Experienced, to Some Degree : Chet Atkins, CGP, Still Picks His Spots in a Career That's Been Anything but Abbreviated

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chet Atkins could have gotten a Ph.D. in recognition of his half-century as a guitar ace, but he is a wryly self-effacing sort who is content to remain a plain old CGP.

"Chet Atkins, CGP"--for "Certified Guitar Player"--is how he has been signing his name since 1983.

"There was a photographer--he's dead now--who did a cover for my album, 'Yestergroovin'.' He called himself 'Hillbilly Snapshooter,' and once in a while he would abbreviate it. That's where I got the idea: 'I'll give myself a degree; I always wanted one,' " Atkins, who plays Thursday at the Coach House and Friday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, recalled last week from his office in Nashville, Tenn.

Nobody could deny that he put in the requisite course work before his self-certification. Drawing on his key influences--Merle Travis, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt--Atkins developed a style of his own that laid the basis for much of the twanging that has come out of Nashville since the 1950s.

Atkins also was one of country music's leading record producers from the late '50s through the 1970s, adding strings and lush backing choruses to create a pop-influenced style that came to be called the Nashville Sound.

His diverse interests are reflected on his scores of albums, with cuts ranging from "Slinkey," a 1958 rock 'n' roll instrumental that anticipated the reverb-soaked, Southern California surf-guitar sound, to sweet offerings of standards and pop ballads.

Atkins could further justify his CGP degree by noting that he backed Hank Williams on stage and in the studio (cutting "Jambalaya," "Kaw-Liga" and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive"), played rhythm guitar on Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" and performed on many of the Everly Brothers' hits.

And he could point out that his fans include George Harrison, who wrote liner notes for the album "Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles," and Paul McCartney, who had Atkins play on one of his solo B-sides.

Last year, Atkins says, he had a chance to add another set of initials to his signature, when Cumberland College in his home state of Tennessee wanted to award him an honorary doctorate.

"I've been offered those things, but I never did accept," Atkins, 71, said in his courteous, husky-voiced drawl. "I don't want a degree unless I earn it. I'd rather be a CGP."

On his recordings lately, the CGP has come off as more of an SPG--for sociable guitar player. Duets and collaborations have been the rule for Atkins in the '90s, including albums made with singer Suzy Bogguss and singer-guitarists Mark Knopfler and Jerry Reed. "Read My Licks," billed as a solo release last year, featured a slew of guest pickers and singers, including Knopfler, George Benson, Bogguss and Steve Wariner.

Now, because of feedback he has been getting through his fan club, Atkins is at work on a truly solo album that he likely will title "Almost Alone." Atkins says that, except for a few string embellishments and a bit of outside guitar help, it will be just himself, his guitar and his foot tapping out a beat on the floor.

"My old, devoted fans want that; it's the way I used to play," he said. "It's tough playing a tune [unaccompanied] for two or three minutes and keeping it interesting musically. I've done it before, but not for a long time."

Atkins isn't one to minimize the difficulties of playing the guitar well enough to be a certified practitioner of it. He does, however, consistently play down his own accomplishments with light, self-critical quips. It's worth noting that the Country Music Hall of Fame certified Atkins' career by inducting him in 1973, a full 10 years before he decided to certify himself as a "guitar player."

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Atkins was born in Luttrell, in eastern Tennessee, and was playing guitar by age 6. He says that as a small boy he announced his intention of becoming famous playing it. His older brother and stepfather (Atkins' parents divorced when he was 6)--were not just critical of his intentions, he says, but cruelly mocking.

"I was put down all the time by my family and everybody. They would make fun of me when I would express my ambitions. 'You jug-eared bucktooth, you'll never do that.' But you need that; it makes you try harder, and I had enough of that to go a long way. I had low self-esteem."

Troubled by asthma, Atkins moved south to Georgia for most of his teens, where he lived with his birth father, a singer and music teacher. Atkins said his dad recommended he concentrate on piano or violin instead of the guitar, but by then--around age 12--there was no turning back.

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"When you're young, you take it to the bathroom; you sleep with it. Those are the people who excel, people who are eaten up with the guitar and love it. I was that way. I suppose my passion for the instrument has dissipated somewhat, but I still love it. I still can't be anywhere without a guitar, and I love to play all the time."

Atkins left school at 17 and got the first of a succession of jobs playing live on radio stations. His first solo record came out in 1946. But it was several years before he became well-established. Atkins says shyness held him back; his quiet, retiring manner made him easy for the radio bosses to overlook, or let go.

"I learned after getting fired so many times that I should have some kind of relationship with the executives at a radio or TV station, to be nice to the people and at least force myself to converse. I changed, and of course, once I got a little name going, they changed too."

Atkins worked with Williams on a number of recording dates and live shows in the early 1950s. "It was fun; he was easy to work with because I knew more chords than he did, so he respected me. I guess he'd heard my records. He invited me out to his house one day, and we tried to write a couple songs," but nothing came of it. "I was in awe of him. I can write a little now, but not then.

"Most of us knew that his life would be short," Atkins added. "I remember the last session I did with him; he was singing 'I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.' He was so skinny, and [so weak that] he'd fall down in the chair after he sang. I thought, 'You're not kidding.' "

Atkins is not about to make a big fuss about his own musical longevity. Next year marks his 50th anniversary as a recording artist. His plans for the occasion? "Not a thing. I hope nobody remembers it, because that makes me an old cock, and people aren't interested in old cocks. I try not to call attention to that."

Instead, he keeps on with a routine that includes weekend performing jaunts but not a lot of extended touring. His upcoming solo record, like other recent albums, is being cut at a home studio where Leona, his wife of 49 years, can hear him at work (they have one daughter, Merle, and two grown grandchildren).

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"My wife was always very understanding and knew the guitar was very important in my life," Atkins said. "I drove her crazy with [guitar] licks, but she never complained. She knew how much it meant to me.

"There's been some bad times but also good times, and she tells me she loves me two or three times a day," he said. "I was working [on the solo album] this morning, and I heard my wife taking a shower. I thought, 'I gotta get away from these extraneous noises,' but she wants me at home, and that's good.

"She says, 'I like to hear you play.' We've been through a lot. In 1973 I had cancer, and I've had it a couple times since," he said. "I had an operation a year and a half ago [for prostate cancer]. I'm healthy as a hog, but it scares the death out of you."

Atkins says he maintains a useful dissatisfaction with his playing. "That's the reason I'm still playing guitar. I'm trying to get it right. I've never expressed myself musically the way I would like. Because of that, I've had a long career. I've never been able to sit back and say, 'Wasn't I great? Listen to the one I made in 1958.' "

"I just want to keep playing guitar and selling a few records and hearing a little applause now and then," Atkins said. "[As a boy] I just wanted to be a famous guitar player, so I want to continue that, and shoot in the 80s once in a while on the golf course."

* Chet Atkins plays Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (714) 496-8930, and Friday at 8 p.m. at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. $32.50 for each show.

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