On Sunday afternoon, September 18, 1994, I had the privilege of attending a masterclass
workshop with Chet Atkins and John Knowles, at Brookhaven College in Dallas, TX.
I was one of 14 guitarists, composed of mainly college classical guitar students.
Each participant had been selected via a personal or taped audition through
Mr. Roger Bennett, Brookhaven Dean of Fine Arts. Chet had performed in concert to
a sellout audience in the school's auditorium the previous night, and had stayed
overnight, along with his manager George Lunn, to participate in the workshop.
The concept of the class was that it was to be a dress rehearsal for Chet's upcoming
instructional video for Stephan Grossman.
The members of the class met with John Knowles a couple of
times during the week before the class to rehearse a selection
of songs that had been mailed to each student a few days before
the workshop. The songs included "Waltz for the Lonely",
"Down Home", and "Happy Again". The format of the class was
arranged to allow the students to perform the song for Chet
as a group, and then Chet would perform the song and provide
insights and instruction.
The workshop began that afternoon, with each of us meeting Chet
and then having lunch together. I had briefly spoken to Chet
about 10 years earlier as he was unloading his guitar from
the van before a concert in Beaumont, Tx. The previous CAAS
convention was the first one for me to attend, but Chet was
ill and did not sign autographs or mingle with the
convention attendees as he normally does. So this first
meeting was a special treat for me to personally meet my
hero, whose music I had spent countless hours with guitar
and record player, trying to learn his unique style.
I was very impressed with his kindness, humility, and
intelligence. In his presence, one soon realizes that Chet is truly a
musical genius. His knowledge of the instrument and of music
in general is phenomenal.
After lunch, the workshop began with the students surrounding
Chet in a loose semi-circle with John Knowles chairing the workshop.
Approximately 40 guests, mainly classical guitar teachers from the
Dallas area, formed a small appreciative audience. The workshop proceeded
as planned, with Brookhaven taping the event for posterity and
possible use in the upcoming video. However, one huge unexpected
wrinkle was introduced by John once the workshop began.
After Chet's performance of a particular song, John asked for a volunteer to perform
the song solo for Chet. I knew "Happy Again" fairly well after only
one week of practice, so I was selected to perform one of Chet's best
compositions for him. To sit next to and play for this master was an
experience that ranks as one of the major events of my life. After a
respectable start, reality set in and my mind went completely blank
at the bridge of the song. I could not remember another note!
Chet picked up the melody where I had left off with his guitar, trying
to get me back on track. After fumbling around a bit, I finally picked
up the last verse and finished the song. I was experiencing a severe
case of embarrassment at my poor performance, when Chet leaned over
and secretively whispered to me to not worry about it, that this
had happened to him many times and that he understood how I felt.
At the conclusion of the workshop, Chet signed my guitar and others before
mingling with the crowd. Soon his ear was attracted to the sound of one of the guests
playing guitar. One of the Dallas classical instructors had a beautiful classical
guitar that had an incredible voice. Soon Chet and the young man were trading the
guitar back and forth, playing various classical pieces that each one knew.
Again, it was a very special treat to see Chet play impromptu pieces, complete
with mistakes, as he had not played some of the pieces in many years. However, the
genius that is Chet was present, as he displayed flashes of brilliance in the licks
that he employed throughout the pieces. His true love of the guitar was evident
as he played this fine instrument. Chet's demeanor was that of a young boy,
experiencing the thrill of playing a fine guitar for the first time.
Finally, Chet's Road Manager, George Lunn put a humorous end to the impromptu concert by telling Chet to say "goodnight", as they had a flight to catch back to Nashville that evening. Before he left, I was able to speak with Chet one last time, thanking him for spending his time with us that evening. Chet responded to my remarks with a warm smile as he reached for my hand and gently patted me on the back, thus ending an experience that I will treasure forever.
- Rod Robin