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Chet Atkins: The gentleman guitar player

(CNN) -- There is a guitar, manufactured now by Gibson, called the Country Gentleman. It is a stately instrument, with a rich, slightly echoey tone, a guitar content to stay in the background but capable of producing quicksilver runs of harmonic beauty.

It was a guitar made for Chet Atkins, and it reflected him perfectly.

Atkins, a guitarist, producer and RCA Records executive who played a key role in the careers of musicians ranging from Elvis Presley to Dolly Parton, died Saturday. He was 77 and had battled cancer for several years. He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, singer Leona Johnson, whom he had said was the only woman he ever dated. They named their daughter, Merle, after Merle Travis.

Atkins was one of the most powerful people in Nashville during the 1960s, when he worked at RCA, producing such stars as Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson and Jim Reeves. He was dubbed "the King of Music Row," a reference to the Nashville strip where the labels were headquartered. To his death, he maintained an unassuming office on Music Row. He also owned prime real estate in the area.

CNN's Lauren Hunter reports on the influence of the legendary "Mr. Guitar" (July 1)

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In Memory: Chet Atkins  

His creation of the "Nashville Sound," with string sections and echo, helped popularize country music among mainstream listeners.

"I realized that what I liked, the public would like, too," Atkins told The Associated Press in 1996, "'cause I'm kind of square."

A gun for a guitar

Chester Burton Atkins was born June 20, 1924, on a farm near Luttrell, Tennessee, about 20 miles northeast of Knoxville. Though his first instrument was a violin, at the age of 9 -- so the story goes -- he traded a pistol for a guitar. By the time he left high school, he was a player in demand, and quickly lined up jobs at various radio stations. In 1946 he made his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1949, he was signed by legendary RCA country music executive Steve Sholes, who quickly made him the label's house guitarist. Atkins' finger-picking style proved influential to a generation of axemen, including George Harrison, who wrote the liner notes for Atkins' 1966 record "Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles."

As performer, Atkins' licks can be heard on countless hit records. He was a regular sideman on Elvis Presley's sessions, and gave a number of Everly Brothers' hits a distinctive twang. He also worked with a variety of country musicians, including Jim Reeves, Jerry Reed, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings and Don Gibson -- the last three Atkins discoveries.

When Sholes was promoted to head of pop A&R by RCA in 1957, Atkins filled his shoes in Nashville. There, he helped country music survive the challenge of rock 'n' roll with the Nashville Sound, which he created with Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley.

"We took the twang out of it, Owen and I," Atkins told author Nicholas Dawidoff in the 1997 book "In The Country of Country." "In my case it went more uptown. I'd take out the steel guitar and the fiddle, which branded a song as strictly country. I tried to make songs for both markets."

While the strategy helped country get back on its feet after being laid waste by the resurgence of rock 'n' roll, it also softened the genre for mass consumption, providing careers for the well-coifed, telegenic artists who dominate country music today.

Atkins acknowledged that country risked losing its identity at times, but was always heartened by neo-traditional performers such as Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis or Suzy Bogguss.

He also never apologized for the new style. At the time, his goal was simply "to keep my job," he told The AP.

Picking out notes

Atkins remained an RCA executive until 1982, when he signed with Columbia Records. But even while pushing paper in a Nashville office, he spent plenty of time playing and performing.

Other guitarists revered him, and many played with him on record. His duet partners included Reed, Les Paul, Mark Knopfler (on the Grammy-winning "Neck and Neck") and Australian prodigy Tommy Emmanuel.

His mark was all over Nashville, and not just in the city's trademark music. In January 2000, he was honored with a statue at a Bank of America branch downtown. In the rendering, he's sitting on a stool, one knee balancing a Country Gentleman, picking out a note or two. When the statue was dedicated, an overflow crowd showed up, including Tennessee governor Don Sundquist.

The modest Atkins told the group that he hoped many of his friends would be honored in the same way, "so that we can have a series of these things all the way down to the Opry."

That comment was typical of Atkins. At the time he became ill, in 1996, he had begun Monday night performances at a Nashville club.

"If I know I've got to go do a show, I practice quite a bit, because you can't get out there and embarrass yourself," Atkins told The AP.

Chet Atkins, a gentleman to the last, never did.

• - Chet Atkins

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