Making Art vs. Nurturing Artists
Who says recommendation algorithms are bad? YouTube’s, in its wisdom, showed me this on my TV. I started watching, and I ended up watching it all the way to the end:
Oh. My. God. You have to watch this. Let’s see, who does Chat have as his guests?
The Everly Brothers
If you’re Chet Atkins, you can get anyone you want on your show, I guess. And they’ll even sing and play on each others’ songs.
The first thing a real musical gentleman does is introduce his band, and if Chet Atkins wasn’t a gentleman then the term has no meaning.
Darryl Dybka, keyboards
Clayton Ivey, piano, arranger
David Hungate, bass
Larry Londin, drums
Michael McDonald, keyboards
Terry McMillan, percussion
David Pack, guitar
Paul Yandell, guitar
I’ll See You in My Dreams (Knopfler, Atkins)
Walk of Life (Knopfler)
Medley: Dream, Dream, Dream; Bye, Bye, Love; Wake Up, Little Susie (Everly Brothers, Atkins)
Why Worry (Everly Brothers, Knopfler, Atkins)
Precious Memories (Harris, Atkins on mandolin, Everly Brothers, Knopfler)
Waltz for the Lonely (Atkins)
I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near) (McDonald, Atkins, Knopfler, Everly Brothers, Harris)
Rose in Paradise (Jennings, Atkins, Knopfler, Everly Brothers, Harris)
A Good-Hearted Woman (Jennings, Atkins, Knopfler, Everly Brothers, Harris joined by Willie Nelson)
Island in the Sea (Nelson, Atkins, Knopfler)
Imagine (Atkins, Knopfler)
I Still Can't Say Goodbye (Atkins)
Corinna, Corinna (everyone)
Chet Atkins’ Life
I have to admit, I loved Ken Burns’ documentary on country music. But when I look at the CD, there’s one name conspicuously missing, and it’s Chet Atkins. Apparently to Ken Burns, his only legacy is as the evil producer who helped invent the Nashville Sound.
I wasn’t able to embed this documentary on his life.
So you’ll just have to watch it on YouTube. Darn. Anyhow, it opens with a gallery of famous guitarists acknowledging that they learned to play guitar by slowing down his records and copying his licks. Amy Grant says that she doesn’t know any guitarists who didn’t learn that way.
Here he is in 1954 doing Mr. Sandman:
You can see his style was already set by then.
A 1955 performance:
Maybelle Carter is often credited with influencing, at least (if not actually “inventing”) the thumb-picking style you see Chet doing, although not the same way. See the Wikipedia article for its usual thorough dissection of the subject. Here she is with the Carter family doing Wildwood Flower:
Chet As A Producer
Atkins’ biggest influence on country music other than his guitar style, was as a studio producer and record executive. As I said earlier, he’s one of the inventors of the Nashville Sound, which was so dominant for a while that people just thought of it as Country Music. No longer did you hear fiddles, pedal steel, and nasal voices. By the 50’s people were beginning to look down on that as “hillbilly music.” You might still have heard it on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, but middle-class teens didn’t want it, and neither did the local pop radio stations.
Now Nashville was smooth, homogenized pop. with strings, choruses, and crooning instead of wailing. Here’s one of the earliest examples:
In that retrospective TV show, Chet says
I was just trying to make a record that would sell, that the disk jockeys would play, and I never thought about “Let’s make a pop record,” or “Let’s make a folk record.” I didn’t think too much about direction.
Charlie Pride, famous as that contradiction in terms, the black country singer,
I hadn’t realized at that time, even though I was born and raised in Mississippi, I didn’t realize the thing that he would have to go through with the permanent tan I had. Chet was going to Monterey, California in September. The RCA bigwigs meet, and that sort of thing. He took the dub with him, and he played it for all of the guys, the RCA top fellows. But he didn’t say anything, and he asked them how they liked it. “It’s fine!”
“So I want to tell you now: he’s colored.”
So he showed ‘em the picture. They looked around at one another, and said, “We ain’t going to say nothing. We’re just going to put the record out there.” So they signed me, and the record went out on January 6. And that’s why I’ll never forget, and I’ll never stop loving Chet Atkins.
The studio (or studios, since there were several) were all staffed by the best musicians Nashville had, and that was very good indeed. Those guys could play anything. I’ve done other articles on the unsung heroes of popular music:
The Wrecking Crew (the LA studio musicians who made many, or even most of LA’s pop records of the 60’s)
20 Feet from Stardom (the background singers)
Muscle Shoals (the mostly white musicians who backed up Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and many other soul singers)
Standing in the Shadows of Motown (the real Motown Sound: the musicians who came to work at Motown Records every day and turned producers’ vague ideas into hits)
All of these groups have a documentary about them. I knew about The A-Team, the Nashville musicians who served the exact same function for country music, but so far I haven’t found the equivalent documentary about them.
Behind all of these “production lines” there was a very expensive building, namely the music studio. It had big and costly analog equipment, and you rented it by the hour. Here’s the Capitol Records studio where the big Frank Sinatra records of the 50’s were recorded:
A producer could not afford to waste those hours. There were musicians who could learn a tune and record it, quickly and efficiently, and they would just get hired over and over.
There’s a story, I think in The Wrecking Crew, where Roger McGuinn of the Byrds says that on Mr. Tambourine Man they used studio musicians and it was done in 3 takes. On Turn, Turn, Turn the actual Byrds played, and needed 77 takes. Time is money.
Running the Country Music Biz
There aren’t many photos of him not holding a guitar or posing with other musicians, but here’s a still from the TV show:
There’s also a story in The Wrecking Crew where one of the Monkees showed up at the studio with his guitar, and was shocked to hear that the backing tracks were already done, and he didn’t need a guitar. When they wanted him to sing, they’d call him. Big time music production meant “stay in your lane.”
Waylon Jennings says:
It’s assembly line music again. And that’s what it was, when I came here. You know, you get four songs, and go in in three hours, and cut ‘em. If you listen to the records nowadays, all they do is change vocalists. They got the same musicians.
I’m sure old Waylon would have liked to use his own band, probably. He didn’t say anything about it, but usually that doesn’t work, because you gotta learn a tune in 30 minutes and record it, and guys from out on the road aren’t used to doing that.
In the studio, he had the total respect of the musicians, because they knew he could play. As one of them says, that was 90% of the battle.
Eddy Arnold says, after they did a take, Chet would say,
“Well, let’s do it again (pause). That’s pretty good. (pause) But I think you can do it a little better.”
That was the way he was. He was Chet!
Dolly Parton talks about how, when he first heard a tape of her singing, he asked how old she was, and was told “Eleven.” He said, “Hell, she’s got to get an education first.”
I used to come to Nashville with my uncle Bill Owens, and we used to run around after Chet Atkins, try to get on the Grand Old Opry, and Chet said, “You need to go on back home, and finish school, and then when you finish school you should come on back and talk to me.” He was the first person I looked up when I moved here in ‘64.
Don Everly says:
When we first came to Nashville, he got the first song recorded. We auditioned for RCA, they turned us down, we auditioned for (inaudible), they turned us down. He would help us, send us to people who would listen to us. He believed in us. And people would say, “Well, if Chet likes ‘em, there must be something there.”
So I looked a little different, and sang a little different than most people who come to town, so I can see why they’d be reluctant. You know, we had long hair, just not the typical country boys, I guess. Chet’s nod of approval was really important.
There’s a parallel between Chet’s career and the path of a lot of technical people nowadays: he was great at what he did, and thus, he got pushed into management (or went voluntarily). Unlike a lot of engineers, he was great at it. In fact, if he’d never recorded a single note as “Chet Atkins” he’d still be a legend in Nashville.
But like a lot of engineers-turned-managers, he found it wearing and soul-killing.
Mark Knopfler says:
Chet was looking after the careers of, I don’t know. 20 or 30 different, a huge amount of artists. He’d make records really fast. I think the strain of it eventually just got him out of it.
Chet says about that
Artists, they start looking at you as their father and mentor and advisor and all that, and it’s a terrific amount of stress that we used to have to go through, A&R men, and I just decided to get out of it. I couldn’t do it anymore.
Most managers in that position just continue, albeit with dead souls. They infest modern corporations with their “professional management skills.” Not Chet. He got out of it and went back to being an artist. That’s the period when the TV show at the top of this article was made. Afterwords, he said,
I regret, sometimes, that I spent so much time producing other people. I think I could have sold a lot more, I could have written a lot more.
So in the end, what’s better: to make art, or to help other people make art?
He did duets with George Benson, Les Paul, Mark Knopler, Tommy Emmanuel, and seemingly every guitar player in the world that he admired. He says, talking about his own life and how lucky he was, I think:
If you’re lucky in this world, you’ll be born in the country, and at an early age, somebody will give you a guitar, and you will play it with your fingers. That’s what it’s all about.