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Working with Chet Atkins
An interview with Earl Klugh (cont.)

by Tom Redmond

EK: When I was younger, I used to really hate going on the road. Part of it was because it was just so hard to really get a career started. You start right at the very beginning where you can hardly pay a band, driving in cars and in vans. You make bad decisions with record deals and it’s hard to get the money. After 5-6 years, if you’re lucky you get out of that first deal and move on. Things become better, you hopefully learn from your mistakes. As for me, after 5-6 years I really embraced everything about what I did. I had always worked hard on my music but I also I tried to concentrate on having the best band that I could, making sure the players got along, and that there was positive feel to the music. When you straighten out those things, things become good more quickly.

TR: I would think some of those things might be difficult for folks who maybe very talented musically. Those types of thing required managerial skills, don’t they? You are managing relationships, and egos, and facilities.

EK: Absolutely, everything.

TR: I think people who listen to your records would think “Wow, it’s gotten so much airplay. This guy must be making a mint out of this”. But they don’t realize that there are a lot of fingers in the jar there.

EK: Yes. Back in those days, it was really hard to do it without a major record company, because they were the only game in town. It is very different now. There are problems now, but different types of problems. I was very fortunate because the gentleman who signed me first with Capital was a very honest individual. And to this day, I’ve been with Blue Note, Capital, Warner, and several labels. But the most honest deal was the first and the royalties still come from the first record deal.

TR: I remember hearing your music being played when I was watching golf on Sunday. Is that CBS Sports?

Earl with keyboardist
Bob James
EK: Yes. They’ve used that for years.

TR: I like to watch people’s playing styles and I noticed you get a great amount of sound from your guitar but looks like your right hand is really not attacking the strings very much. It looks like a softer touch. Tell me, how do you get the sound out of your guitar with your technique?

EK: That’s interesting. You’re the second person who has mentioned that I don’t seem to do much with my right hand. From my perspective, I really do, maybe not as hard as some players, but I am trying to pull sound out of the guitar. When I came along they were quickly developing better electronic pickups and other things for the electric nylon string guitar. So I never had to sit down on the edge of the stage like Julian Bream and bang it.

TR: Where is your playing these days?

EK: I have been doing solo a lot gigs the last couple years and I’m really enjoying that. I’m looking forward to doing more of them. I think things at this stage are getting easier and more peaceful.

TR: Are there any current projects?

EK: The biggest thing I’m doing right now is a solo album. I am taking my time. I think the last solo record I made there were a lot of standards. This time I’m going another direction and do some of the music I grew up with. It’s hard for me to sit down and write good solo guitar pieces. I’m up to about 6 or 8 of them now. I’m going to start to record soon. Once I record the initial songs, I know it will write some more. But I want to have a good variety of stuff and I have some good ideas about the kind of things I want to do that will make it an interesting recording.

Also, I’m really looking to do more solos shows, some strictly guitar-oriented shows.

About 2 years ago I did a three guitar thing. It was myself, Bill Frissell and Russell Malone and we played solo pieces but also with each other and it was just so much fun because you improvise so much. You are not glued to any paper or anything, you are just playing and having a great time. I really enjoyed doing stuff like that now as opposed to just playing with the band all the time. I have come to really enjoy playing by the seat of my pants in live shows, either by myself or with a couple of buddies.

TR: Well, you mentioned you like to play whatever you want but don’t the fans want to hear hits from your albums, I mean they expect to hear them like they are on the records don’t they?

EK: That’s a very good question. We do cover those songs but also try to change it all around. And it still goes well because people really react positively to the fact that you’re trying to give them something special.

TR: But I’ve heard other artists say that when they’ve done some new projects, they were like “Wow, that’s a relief because my big hits, I always felt like I had to play them exactly like they were on the radio station”. So to be able to branch out and just play less scripted was liberating.

EK: I still do plenty of band shows where I play those songs. I went over to Japan for shows with Bob James and that was really good, because we’ve made a couple of albums together. And so we both played each other’s music as well as the music from our joint projects. Since we had made those records together, it’s kind of makes sense to the audience for us to do those songs.

One thing I’ve noticed though when I began doing solo shows is that afterwards I always come back with new ideas because nothing is really scripted. So, you are constantly moving ahead, and generating new ideas. Now if I play “Living inside your love”, “Dance with me” or “Heart String” in a solo show I really have to think about what I’m doing because it’s just me up there.

1980 Grammy winner – One on One
TR: Of course you have been nominated for multiple Grammy awards, and you won a Grammy for your “One on One” project with keyboardist Bob James who you mentioned earlier. Can you tell me just a little bit about that project?

EK: That was a really fun and very musical record. Around that time Bob and I had the same booking agent, and they booked us on a tour that started in San Diego and went up to Seattle. In those days everybody was going by buses and we shared the same bus. I think we made about 15 stops between San Diego and Seattle. We were staying in the same hotels, so we started talking and going to the movies and doing whatever you do during the day.

So we developed a friendship and after that we decided that at the end of the show, we would all just come out together and play a couple of numbers for the encore for everybody. It was a lot of fun and we sounded good.

About two months after that tour, I got a call from Bob and he said ”I don’t know about your label, but my label might be good with us doing something together”. His career was already established and we were able to work out a deal where I was able to do the album on his label, Columbia. So that’s how the whole thing worked out. I wrote some songs and Bob wrote some songs. Interesting thing about is when you look back, it was a three-day recording session for the whole record. Three days including the band, orchestra and everything. That absolutely was the quickest record.

And the success was almost immediate. It was one of those things that just took off from out of nowhere. I had never experienced anything like that. The stuff that I did with George Benson, “Collaboration” was really successful too and great musically but the “One on One” album with Bob James stands apart, it just took off.

The thing with Bob is nobody expected it to be anything but a really good jazz record.

"Collaboration" with George Benson
TR: Well is was a huge success and a grammy-winner.

EK: Exactly.

TR: By the way, I had heard that Chet and George had recorded a bunch of duet stuff together that never came out because of some disputes between the record labels.

EK: Yes, I believe they did record quite a few tracks.

TR: George was in Nashville I guess. It’s a shame that they couldn’t find a way to come to agreement and release an album.

EK: That’s the kind of stuff about music that drives you crazy. And you never know, it could still happen I guess. I’m sure any thinking person would transfer the tapes into some digital format where later on somebody can make a deal work. I talked to George during that time, and he was really excited about it.

TR: Have any funny memories of Chet?

EK: I’ll tell you one thing that was funny. He invited me to join him the Cracker Barrel in Nashville and he had a bunch of friends with him. I was the new person in the group. I think he was doing TV commercials for Cracker Barrel at the time. Well after we were done eating I pulled my money out and I reached out to get the check and Chet beat me to it and grabbed it. But the waitress said “Oh no, Mr. Atkins, you can’t pay this. This is on the house for you and your guests”. After she left they all looked at me and laughed and said “You haven’t seen Chet pull that trick before?”

TR: How big was Chet’s influence in the world of music?

EK: You could start by just looking at the amount of his own records, I think close to 100 albums? Then you see what an influence he had as a producer and executive. I was in Japan for a couple of weeks in January and I’ve been there probably 30 times. It’s frustrating because you can’t find a record anymore in the United States. But in Japan, almost every time I go, I am able to find Chet’s CDs in the Tower Records or other stores there. Not every record, but probably 5 or 6 every time. There were 15 Chet CDs that I picked up once in Japan.

TR: Internationally he is so well known and loved isn’t he?

EK: That’s for sure. The music stands on its own.

TR: Thank you so much for your time today, I hope you have a great week.

EK: Thank you, Tom.


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