“I never listen to my records. I can’t stand to hear them.”
By phone from Chet Atkins’ Nashville office
“Simpatico” duet album and tour with Suzy Bogguss
It took me a long time to learn to appreciate Chet Atkins. Under the influence of the Gram Parsons/Clarence White-era Byrd’s “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” I risked buying my first country album — Merle Haggard and the Strangers’ “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am” — in ‘68 or ‘69 and slowly but surely fell in love with it. But even after I expanded my listening to Hank Williams, Bob Wills George Jones and Tammy Wynette, I still had no use for the “countrypolitan” country music of Chet Atkins, who seemed the squarest of the Nashville squares to me. I had zero interest in Atkins until I wandered into my neighborhood branch of the New York Public Library one day in 1977 and chanced upon a copy of “Chester & Lester,” a Chet Atkins-Les Paul duet album. I was curious about Les and I liked the black-and white photo of the two smiling guitar pickers on the cover, so I checked the LP out of the library. When I got home and played it, what I heard delighted me: country/jazz swing performed with deceptive ease and elegance. Before the first side was over, I had a newfound admiration for Atkins.
I still don’t love everything Atkins did as a musician and a producer, but I understand him better now. And there is no questioning his legendary status and musical greatness, especially as a picker. When he collaborated on a 1994 album with Suzy Bogguss, who was then at the height of her popularity, and they headed out on short tour that included an October 20 stop at Boston’s Symphony Hall, I had a reason to set up a phone interview with “Mr. Guitar,” the architect of the Nashville sound.
Postscript: In May, 2001, I covered the opening of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I talked my editor into sending me to Nashville by pitching a second story about three Boston expats making it as songwriters in Nashville: Tom Hambridge, Robert Ellis Orrall and Angelo Petraglia. The happy result was that I got to spend half a week bouncing around Nashville. Among my stops: RCA’s historic Studio B on Music Row, the place Atkins hung his hat while working with Elvis and many others).
My last full day in Nashville was a Sunday and I took the time to drive 15 miles outside of town to have breakfast at the Loveless Cafe. There was a crowd and I ended up having to wait a half hour or so to get my table for one. I passed the time wandering around outside, not at all unpleasant on a sunny May morning in Tennessee. When my name was called I walked past a group of four men talking and laughing: three middle-aged fellows and an old guy wearing a flat cap: Chet Atkins. I wanted to say hello, but he was in the midst of gabbing with his buddies and my table was waiting. Still, just seeing him made my day (along with the country ham, biscuits and jam at the Loveless, worth the drive). On June 30, a little more than a month later, I was surprised and saddened to learn that Atkins had died at age 77.
You and Suzy share billing on “Simpatico,” but it seems fair to say the album is a bit more hers than yours.
Well, it features her more than me. But singing is more important than pickin’ [laughs]. Always has been. But it’s a collaborative effort. I sing on some of the songs and play on most of ‘em. We had fun doing it. She’s a good producer and a good friend.
Do you regret that singing is valued over picking?
I’m sorry that it’s true but it is. Just look around. Listen to the country radio or pop radio. You hardly ever hear an instrumental except as a background for a commercial. It’s too bad. The playlists have gotten so short. But you have to face it that it’s easier to convey emotions with words than with music. But I wouldn’t be anything else. I wanted to be a famous guitar player, that was my only ambition. I didn’t want to be a singer or a game show host or a movie actor. I just wanted to play. I tell young kids, be careful where you aim because that’s probably where you’ll end up.
Do you think there was more appreciation of instrumental ability in years past?
Oh yeah, much more than today. Because radio stations back in those days didn’t have such a short playlist. Personalities in radio were more important in those days. You had all these guys with terrific personalities and they’d be able to play whatever they wanted. Of course that’s all changed.
How will the show go when you tour with Suzy?
We’re going to work together at first. Then I’ll do a segment of my own stuff, then she’ll do some of hers and then we’ll come back and do the album together. We may have an opening act too. We’ll have [violinist] Mark O’Connor with us in New York, I don’t know about Boston. I hope so. He’s something. I brought him to town. I brag about that all the time. I talked him into moving here when he was down in Atlanta unemployed. He’d been working with the Dixie Dregs. I said, “Man, you’re about the only person in the world I’d pay to see. Come up here.”
Do you do many shows these days?
I usually do about 30 concerts a year. I play with symphonies and I have a little band. I play mostly on weekends. I don’t go out on long tours. This will be the roughest month I’ve had in years. I’m doing about four shows with Suzy — L.A., a TV show, Boston, New York and Pennsylvania. And then I’ve got some dates by myself.
What do you like about Suzy musically that made you want to work with her?
Well, at first I was just knocked over by. I worked a TV show with her where you sit on the couch and play music and talk. I was first impressed by her looks. She’s beautiful. Then I heard her perform and I thought, “Hell, this chick can sing.” She’s great. I talked to the record label and told them about her. Then she’d come by here and sit on my back porch — I have an old dwelling right here in the music area. I taught her some old songs and we’d sing some old tunes. She’s a pretty good guitar player too. She kept wanting to do an album for the last several years. I was reluctant to do it. I thought, “I don’t want to hurt her career.” Because I have been on country radio for years. Finally, I thought, “Why not? Maybe we’ll be alright.” We did it and here we are. I hope it helps her career and doesn’t hurt it. Because the radio stations today don’t want old meat. They want young people 25 with cowboy hats and tight fitting pants. I don’t play on there enough to hurt her too much, so maybe it will be alright.
[It was not. Whatever the reasons, after the release of “Simpatico,” no Bogguss album has cracked the country Top 40 and no Bogguss single has risen higher than No. 33 on the country charts.]
What does Suzy have that other young female singers don’t?
I’m sure there are a lot of other singers I could work with, but she has exceptionally good ears. She’ll tell me a line I’m supposed to play and I’ll say, “No, it goes this way.” And she’ll say, “No, it doesn’t.” And she’ll be right. She has a hell of an ear. She sings on pitch, she’s not backwoods country. She can sing most anything. She’d be a helluva singer in any field except classical.
And you let her produce the album, not you, one of the most famous producers in country music history?
I don’t do that anymore. I haven’t produced in 10 or 12 years. I don’t want to. I quit that because one day I went to work and my shoes didn’t match. I thought the hell with this. I’ve been on this job too long. And the stress got to me. I got sick. I couldn’t compete now anyway, it’s a different ballgame. Today you make records in pieces. You go in with the rhythm section and they make perfect records. I don’t have the patience for that anymore. I’ll participate and I’ll make my own records. But I don’t want to be producer, have some young artist and them coming to me with their personal problems. Artists do that with their producers, you know. You take all that home and boy, it wears you down. I would never do that again. I have people coming to me asking me to produce, but not me.
You’ve been a bit critical of the “hat’ acts we have today.
It’s become a visual business. We used to go for styles and sounds. People bought sounds, it didn’t matter what the hell anyone looked like. And you had real stylists, like Hank Williams and Hank Snow and Eddie Arnold and Johnny Cash and all these great people. Now it’s visual. If you look good on TV it doesn’t matter too much what you sound like. A good song and good looks is where it is. There are so many new artists coming out each week, I swear, I won’t listen to country radio for a week or two weeks and I turn it on and there are all these people I’ve never heard of [laughs]. It’s amazing. But we’re selling more records than ever and hurray for that. Somebody’s doing something right.
You complain about the country scene today, but didn’t you help homogenize country in the ‘60s when you were a producer by replacing fiddles and steel with strings and backup singers?
You can’t forget that it’s a business. What I did when I was producing records was try different things. If something was a hit, then you go in that direction for a while. Then you try something else. It wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of the listeners, the deejays, the artists, everybody. It’s a community thing you do in order to make hit records. So we did go in that direction, but I think if that hadn’t happened country music might have died. Because after World War II people moved to the city and became more urbanized. They liked more sophisticated music and lyrics. I think country had to move, otherwise it would have become a folk music and died.
So would you call what you did a necessary evil?
Oh yeah. Of course the old folks who complain, if they would have bought records, than it would have remained the same. They say, “Why don’t you make records like you used to?” Well, we would if you’d buy them. People don’t buy ‘em anymore. It’s a business. When I started producing I knew I had to make hit records. I tried every way I could to make hits. I finally stumbled on some things that worked. I’d got fired from every damn job I ever had. I’d been fired from five or six different radio stations. I didn’t want to get fired anymore. I needed to make hit records to keep my job.
Do you like the records you made in the ‘60s when you hear them now? Or do you wish you’d done them differently?
Oh no. I hear those Don Gibson records, Skeeter Davis, Jim Reeves and I think, “God, they still sound great today.” There’s a restaurant over here that plays those old records, and when I’m in there and I hear them I think, “God, I did something right.” They still sound wonderful.
With all you’ve done in your career, what are you most proud of?
I think the guitar style I play…I heard Merle Travis and took that style on and on and on. Then Jerry Reed took it farther and then Lenny Breau took it farther. And I’m proud of that. Because everybody was playing with a straight pick when I came along. The pop musicians made fun of me because I played with my fingers and a thumb pick. But I was right. I changed the whole damn world and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the great records I made with Don Gibson and Jim Reeves and Al Hirt and Perry Como. I made a lot of hit records. It showed I had a pretty square ear. What I liked, the public liked too. So I’m proud of those things. But mostly I’m proud of the accomplishments on the guitar. I have so many people come to me and tell me I changed their life, people who come to my shows and people in the rock field and guitarists from all over the world. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. Because I never dreamed I’d have that kind of effect on musicians. I was just playing the music I like in the style I like.
Did you suddenly realize one day how good you were?
No, I never have realized that. I never listen to my records. I can’t stand to hear them. I think that’s the reason I’ve been around as long as I have. I’ve never been impressed with my playing. I’m still trying to get it right. I’ve always been a dim bulb in the marquee of show business. I’ve never been a big star. That helps your longevity. If you get too big, people get sick of you. You get predictable, they know what you’re going to do the next time you come out. I’ve never had that problem.
Do you still practice every day?
I try to, yeah. I’m playing golf right now. I’m going to leave in a minute. I’ll shoot about a 9, but I keep trying.
Tell me about your friendship with [Dire Straits guitarist] Mark Knopfler. [Atkins and Knopfler released “Neck and Neck,” a duets album in 1990.]
I heard one of his albums. I was out getting some speakers put in my car and they had one of his albums laying out there. I listened to it and thought, “I believe he’s heard me.” His phrasing sounded a little like me. I was making an album [1994’s “Read My Licks,” released a few months before “Simpatico”] and we were using George Benson and a whole bunch of guitar players on it. I told my manager, “I’d love to have Mark Knopfler play on it.” The next day Mark called me. He came over, sat on the back porch and we wrote a couple of tunes. Out of all the people I became closer to him than to any others. I’m close to George and Earl Klugh, but not as close as to Mark. Most of the people I have on this last record…..Earl Klugh claims he learned to play listening to me.
What’s the story with Pat Bergeson?
He’s from illinois originally. He came down from New York to play on some albums with me. He’s just a terrific harmonica and guitar player. He plays a lot of jazz and rock’n’roll and he can play country pretty good. He doesn’t know a lot about it, but he knows more licks than anybody I’ve ever seen. He showed me a lot of stuff.
He showed you? Isn’t he your protege?
Oh yeah, we hang around together a lot. I use him when I can and try to get work for him. He lives here in Nashville now.
One of the people you produced was Elvis [Presley]. Did you have any sense of how big he was going to be when he first came to RCA?
Oh yeah, we knew. Back in those days, if a guy got hot in one area you could spread it around the country, maybe the world. He was already so big in East Texas and Louisiana you couldn’t get him off stage with a firehose. We knew. When he came in to do “Heartbreak Hotel” I called up my wife and told her to come over. I said, “You might not get a chance to see him again, he’s gonna get so damn big.” She came and she wasn’t too impressed, I guess [laughs]. But we knew. And Mr. [Steve] Sholes [who signed Elvis to RCA in 1955], he really stuck out his neck when he bought out Elvis’s contract. Because if he’d flopped, he’d have been fired in a minute.
Could Elvis actually play guitar?
He played pretty good, yeah. And he played piano and drums. The first sessions he’d come in and work. After that, when he got more confident, he’d come in and play drums a while, then guitar, then piano. Then he’d practice his karate and then send out for 85 White Cottage burgers and then he’d go to work around 11 o’clock at night. But he loved gospel music. Jake Hess had influenced him and Bill Monroe and Big Boy Crudup. The first time I ever heard him I thought, “What in the hell is this?” I couldn’t tell if he was black or bluegrass or gospel or what. Of course that was what made him what he was. He was so damn versatile he could sing anything. I talked to [Elvis’s guitarist] Scotty [Moore] about it once. Scotty said, “Y’know, instead of patting his foot while he sang he’d shake his hip. It turned the girls on so he just exaggerated it a bit.”
Before you go, I wanted to ask you about one on the more unusual songs you do with Suzy, “This Is the Beginning,” which is almost an Afrobeat number.
I don’t know. I just loved it when I heard it. A friend of mine [Pat Donohue] up in Minneapolis wrote it. He’s on “Prairie Home Companion.” He wrote that song and played the hell out of it on guitar. I just thought Suzy would do a great job on it.
It’s a different style for her. Not exactly country music. She’s a country artist. The album is called “Simpatico.” That will send a lot of the country listeners to the dictionary, won’t it? [laughs]. Somebody asked me the other day what does that mean? It means we get along.
Do you consider yourself a country artist or a jazz artist too?
I’ll always have a country aroma or odor, but I play all kinds of music. I’m no competition to George Benson or any of these guys, but I love to play all kinds of music. I think I can get by fairly well. I just want to be known as a musician, not a country musician. I think it’s wrong to pigeonhole people.