Superpicker Chet Atkins (1924-2003) had an awful lot of influence on the growth of the country music industry and the stylistic direction the music took in the post-WWII era. He played on a bazillion hillbilly and pop sessions in the late '40s and early '50s, and perfected a super-smooth, note-perfect style that many will say has never been matched. More importantly, though, was his work as head of A&R for RCA Nashville, where Atkins had a formative impact on the development of country music. Not an entirely positive influence, to be sure, since he was a primary architect of the dreaded, overly-sophisticated "Nashville Sound," which in turn led to the even more dreaded "countrypolitan" pop-country fusion of the late 1960s and '70s, and by extension, every pop-oriented stylistic watering down ever since... Still, the dude is a legend, and deservedly so. Here's a quick look at his work.
Chet Atkins "The Essential" (RCA Nashville, 1996)
A nice, compact collection of his work on RCA. The fella sure could pick guitar, as can be heard on these recordings (Note: in 2007, a revised, 2-CD set came out, which is meant to replace this single-disc collection... See below!)
Chet Atkins "RCA Country Legends" (Buddah/BMG, 2001)
Another best-of set, although this one -- like others in the Country Legends series -- pleasantly tilts towards lesser-known material. So much so, in fact, that there is only one song shared between this disc and the 2-CD Essential collection that came out a few years later. If you're an Atkins buff, looking for more material on CD, this is a mighty fine option!
Chet Atkins "The Essential Chet Atkins: The Columbia Years" (Sony Legacy, 2004)
Atkins spent several decades helming RCA Nashville, and his stint with the Columbia label (1983-97) came late in his career. Of course, he'd long since established his predilection for softer, EZ-style music, though it must be said that these recordings are particularly muzak-y and syrupy. Fine playing, as always, and if easy listening is your bag, this is the real deal, with forays into classical music and hippish-hoppish production to boot. From a country perspective, though, this set doesn't have that much to offer...
Chet Atkins "The Essential Chet Atkins" (Sony-BMG Legacy, 2007)
A great set profiling one of the hottest guitarists of the 20th Century... This is an excellent upgrade from the similarly-titled, single-disc RCA Essential best-of collection that came out a decade ago... This 2-CD set ranges wider, reaches back further and gives a better picture of Atkins' overall career. This is partly because of sheer size -- there are twice as many tracks -- but also, I'll admit it, because of the real-life synergy brought to bear by the merger of the Sony and BMG labels. The second disc closes with a series of duets, including one with Jerry Reed and another with Mark Knopfler that the old BMG best-of couldn't have included, since they come from old, Sony-owned albums. There are also several tracks earlier on that highlight Chet's behind-the-scenes studio work, with stunning backup on tracks such as "Should We Tell Him" by the Everly Brothers and Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me." His own albums were all over the map -- I suppose Atkins could generally be pegged as an "easy listening" artist, but he had a lot of twang in there as well, particularly on the earliest stuff from the late 1940s and early '50s. Lounge fans will enjoy the numerous instrumental covers of showtunes and '50s/'60s standards, but the would-be co-optations of rock'n'roll ("Boo Boo Stick Beat," "Teen Scene") and spy jazz ("Slinkey," "Man Of Mystery," etc.) are just plain fun, even after all these years. Chet's relationship with his protege and righthand man, Jerry Reed, could have been explored further, but as an introduction to the legacy of Nashville's #1 axeman, this collection is hard to beat. Recommended!
Chet Atkins "Galloping Guitar: The Early Years" (Bear Family, 1993)
A 4-disc collection covering Atkin's earliest work, from 1946-54 (not including the countless sessions he played on other people's records...) A ton of great music, plus all the great Bear Family archival material -- old photos, liner notes, the works!!
Chet Atkins "The Early Years: 1946-1957" (Proper, 1962)
This 5-disc package mirrors the Bear Family box set, but without the fancy packaging and the depth of archival presentation... Pretty cool, though, if you're just looking for the music.
Chet Atkins & The Country All-Stars "Jazz From The Hills" (Bear Family, 1993)
With Jethro Burns & Homer Haynes, George Barnes, Jerry Byrd and Dale Potter...
Chet Atkins "Mr. Guitar - The Complete Recordings: 1955-1960" (Bear Family, 2004)
This 7-CD set follows up on the earlier Bear Family box, gathering all of Atkin's solo work from the late 1950s, an incredibly prolific period where he veered away from his hillbilly roots and established himself as one of the slickest, sleekest superpickers in town. A must-have item for diehard fans, though only a distant fetish item for the rest of us...
Hick Music Index