At 64, Chet Atkins is still doing what he's loved doing since he was 9 - pickin' a guitar.
Since those early days in Luttrell, Tenn., when little Chet traded his toy gun for a beat-up guitar, he's run the gamut of careers: sideman for the late Red Foley; superstar musician; record company executive; producer; and songwriter.But most of all, Atkins is "Mr. Guitar," a genuine super picker who has turned out 118 albums and won six Grammies.
Atkins has recorded alone and with friends, including Les Paul, Floyd Cramer and Merle Travis. He does 30 to 40 concerts a year.
Despite his roots, Atkins says he gets tired of country, labeling himself a "dial twister" who listens to bluegrass, classical, pop, `50s music and modern jazz.
His albums reflect his varied tastes, from "Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles" (1966), to "Chet Atkins Goes to the Movies" (1975), to "Stay Tuned" (1985), a jazz-fusion album with an all-star lineup including George Benson, Earl Klugh and Mark Knopfler (with whom he is planning another project).
Atkins not only visits the Grand Ole Opry stage, but has performed at jazz festivals and with symphonies and pop orchestras from Boston to Houston.
He spent 25 years as a recording executive with RCA and became widely recognized as a key figure in the development of what's known as the Nashville Sound. The Nashville buzz-phrase was, "If Chet likes it, it'll sell."
Among those he signed to the label were Don Gibson, Dottie West and Waylon Jennings. As a producer, he enhanced the hits of Elvis Presley, Al Hirt, Jerry Reed, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and countless others.
Once a reporter asked him what it felt like to be a big-time record executive. Sitting in RCA's head office in Nashville at the time, Atkins replied, "Don't know, `cause I ain't nothin' but a hunched-over git-tar player."
In 1982, he decided to concentrate on his guitar and left RCA for a fresh start at CBS. He still does a little producing, most recently working with Roger Whittaker.
Atkins also had a song, recorded by Ray Stevens, nominated for a Grammy Award this year - "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His Television Show?"
These days, much of Atkins' time is spent in the studio.
"We're living in an age of perfect records," he says. "It takes a lot longer to make a record these days. I like spontaneity and mistakes all mixed in. In gaining perfection, I think you lose spontaneity, dynamics and excitement. But when you've been in a business a long time, you always think it was better the way you used to do it."