Story Two 9/20/10
Well, anytime the seasons start to change and the months start ending in the letters “er”, I start to think about the upcoming holidays. I also remember holidays past. I was reminded today of a Christmas morning when Chet Atkins came to visit my dad. I decided to write a Chet Atkins story. I researched online to find out when Mr. Chet’s birthday was, kind of hoping that it might be around this time. Alas, it is not. His birthday is June 20, 1924. So in honor of the 3 month anniversary of what would have been Mr. Chet’s 86th birthday, I remember and honor him with a story I like to call……
Keep practicing, who knows?
I can’t remember a time in MY life that my dad and Chet Atkins weren’t friends. Their river runs very deep. CMT.com describes in their biography of my dad, his association with Chet Atkins as follows “After being fired by Sam Phillips at Sun, he moved to Nashville to work for Chet Atkins, then relocated to Beaumont, Texas. There, he met George Jones and convinced him to cut the song, "She Thinks I Still Care." In 1965, Clement returned to Nashville and financed a demo by then-unknown Charley Pride and persuaded Atkins to sign him to RCA. Clement also wrote Pride's first two hits, "Just Between You and Me" and "I Know One," and produced Pride's first 13 albums for the label.” With all of that between them, I am sure that they have a mountain of stories to tell of things they did and music they made.
As with other famous folks, my first encounters of them and Chet Atkins, were when I was very young. I didn’t know that they were celebrities at first. I knew that they sat in my dad’s office and picked and sang. I knew that they laughed a lot and tried on silly hats. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager, I guess, that I realized that Chet was “Mr. Guitar” and that his guitar playing was absolutely the top of the bar and would never be surpassed.
With that said, I can remember one of his visits because it happened on Christmas Day. Somewhere around 1973, I was about ten years old.
You know how on Christmas morning when you are a young child, your script goes something like this…You run down the stairs, rip open your gifts, pose for some pictures, eat some breakfast casserole and some sticky buns and then you get on the phone. You call all of your friends and compare loot. If you were lucky enough to live close to your friend, then sometimes you put on your new sweater, your new socks, your new shoes, your new hat, your new coat and got on your new bike and rode over there with your new toy under your arm. Well, I guess that feeling never goes away. I guess if the gift is good enough, it’s worth the trouble of toting it all that way. How do I know this?
My brother, Niles and I had barely finished opening gifts one Christmas morning in the living room of my dad’s house/studio when there was a knock at the door. I opened the door to find Mr. Chet standing there with a guitar case in his hand and a look of pride on his face. After inviting him in and him giving Niles and I a little hug, he said “Where’s Cowboy?” I kind of halfway expected his next sentence to be, “can he come out and play?” I guess boys will ALWAYS be boys.
I threw back my head and yelled across the house “hey, dad, Mr. Chet’s here.” A minute later my dad emerged and heartily said “Hey, Chucky, Merry Christmas”, they embraced in that “football game hug” way and then Mr. Chet told him that he had gotten a fabulous guitar for Christmas and just couldn’t wait to show it to him. How cute is that? Just like Niles was headed over to show his friend next door his GI Joe, Mr. Chet had rushed over to show my dad his toy.
My dad and Mr. Chet took the new guitar into my dad’s office and my dad got down his dobro and they played and played. Even at an early age, I knew that this music was unbelievable. It touched your heart. Two friends, not having to be on point, playing together because they love to and because they love each other. You would never get the same feeling at a public performance. The relaxed camaraderie and mutual respect rose to the top, like a cherry on a delicious musical sundae.And I was there, watching and listening and loving it, spoon in hand.
Before this, a guitar was something you just strummed, as far as I was concerned. Just to accompany yourself. When Chet Atkins played, he picked, he slid, he strummed, he made the melody come alive. Each note was individually played, like a lyric being sung. It was remarkable to see. The effortlessness and the ease at which he did it was the magic and the joy on his face was both telling and poignant. Where some children might have lost interest and gone and called their friends and played with their toys, I sat and listened. It was more beautiful than legos and dolls and toy ovens. It was more interesting than store bought 45’s and new coats. I was mesmerized. I had always had a love for the piano and not thought much about actually playing the guitar. But I knew that if I did ever decide to play the guitar, that I wanted to play just like Chet Atkins. That shouldn’t be hard, I mean, look how easy it looks.
Many years, probably 20, after that Christmas morning, my best friend, Kirk and I decided to take a few guitar lessons. We signed up for night classes at a local high school. I borrowed a gut string guitar from my friend, Keith and off to school we went. Our guitar teacher was very nice and very frugal. I had forgotten to take a pick with me to class and asked my teacher if he had an extra. He retrieved a baggie from his guitar case that was full of homemade picks. He had cut them out of plastic laundry detergent bottles. He gave me one and Kirk one. When we matched our picks together they said “improved”. I guess the detergent had been recently improved. Kirk and I could only hope the same for our guitar playing.
Our teacher started us out finger picking the old Elvis song Can’t Help Falling In Love With You. I practiced everyday for several weeks with my pick that said “oved” on it (remember, Kirk’s said “Impr”). I got to where I could pick it pretty well. IF I looked at the neck AND held my mouth right. I carried my guitar everywhere in my big Ford Econoline Van and would open the side door and sit and pick at the park or anytime I could get a chance. One such day, I was at the Nashville Airport in the outside waiting area, sitting in the side door, waiting on a friend and picking and strumming. A moment later I saw Mr. Chet coming out of the airport. I waved to him and he came over to say hello. We talked a minute, he asked about my dad and then about my guitar. I told him I had only taken a few lessons and was practicing. He said “show me what you got!”. Oh My God! Show Mr. Chet what I’ve got. On the guitar? Right now? Here? At the airport? A root canal would be more comfortable.
Did I run? No. Did I decline? No. Did I play Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, with my plastic soap bottle pick on my borrowed guitar in a parking lot out of the side of my ugly green van? Yepper. That’s what I did.
It would be kind of like being a young boy and throwing a pitch to Babe Ruth or having to go shopping for Coco Chanel and pick out just the right outfit. It would be like having to write a poem to be read by Walt Whitman or like having to cook for Julia Child.
Well, I did it. I played it. Correctly, VERY slowly, VERY over- methodically. But, completely. After I was through, I looked at Mr. Chet and said “well, there you have it, what’d you think?”
Without skipping a beat, HE said, “pretty good, but you’re NO Chet Atkins.” Then he laughed. And I laughed. “A” because HE is the one that said it and “B” because it was the biggest understatement ever made. Make no mistake, he was not being conceited or boastful or prideful, he was cracking a joke and IT WAS FUNNY. He was only saying what anyone else would have said. He WAS the “bar”. He WAS the “standard” that any other guitar player would be compared to. I’m sure there were some chefs that were told they were no Julia Child and some pitchers that were told they were no Nolan Ryan. But, probably not by Julia and Nolan, personally. We laughed together at the irony. Then Mr. Chet took my guitar and played Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, just for me, right there, the way it should have been played. AND he used my homemade pick.
Well, he was right, I was no Chet Atkins, then or now. I know three chords on the guitar really well and according to a lot of folks that’s enough to play almost anything. Why try to follow an act like him anyway. Thanks, Mr. Chet for the heads up. I’ll miss you this Christmas.
What three chords did I know? You ask. The three that Johnny Cash taught me when I was nine. You’ll have to come back to Story Time to read THAT story. I haven’t written it yet, but I will.