I met Chet Atkins in a rather unusual way. Being a farm girl from Iowa who had moved to Nashville following my divorce, I had no way of knowing that the so-called protocol was regarding what you "could" and "could not" do when it came to celebrities.
My brother had worked for a radio station in Denver for 16 years as chief engineer. The station was sold to another corporation, and all the employees were replaced with the new owner's people. So, in his mid-40's, my brother was without a job. I was talking to him on the telephone one day, discussing his job prospects and my new home in Nashville. He asked me if I had met any country singers yet, and the conversation turned to his dream of someday meeting his idol, Chet Atkins.
Well, this plan started forming in my mind. What if I could get some of these country stars to give job recommendations for my brother? Maybe this would help him secure a job. So, I pulled out the phone book and started looking up entertainers. Believe it or not, many performers have their names and numbers listed in the book just like everybody else! I scrolled down to CGP, and jotted down the number. CGP stands for "Certified Guitar Player" and was the name of Chet's company. I called the number and asked the woman who answered if I could please leave a message for Mr. Atkins to return my call. I left my name, home number and work number, and proceeded to call several other numbers I had found.
The very next day, my telephone rang. It was Chet Atkins himself, asking what he could do for me. I was in awe, but proceeded to explain to him what I had in mind, and asked him if he would consider doing something like that for a total stranger. He told me to stop by his office after I got off work the next day with a copy of my brother's resume, and he'd see what he could do. He told me not to go in the front door of the building, though, that I should go in through the back and come up the stairs to his office. That way I wouldn't have to go through the secretary and the people who may be waiting there.
At 4:30 that afternoon, Matt picked me up from work and we headed for Music Row and looked for the address of the building Chet had given me. We were surprised to find that it wasn't an office building at all, but what looked like an old, stately home. We drove around back, as Chet had instructed, and found stairs leading to his upstairs office. As we started up the stairs, we heard a door open and someone coming down. I looked up and there was Chet Atkins in the flesh smiling down at us. He took my hand in welcome and led us up into his office. He looked rather frail that day, as he had recently been released from the hospital after having cancer treatments. But he assured us that he felt just fine and he wanted to hear more about my idea to help my brother.
I handed him my brother's resume and proceeded to explain the situation to him in more detail. He looked it over, smiled, and said that he had an even better idea. Why didn't he just record a job recommendation and then my brother could make as many copies as he wanted of the tape? He asked us if we had a tape with us, and since we hadn't planned on being able to record anything had to tell him no, we didn't. He waved his hand and said nevermind, he was sure he could find a tape around there somewhere. He pulled a tape out of the stereo behind his desk and told us it just had some pickin' he'd been doing on it from the day before, and he thought that tape would work just fine. Chet then proceeded to tape the most wonderful, humorous, powerful job recommendation anyone could ever hope for. After he had shut off the recorder, he signed the bottom of my brother's resume and handed it back to me, and asked if I'd send that with the tape to my brother (just so he'd know it was for real LOL). I happily agreed, and we had a wonderful time visiting with him and looking at his office and awards and listening to tapes he'd made of just little guitar riffs like we were long lost friends. Then Chet came up with another idea. Since my brother was such a big fan, why didn't I give my brother a call from his office, and he would say hello? I grinned at him and he handed me the phone.
I dialed my brother's home number, and when he answered I said, "Hey, big brother! You're never gonna guess in a million years where I'm calling you from!" and handed the phone to Chet. I wish I could have seen my brother's face when he realized he was actually talking to his idol! And Chet was acting like a schoolboy playing a telephone prank. It was hilarious. Chet's eyes were twinkling as he hung up the phone. Finally, we thanked him for his time and we left the office through the same back door. I would have never dreamed that this was the beginning of a friendship I'll never forget.
That evening, as Matt (my then BF, now my DH) was warming up to perform at a local nightspot, I sat at the table with a small tape player, playing the tape over and over again trying to realize just what had happened that afternoon. It still didn't seem real. One of the regular musicians came and sat down at our table and asked me what I was listening to so intently. I gave him the tape player and watched his eyes widen as he listened.
"Where did you get this?" he asked.
"In Chet's office this afternoon," I answered, smiling.
"How did you get him to do something like that?" he asked incredulously.
"I called and asked him to do it," I answered.
"YOU CAN'T DO THAT!" he exclaimed. "You just don't CALL somebody like Chet Atkins!"
I grinned. "Oh, okay. Guess I didn't, then."
A few days later, I got a call at work. The receptionist, Debbie, buzzed me at my desk and said "Chet Atkins is on the phone for you."
"Thanks, Debbie," I said. "I'm a little busy right now. Tell him I'll call him back in a few minutes."
"But Diane!" she said unbelievingly. "You don't understand … IT'S CHET ATKINS!!!!"
"I heard what you said, Debbie," I answered, grinning. "Tell him I'll call him back!"
I finished my project and dialed Chet's number. He answered his phone on the second ring and invited us to stop by the next afternoon. I readily agreed, and called Matt to let him know the plans. We spent another afternoon enjoying Chet's company and getting to know each other even better.
Oh, and my brother was so thrilled to get the tape AND Chet's autograph that he made Chet a wooden "duck in flight" plaque that was really pretty impressive. It was made out of several different types of wood and put together so that it actually looked like a mallard duck. Anyway, he shipped it to us and asked us to give it to Chet in appreciation for what he'd done. We delivered it to Chet's office that day. Chet liked it so much that he had us help him hang it over his fireplace right then and there. He constantly amazed me … here was a man who was one of the most famous guitar players in the world, a man who'd won all kinds of awards and was in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and we were hanging a handmade wooden duck above his fireplace like it was the greatest award he'd ever received.
We spent time with Chet many times after that. Each time he was warm, funny and very down to earth. It was almost like spending time with a favorite uncle.
One other time I remember so clearly … Matt and I were walking down Music Row one day going to my favorite store, the Nashville Cowboy. We heard a car honk, and we turned to see Chet driving by in his SUV honking and waving at us. We grinned and waved back, and at that very moment three tourists stopped us and asked Matt for his autograph! They had seen Chet honk and wave at us, and reasoned that if Chet Atkins would do something like that, we HAD to be somebody important! LOL Matt smiled and scribbled something illegible on their paper, thanked them, and we left. Chet had a good laugh over that when we told him about it.
It's been a long time since we've had the good fortune to spend afternoons with Chet. But he was always in our hearts, and often on our minds. He didn't view himself as a celebrity, or somebody who was unapproachable. He welcomed us into his life with open arms, and made us feel as if we were just as important as he was. The world lost a great man today. Even though we haven't talked for awhile, we'll miss him.
- Diane Henry