Next Best Thing: An Interview about Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins

For me, my cousin Sharon DeVault Roach was the next best thing for an interview on Chester Atkins. Her father, who was also my great uncle Buster DeVault, was Chester Atkins’ best friend. They grew up together as neighbors in a Luttrell holler and stayed best friends the rest of their lives. Sharon said they talked every Tuesday on their ham radios. No cellphones or emails in those days.

Growing up, I heard my family talk about Chet and Buster’s relationship. Being a kid at the time, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what the big deal was until my mom said, “Chet has a picture of him and Buster together on one of his albums.” That’s when my young ears perked up. I replied, “Album? Chet has an album?”

Chet didn’t have just “an album.” His name is on the cover of over a hundred albums. Most are studio and live albums. Some of the others are compilations with other recording artists. Let me tell you, that list is impressive. To name a few: Floyd Cramer, Les Paul, Merle Travis, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Jerry Reed, and Hank Snow. And some of these recordings were nominated for a Grammy award.

And did you know Chet was also a manager and producer for RCA? The list of musicians he produced is just as impressive. Again, here are a few: Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Perry Como, Waylon Jennings, and Don Gibson. He also produced Charlie Pride and helped to get his career started.

Let’s say it together: “Wow!” Talk about a local boy doing good!!

Before we go any further, I want to clarify why I use both the names Chet and Chester. Sharon said he only wanted to be called Chester by family and close friends. Chet was his professional name. I will respect his tradition.

I asked Sharon if she had ever spoken to Chester, and if so, what was her impression of him. She said he was very down to earth, quiet and unassuming. Chester’s success didn’t go to his head. It was very obvious to me that Sharon still admires him.

She also said every time Chester came to visit his momma, he would also spend time with Buster. Her mother Lorena always fixed Chester biscuits and gravy. Guess he couldn’t get biscuits and gravy like Lorena’s in Nashville.

When I first contacted Sharon about doing an interview on Chester, she suggested I read his book first: “Country Gentleman.” She lent me the paperback version, but she has a signed copy. I have to say, it was not at all what I expected.

I had no idea how hard Chet’s life was a young boy. His father walked off and left the family destitute. At times he developed sores which he blamed on malnutrition. And he suffered from bouts of asthma.

Eventually, he was able to get a radio. In those days, most homes had them. You listened to them in the evening instead of watching TV as we do today. Chet listened to the musicians and tried to copy their “licks.” He wanted to learn from them so he could create his own unique sound, which he accomplished.

Sharon said when a young Chester heard the guitars being played on the radio, he thought it was one person playing to sound like two people playing guitars. In actuality, it really was two people playing two different guitars. That is another reason for some of his unique sound.

I was surprised at how Chet lived from paycheck to paycheck early in his career. He went on several tours with other musicians. He even toured with Archie Campbell who performed comedy skits. And he also worked at several radio stations. Radio stations used to have bands that played for their various live programs.

One time he wanted to try out for a job at WNOX in Knoxville, but he didn’t have decent clothes to wear to the audition. Sharon said Buster gave him some of his clothes to wear, but Chester was taller than him. So, Lorena let out the cuffs in the pants for Chester. And yes, he was hired.

One thing that struck me was the lack of confidence Chet had in himself. He lost several jobs at various radio stations, including a stint at the Grand Ole Opry in 1946 where he first met Minnie Pearl. Obviously, the problem wasn’t his skill as much as it was it was the type of music he played. The stations wanted country and hillbilly music. Chet likes to incorporate some pop and jazz into his playing.

At one point, Chet decided to give up on his career. He thought he would try his luck at piano-tuning since his father had done that for a living. His father also gave music lessons. Chet bought the instruments to tune pianos, but he just couldn’t do it.

Chet’s fate changed when the Carter Family came to Knoxville to play on WNOX. They noticed his talent and asked him to join their group. As Sharon said, that put him on the map. After successful tours with the Carters, the Grand Ole Opry took notice. As the old saying goes, “The rest is history.” Better yet; “The rest is country music history.”

There was so much that I learned about Chet (professional) and Chester (personal), that I could not do it justice in one article. If you really want to learn more about him, I would recommend reading his book co-written by Bill Neely, “County Gentleman.” There is also a website: www.misterguitar.com.

Or you could join the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society. They hold a convention mid-July at the Music City Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville. Sharon and her husband Wayne go as guests every year. Like me, Chet’s fans feel that Sharon is the next best thing to Chester Atkins.

Chet really was, is, and always will be a treasure from Union County.

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Linda Sue Wilkerson

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