Country music guitar great Chet Atkins dies

Chet Atkins, the Tennessee-born guitar virtuoso who was one of the pillars of American popular music in the last half of the 20th century, as performer, songwriter, spotter of talent and shaper of trends, died Saturday in Nashville. He was 77.

A funeral director told The Associated Press that Atkins, who had twice undergone cancer surgery, died at his home.

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AP Photo

Chet Atkins is dead at age 77. His fingerpicking style was an inspiration to generations of guitar players and influenced a generation of rock musicians even as he helped develop an easygoing country style to compete with it.

Atkins' 13 Grammy Awards, the music industry's Oscar, may have been the most for any country performer. He was recognized as playing a vital role in moving the country sound and sense into the musical mainstream, and he was credited as a creator of the Nashville Sound, a landmark of American music.

Famed for a finger-picking style of play, he was viewed as an influence not only on guitar technique and styles of country performance, but also on jazz and rock. In addition to performing and recording on his own, he was a producer for RCA records.

As one of the foremost session artists, he can be heard in the background of scores of artists' hits, including those of such figures as Elvis Presley ("Heartbreak Hotel"), Hank Williams Sr. ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), and the Everly Brothers ("Wake Up Little Susie.")

By one count, Atkins had recorded more than six dozen guitar albums and sold more than 75 million albums.

He received honors four times in the Playboy jazz poll and was named the Country Music Assn.'s Musician of the Year nine times. Many in the music world knew him as "Mr. Guitar."

There is a "Chet Atkins Place" on Nashville's Music Row.

It was a remarkable climb to fame, honor and homage for a shy, asthma-afflicted child who was born in the hamlet of Luttrell, Tenn., and grew up in Appalachian poverty.

The fiddle that he took up as a child was seen in part as a refuge and shelter from the harshness of his life. Music also was part of his heritage. His grandfather had played the fiddle, his mother, the piano. She also sang. His father was a kind of wandering teacher of piano who occasionally sang with traveling evangelists.

The attractions of the fiddle did not leave the boy immune to the lure of the guitar, and he began picking at age 9; by his late teens, he was regarded as a polished player.

After graduating from high school in 1941, he began making regular radio appearances. He was with the Dixie Swingers, and with Homer and Jethro, and backed up Red Foley. By the late 1940s, he was recording in Nashville for RCA.

Soon he was made studio guitarist for the label's Nashville sessions, and by 1950 he was firmly anchored as a regular on Grand Ole Opry.

According to one account, his first RCA hit was a rendition of "Mr. Sandman," and he repeated its popularity by joining with Hank Snow in "Silver Bell." By 1957, he became manager of RCA's Nashville unit.

In his 20 years as an RCA executive, he was given credit for influencing the careers of Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings and Eddy Arnold, among others.

He left RCA in 1982 to record with Columbia, which permitted him greater scope, including an excursion into jazz.

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