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Working with Chet Atkins
An interview with Don McLean (cont.)

by Tom Redmond

TR: I've seen you interviewed before and it seems to me like you have somewhat of an encyclopedic knowledge of artists and music history, and Chet was the same way.

Uncle Dave Macon
DM: Well I'm just an amateur, compared to him. Chet had an incredible knowledge, plus Chet was a big part of history. He remade a whole music form into something with a broader appeal.

From where he came from country music was Uncle Dave Macon, with gold teeth and straw hats – and that all changed into Eddy Arnold and the “countrypolitan” sound that crossed over, and that's a huge accomplishment.

DM: Chet was not a guy that just went along with things, you know? I once asked him what he thought of Bruce Springsteen, and he said, "The biggest hype in show business." That's what he said. And it wasn't any punches pulled at all. "The biggest hype in show business," and I thought, "Wow -- here's a guy who's not afraid to say whatever he thinks."

He says what he thinks even about people who are doing extraordinarily well and are popular at the time. Most folks in the business won’t express those types of opinions, at least for the time period that the people are doing well anyway. Most folks usually jump on the bandwagon.

TR: I know Chet felt that the melody had a special importance in music. In other words, if you could hum with a tune, then there might be something to it.

DM: Well try to think about this – there was a very popular show on television called "Name That Tune." And you could name many successful pop songs in four to five notes. Now that is what great songwriting is, and I’m afraid that's completely disappeared today.

We do not have songwriting anymore. We have things out there that are a reasonable facsimile of music, but a lot of it is not really music. At least I don't accept it as music, and it doesn't interest me at all.

Chet was always into those kinds of songs, ones with identifiable, beautiful melody -- you know, a really nice chorus, or a good story, and yet brilliantly written like those early Kris Kristofferson songs. They were just brilliant, those five or six songs that he's known for - and they say everything.

So, I guess Chet latched on to a few of my songs that he liked. I know he liked "Vincent" quite a bit. I'm not sure "Vincent" is all that great a melody.

TR: It’s one that's very memorable – That one might be good for “name that tune”.

DM: Yeah!

In the studio in Israel - 1981
TR: If you hummed eight or nine notes of that, a lot of people could get that one.

TR: I've seen interviews of you where you say, "I don't know what I'm doing or how I do it, I just do it" and I like that and wonder if Chet would say the same thing.

DM: Well you try to find the next interesting thing to do and see where it goes. You don't know where it will lead, so you just go with it.

TR: You seem very comfortable with performing your songs on stage. Chet was the same way. I wonder what that is about the two of you that make you so confident.

DM: Well, he's completely wrapped around what he's doing. I have never done anything but what I do and I don't think he ever did anything but what he did. You know, Chet’s like some character out of "The Twilight Zone". You see these pictures from the 1940s, and there's Chet Atkins. And then 50s and then 60s and then 70s and then 80s and then 90s, alright? He's always there, you know, and looking pretty much the same. I still picture that old photo with him holding the fiddle.

So he only did what he did, and that's been the same with me. When you do only one thing you get very comfortable. You just have the one ability, which is your whole focus all the time.

TR: Do you have an opinion on why you think Chet could be so influential with pop and rock artists. Countless musicians credit Chet with influencing them, George Harrison, Randy Bachman, John Fogerty, Mark Knopfler etc, all rock artists. They didn't really do fingerstyle.

DM: Well, they grew up with the records, and they grew up with the inspiration and they took it from there, I mean, he started something in them and they took it to another place. I think the big reason why all those guitar players go back to him, it's not just his playing, it's his whole musical contribution, you know, which is more than his playing.

Growing up in New Rochelle
I had one guy that turned me on to everything. He was the son of a radio announcer who announced for the Tommy Dorsey show. And this guy turned me on to Johnny Smith, Chet Atkins, Josh White, The Ventures, Buddy Holly, and Elvis.

I was born singing, but guitars were not around people in New Rochelle. They were around people in Tennessee, Mississippi, wherever but not where I grew up.

You didn't have guitars in people's houses where I grew up. It was an upper middle class white suburb. You might have the piano or a violin, maybe. Kids took orchestra lessons, they didn't take guitar lessons. Occasionally you might find a banjo in an attic from the old Fred Van Epps classical banjo period from the '20's.

When I got going, I was pulling instruments out of attics all around town. Someone’s grandmother might have one and they'd bring over this thing that had been in the attic for 30 years. I was a magnet pulling out guitars and banjos from attics.

TR: If you had lived in Tennessee, you'd trip over one walking on the front porch.



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