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Memories of Chet Atkins

by Rick Foster

My recollections of Chet Atkins begin in 1962 with the hearing of his album, Chet Atkins Plays Back Home Hymns. To this day I remember wondering how anything that beautiful could come from a guitar. I was playing electric guitar in a high school rock band at the time, but after hearing Chet I decided to trade my flat pick for a thumb pick and learn to play fingerstyle guitar. That first LP was the beginning of a Chet Atkins record collection that reached well over 100 albums and became my tutor, teaching me most of what I know about arranging for and playing the guitar. Chet's tone, like that of Andres Segovia, was magical.

During the early 70's I was playing dinner music at Dante's Down the Hatch (a restaurant designed like a ship in Underground Atlanta) and also at The Abbey restaurant, which was doing business in an old brick church turned dinner house. The waiters, garbed in monks robes, doled out expensive cuisine while I sat up on the altar playing classical music and occasionally sneaking in a Chet Atkins arrangement of "Amazing Grace" or "Just As I Am," which I thought appropriate for the church setting but which brought warnings from the maitre'd to "stick with the classical."

After returning to my apartment at about 11:00 P.M. I often stayed up until the traffic noise subsided around 1:00 A.M. and then used the quiet time to do some recording. I would set up a little Sony reel to reel recorder and attempt to capture on tape enough of my solo guitar arrangements to put together an album to sell at the restaurants. During the summer of 1973 my first album, That's All Right, entered the world with little fanfare. One good thing came out of it however—it served as a passport to meet my long time hero—Chet Atkins.

I bundled up the album, addressed it to Chet Atkins, c/o RCA Victor, Nashville, Tennessee, and sent it off, little expecting a reply. Much to my surprise a handwritten letter from Chet arrived a few days later informing me that he would soon be appearing at Stone Mountain, Georgia, a stone's throw from Atlanta, and that he wanted to meet me. On the day of his concert the phone rang and when a voice said, "Hi Rick, This is Chet." I could scarcely believe my ears. I remember my hand shaking as I hung up the phone and being in a dream state all the way to the hotel where he was staying. When I found his room, knocked on the door, and found myself face to face with the man who, along with Segovia, had been my main inspiration for years, I wasn't sure what to say. A few minutes later, however, I began to realize that I was in the presence of one of the greatest and yet most humble and kind men I'd ever met.

We had supper together, were picked up by a long black limousine and taken to the concert, and then taken back to the hotel where we swapped tunes and arrangements until late evening. Even though Chet was the greatest fingerstyle guitarist and arranger in the world, he listened with genuine interest to my music and even wanted to learn parts of my arrangements of "Mr. Bojangles" and "Sheep My Safely Graze." That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted from August 25, 1973, until Chet's passing on the morning of June 30, 2001.

As we said goodbye that night Chet invited me to come see him anytime I was near Tennessee, so the next time I was in Nashville I called and was invited out to the house for a visit. After stopping at an IHOP for supper, I headed off for Chet's place only to be pulled over for going the wrong way on a one way street. I was ordered to park my car, and then hauled to night court in a squad car. To make a long story short, after watching several unfortunates being tried for peeing on the sidewalk, etc., I stood before the judge to plead my case. After informing him that I was on my way to the home of Chet and Leona Atkins, he immediately dismissed the case and ordered the patrolman to get me back to my car. When I finally arrived at Chet's house 5 hours later than expected, even though it was after midnight Chet and Leona were waiting up and welcomed me with famous Southern hospitality. Leona turned out to be a great woman—gracious and a perfect hostess—and also a personal friend of the police chief. She threatened to call and let him know that was no way to treat visitors.

The next morning Chet sat at the breakfast table practicing while he watched TV and Leona cooked the eggs. It seemed like there was a guitar in his hands all the time. He kept one near the phone and did finger exercises while he talked. It's been said that Chet Atkins loved the guitar so much that if he wasn't a man he'd have to be a guitar. He was always wanting to hear me play, although to this day I've never figured out why.

Between the years of 1973 and 2001 I visited Chet several times in Nashville and met him in various places across the country as he traveled about. Each visit turned out to be a memorable adventure.

In March of 1974 I happened to be in Nashville on the opening day of the new Grand Ole Opry. Chet was scheduled to appear on the show and asked me to go along. He was into photography at the time and always had his camera ready. Before the show he'd decided to get some pictures with his famous friends and asked me to be the photographer. Each star had his or her own dressing room and invited us in. Chet always introduced me like I was important, calling me a great classical guitarist or something along those lines. By the end of the evening it seemed like I'd met every living legend in country music and then some.

On another occasion I was in Nashville when Les Paul came around to do a duet album with Chet. Before Les arrived Chet had been producing some sides for Jerry Reed and other artists and hadn't practiced much. During the two days of recording that culminated in the Grammy winning Chester and Lester album, I witnessed some of the greatest guitar playing the world has ever seen. The genius of both men was unveiled before my eyes as they went flawlessly from song to song, joking with each other and acting like two young kids just having fun making music. Having played the guitar for over 40 years now and after recording a dozen albums of my own, I understand the difficulty of achieving that perfect take—and yet those two were laying down one perfect track after another with no edits or overdubs. It took me back to the early days of recording when pioneers like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington went into the first studios and recorded straight to disk those great masterpieces of jazz. The music of Chet Atkins and Les Paul will undoubtedly rank as some of the greatest music of all time.

Another time I happened to be in town when Christopher Parkening was there to perform with the Nashville Symphony at Ryman Auditorium. Chris and I had been friends for many years, so when he arrived in Nashville, we went out to visit Chet before the concert. Chris had some recording equipment at his home in Montana, but since he hadn't learned to use it yet Chet decided to teach him how to get rid of mistakes by splicing two pieces of tape together. After going down to Chet's basement studio he asked me to play something, probably because he knew I wouldn't get far without a mistake. Sure enough, after a few bars of "Yellow Bird" I goofed up and started over. At the spot where the mistake occurred, Chet skillfully cut the tape with a razor blade and spliced the two takes together, creating the illusion that I had played the section perfectly. After a few more tries I managed to get through enough good parts for Chet to put together the entire piece without any hint of an edit. Chris told Chet that he was glad to watch the splicing process, but it would be easier to just play through the piece perfectly from beginning to end.

I recall accompanying Chet to several TV appearances including the Jimmy Dean and Johnny Cash shows. As usual he was completely relaxed. The Cash show was being televised from Opryland. As we sat backstage passing time playing "Sugarfoot Rag," Chet seemed to forget he was about to appear on national TV. I noticed many times that whenever or wherever a guitar was in his hands Chet seemed to forget everything but the music of the moment.

Looking back on 27 years of priceless memories of Chet, one stands out as a reminder of what a great man he really was. I can't recall the year or the place, but I vividly remember our visit in his hotel room after a concert he'd given that night. I'd been playing solo guitar dinner music in restaurants and country clubs, and after living and traveling alone for several years was feeling very lonely. He welcomed me as usual and wanted to hear me play. Then as we were saying goodbye he must have sensed my loneliness because as I opened the door to leave he told me that he loved me and offered some encouraging words. Those words and his unfailing kindness gave me the courage to keep going. Just knowing that a great guitarist and friend like Chet believed in me increased my faith in myself. In later years after our family settled in Oregon, Chet kept in touch. He sent us tickets to his concert at the Britt festival in Jacksonville, Oregon, and invited me to play a tune at his concert at the Hult Center in Eugene, Oregon.

The last time we saw Chet in Nashville was in the spring of 1996. We were there to play a concert at a Baptist church near his home, so he invited our family out to his house before the concert. Our kids sang some hymns for him and Leona and then we played a few songs for each other. He also played the fiddle for us that day. As we were leaving, he asked if he could help set up our sound system or do anything else to help out. That evening he arrived at the concert about 45 minutes early and came back to the Sunday School room where we were eating supper. He picked up my guitar and played some tunes he had written for his Almost Alone album which was soon to be released. As we were about to enter the sanctuary he pulled out a $100. bill, gave it to me, and said, "I'll put some more in when the plate comes by so they won't think I'm cheap." We then walked into the church and sat down side by side in the front row as the pastor introduced me. I'll never forget looking down and seeing my great inspiration and friend sitting there by himself on the front row of that church in Tennessee, listening to me play the guitar.

When we last talked about a year ago, Chet was suffering from the effects of treatments for lung and brain cancer. We had a long phone conversation during which he told jokes and said he was watching too much TV but would soon be playing again—no complaints or self pity. I told him that there were three people in the music business who were so far above their competition that they really didn't have any competition—Segovia, Elvis, and Chet Atkins. He was silent for a while and then said, "You know, you're right."

Chet was one of the greatest music producers and hit makers in Nashville, but left a broad legacy of more than just music. He was the funniest, kindest, and most big hearted man I've ever met. He moved through high pressure situations with apparent ease. I still marvel at being in the presence of a truly great man. There are so many wonderful memories—like having the opportunity to open a concert for him at the Lobero theater in Santa Barbara, California, and receiving the Gibson electric classical guitar he gave me as a gift. But greater than all of the memories of his music and accomplishments is the memory of Chet himself. One of the recording engineers that worked with Chet at RCA summed up Chet's life when I asked him what it was like working day by day with Chet Atkins. He said, "Chet Atkins is a great legend, but the man himself is greater than the legend."

Since his passing from this life two days ago, I've had several people ask if Chet believed in God. I recall an incident that had happened at Opryland on opening day. As Chet and I walked past a beautiful bed of flowers I repeated the words of Jesus who said that "Solomon in all of his glory was not arrayed like the lilies." Chet didn't say much but later told me, "I believe in something but don't know what it is." There's one thing for sure and that is that many people were praying for Chet.

Those of us fortunate enough to have been around Chet will never forget his sense of humor. Perhaps some excerpts from letters written to me by Chet from 1973 through 1997, will give some insight into the man himself.

Rick's Thoughts

Most people my age (55) have experienced the death of a close friend or relative. Each time someone close to me passes away I re-evaluate what's important in my life and why I do what I do. When Chet died three days ago many vivid memories flooded over me. I thought about how God used Chet's playing to lead me into my life long work of arranging, recording and playing sacred music. If I had never heard Chet's Chet Atkins Plays Back Home Hymns album I may never have realized that hymns could sound so good on the guitar. After hearing Chet I thought, "Well, if he can create beautiful hymn arrangements maybe I can too." One thing is certain—the work we do for the Lord is never done in vain.

The older I get the more I come to realize that unneeded material possessions do not bring me joy. We come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing. The only things that bring true joy to me are the love and companionship of my family, knowing that I've used my musical talents to honor God, and knowing that I have a Savior who is guiding my life and who conquered death on my behalf. Faith in Christ gives me the wonderful assurance that death is no more than a transition into a beautiful and better life. Each day I pray something like this: "Our Father in heaven, we acknowledge you as the giver of life and the source of love and truth and all of the many blessings that we enjoy. We ask that you would bless us as we serve you, that your hand would be with us in all that we do, that you would keep us from evil and harm, and that your spirit would be upon us, guiding us with wisdom and filling us with more love each day."

I count it all joy to be able to use the guitar to honor God and thank John Schroeter, Bill Piburn, and everyone at Fingerstyle Guitar for helping to make this music available to others.