie Nelson sing with me on it. Chet pointed out that one of the problems with "recording in stages" is that the finished product often sounds like the musicians were never together in one room. I agreed but confessed that I didn't know how to solve it.

He did. At the end of his take, after the band on tape had finished, he added a wonderful obligatto guitar run, just as he might have in the studio. He timed it to fit right inbetween the last drum note and the drummer's hearty laughter. To this day even I would swear Chet was present at the session. Remember, he was not just a guitarist but a producer of the old school, concerned with the whole and subsuming his own work to the good of the track and the singer. He didn't need to show off.

I guess that's the thing of it. He was the best guitarist I've ever known, and proud of it – he used the monikor CGP (Certified Guitar Player) on everything, taking great pleasure in adding it to his signature on letters. He took great pleasure in the gag, because he'd never been to college, never been certified in anything, and yet here he was owning half of Music Row with a catalogue stretching back to 1947. But at the end of the day, he was just as happy with a new lick, half a tuna sandwich, and a good joke.

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