In the summer of 1974 I found myself backstage at Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was 17 years old at the time. I was the backup banjo player for a local bluegrass group…Bluegrass Express. Actually, I filled in for their regular banjo player whose wife wouldn’t let him play just “anywhere”. But, Memorial Auditorium wasn’t just “anywhere”. This was a big gig for the group who also had a local TV show on Saturday nights. We were there to open up a benefit show for Muscular Distrophy and there were many celebrities present. The band leaders invited me because I was a shy kid and they all kind of took me under their wings.
Knowing that I wasn’t going to get to play, I just showed up in old jeans and a shirt with the arms ripped out…what an outfit…and just sort of mulled around backstage trying not to get in anyone’s way. I remember Johnny Rodrigues bumping into me and apologizing…while I felt like jelly on cornbread.
The sounds backstage were incredible. Everyone was tuning up and talking about the music and their breaks and how they were going to end the songs and all kinds of stuff like that and for a musician that atmosphere was heaven-sent. All of sudden though, everyone hushed. A silence came over the whole place…disjoint and unorganized as it was…a unified chorus of heads all turned towards the back door. You guessed it. In walked the Country Gentleman himself! He said, “Ya’ll need another guitar player?”. Wow, my heart and everyone elses must’ve stopped for what seemed like an eternity. Now what do you do? Try not to stare? Somebody yelled, “come on in”. I thought…is that the best you can come up with for this legend, this hero of heroes? But, I couldn’t even breath, much less talk and come up with my own line.
Twelve years prior to this awesome event, when I was five, I remember the sounds of “Rockabilly” music coming up through the heat ducts from the basement of our house as I lay in my bed “trying” to go to sleep. My dad and his group were always practicing for local gigs. When all the guys would leave though, I would hear my dad playing like Chet on his new Country Gentleman guitar. I can still remember the smell of the new lacquer when I opened the case and sneaked a peak at that thing. I would strum my fingers across the strings and think…man, there’s no way I could ever learn to play one of these, there’s just too many places to put your fingers!
Well, I became determined to play it anyway. For the next 12 years, I sat in front of the record player and set and reset the needle about a million times trying to learn Chet’s licks. All this time my admiration for him just grew and grew. As I would learn something quite complex (in say, 6 months) I would marvel at Chet and think to myself, “nobody taught him to play, he just thought up all this stuff in his head”! What a genius! Other folks can listen to Chet and say stuff like, “yeah, that’s pretty music”, or “he’s pretty good”, but us fingerpickers realize just what’s going on in that split-brain, split-hand style of playing, and Chet’s style is nothing short of miraculous. I do believe God gave this man something very special and what a wonderful way that Chet used it during his lifetime!
We all know what a gentleman he was. He respected what the Lord gave him and he didn’t flaunt it like many performers. He was humble and treated everyone just like we’re supposed to be treated…like we love each another.
When Chet walked in that back door, our group’s guitar player, Claude, came over to me and with his pointing finger, pushed my jaw closed. He said, “it ain’t polite to go ‘round with yer mouth open”. I was shaking visibly. Claude put his arm around me and walked me over to Chet. He said, “Mr. Atkins, this boy here is your biggest fan”. Chet grinned that grin of his and said, “is that right?”. I think I was shaking my head, but any words were stuck somewhere between my tonsils and my tongue.
Chet said, “ Come on back to the dressing room and we’ll pick a little.”. I thought, “Oh my Gosh, what am I going to do if he asks me a question…I can’t talk!”. By this time, Claude had left and it was just me and “Mr.Guitar”. Chet closed the door of the dressing room, took off his coat and opened up his guitar case. He commented about how cold it was in the room and how it made it hard for him to play when it was like that. I shook my head in agreement and said something stupid like, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”.
Chet tuned on his guitar a little bit. He had a classical this day. He finished tweeking the strings and handed the darn thing to me and said, “Pick me a tune.”. I could have swallowed Chickamauga lake whole… my mouth opened so wide. I strangled a muffled, “Ok”, and took the guitar. My first though was, “Wow, I hope some of the magic stays on my fingers.”. My second thought was, “Man, I ain’t never gonna wash my hands again.”. And, my third thought was, “Gosh, I wish I’d worn a shirt that had arms on it…I don’t want to get perspiration on Chet’s guitar!”.
After a short and silent prayer, I played, “Walk Right Back” for the Master. He smiled wide and told me it had been a long time since he had played that and he would have to practice up on it and start playing it again. He asked me about my playing. I told him I was playing the banjo a lot now and he surprised me with his response. He said, “Yeah, I need to practice up on my banjo playing too. Can you show me some rolls?”. Well, again I guess I could’ve drained the lake, but I showed him what I had learned from my Earl Scruggs instruction book. He thanked me and said my playing was pretty good. He took the guitar back and played a little warm up on it and I asked him about the guitar. All I remember was that it was made by a man in Kentucky. I guess you guys might know who it is, but I can’t remember. Anyway, I commented on how well it played and told him how he was my hero and that this was the best 45 minutes of my life so far, and he just smiled the most thankful and humble smile that just made me feel so much at ease and welcome there.
I played “Windy and Warm” of course and he reminisced about which album it was on and so forth.
All too soon, the fantasy had to end though. The folks putting on the show wanted to talk to Chet about when he would play. He graciously thanked me for playing for him! I couldn’t believe it! The MAN was thanking ME for playing for HIM! What an honor! He wished me luck in both my banjo and guitar playing and then excused himself to head upstairs to the control room.
I will never forget that day. I saw him a couple more times after that, but never met him again. I went to his last major performance in June of 2000 at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. I arrived early and saw Merle helping him out of the car. I hadn’t known that he had been sick and I wanted to stop and help but the traffic was pushing and there were no parking spaces available. By the time I parked and got back to the front, he was gone.
These are proud memories for me and I’m always quick to remind everybody that I picked with Chet Atkins. I’m very thankful to God for giving me this once in a lifetime opportunity.
My heartfelt prayers go out to Leona and Merle and all of Chet’s family. You all lost a husband, a dad, a grandfather, an uncle, and a patriarch of your family. That pain will last for a long time. I think I speak for everyone whose written in, “When I Met Chet”, that we share your pain and know that it will never really go away.
May the grace of God stay with you during your times of suffering. It certainly was with Chet all his life.
God Bless you Chet. I love you.
- Jim Penson