In the musical circles I mixed in, Chet Atkins was a bit of an enigma. In fact, listening to Chet Atkins’ Most Memorable Songs is not something we would have even considered. We weren’t fans of American country music. And so he was just someone on the periphery of the music we played. One of the “old guards” who made a living out of playing everybody else’s songs.
However, Opinions Can Change
Then I did a few gigs sitting in with a band in London, and my opinion changed. It was before the first gig that the guitarist was warming up in the corner on his Gibson 175.
I enquired politely what it was that he was picking away at. “Freight Train, the Chet Atkins version,” came the reply. We were just about to do what was essentially a very blues-based gig. And I must have had a strange expression on my face because I had said nothing.
“Go listen to him; you will be impressed.” I did, and I was. There was no doubt he could play, albeit in a style I was unfamiliar with.
Atkins’ Influence Traveled the Roads
It taught me a lesson to not discount the abilities of some musicians. Especially those that I was not familiar with, or particularly liked the genre they were placed in.
His career lasted a long time. Sixty years. He released countless albums and crossed musical boundaries. Playing country and Folk and even dabbling with a bit of Jazz and classical. He had collaborations with various people, Mark Knopfler being one.
Like Mark, Chet Atkins had a rather unique fingerpicking style. And he took inspiration from his playing from the genius that was Django Reinhardt. He worked with a stack of people too numerous to mention. Safe to say, he was a respected musician.
Paving the way
He was labeled by many as a Country guitar player, which in some people’s eyes was a little unfair. But, he was much more than just a “Country-music guitarist.” He inspired new generations of people with his stylistic playing. And in doing so, helped a new generation of guitarists.
He paved the way for many offering them new technical ideas. His guitar had a huge impact on players across a range of genres. George Harrison was another influenced by his style of playing. He had a great love for the Beatles and their music and usually included at least one of their songs in his stage shows.
So, let’s take a look at some of Chet Atkins’ most influential songs.
1 – Yakety Axe
This may have been Chet Atkins’ biggest selling single. Recorded in 1965, it was a play on the track “Yakety Sax,” which had been recorded by his friend, saxophonist, Boots Randolph, in 1958. It showcased Chet Atkins’ unique guitar picking style in taking it from sax to guitar. He subsequently recorded it again later with Mark Knopfler.
Unfortunately, this is a good example of a song with a stigma attached to it in some places. That reduced its musical credibility to a certain extent.
In the UK, the song was used as the theme for a comedy show starring Benny Hill that at the time was very risque. Most people at the time would associate the song with the TV show rather than the guitar playing. Nevertheless, a good example of how Atkins could take a theme and give it his own interpretation.
2 – Old Man River
A change of pace for this standard. It has been given a variety of treatments over the years, but Atkins adds a new interpretation to it.
He begins with a melancholy performance on his acoustic guitar. Reminiscent of Tommy Emmanuel, who came later and was a great fan of Atkins. But halfway through, he changes his approach and the tempo to add his own inimitable style to the piece.
3 – Caravan
If anyone wants a lesson in a fast-picking style, then this is it. His ability to combine basic bass lines with the melody and still add some extras in between them is demonstrated here.
It can sound a bit frantic at times. I included it as an example of a different approach to playing a well-known piece. Great voicings and technique make it worth its place as one of his best performances.
4 – I’ll See You in My Dreams
I have included this old favorite as an example of a special skill that Atkins sometimes portrayed. He was able to take a song that was so well-known and give it his own feel. You recognized it, of course, but somehow it sounded fresh and new.
The picking on this track doesn’t need to be this elaborate to make it work. But that was his style. He wasn’t over-elaborating, just doing his thing. He later recorded it again with Mark Knopfler, and they performed it together on stage in London in 1987.
5 – Jerry’s Breakdown
This just had to be included. Jerry Reed might be best known by some as the truck driver in “Smokey and the Bandit.” But here is a little secret… he could play a bit. More than a bit. And if there is anyone that could push Chet Atkins, it was Jerry Reed.
The two of them playing here together create a vibrant breathless performance, swapping parts and styles. It exhausts you listening to the pair of them. But if Jerry Reed was hammering this, it took Chet Atkins to go with him. Another example of Atkins taking on a role and doing a superlative job.
6 – Mister Sandman
Back to a 50s performance in his career, this was an interesting choice for him. The song was a 1954 hit for Vaughn Monroe & His Orchestra. Later that year, it was also released by The Chordettes and The Four Aces. Needless to say, it was very popular. It represented a period in American music history that was well captured in the film “Back to the Future.”
So taking that on could be a risk, but not for Mr. Atkins. His performance once again demonstrated that he could turn his hand to most things. The interesting thing for me is the casual style in which he plays it. Making it look all too easy. It really isn’t.
7 – I’ll Follow The Sun
Probably wouldn’t be many people’s picks as one of Chet Atkins’ best recordings, but I have chosen this for a reason. It has never been easy to cover anything that Lennon and McCartney wrote. Many tried, the vast majority failed.
On this particular track, Atkins plays with his own style but then adds some harmonies and variations that embellish the song. It is a simple song that now becomes a little bit sweeter thanks to his handling of harmony and variation.
8 – Black Mountain Rag
This is one of those memorable Chet Atkins tracks he is famous for. Using the “open G tuning,” he rips through this Bluegrass-style, Country classic with great technical wizardry. If you want to show Chet Atkins in his “own backyard,” then this is the track to do it.
Black Mountain Rag is Chet Atkins doing what he does best. However, I am going to deviate for the next two choices to try and demonstrate the variety that he could include in his style.
9 – The Entertainer
This is Atkins’ version of the much-loved 1902 song by Scott Joplin. It deviates in that this is him playing Rag Time. Now, as an observer rather than an expert on the man, this is one of the styles, in my opinion, where he shines.
It’s not frantic, and he doesn’t do what some others have done. But the clarity and simplicity of how he plays it make it stand out. A great performance indeed, and without a doubt one of Chet Atkins’ most memorable songs.
10 – Ave Maria
Let’s change tack again and move to the Classical environment. His version of Ave Maria by the Austrian composer Schubert is gentle and understated. It deals with the subject matter in a similar way to Schubert’s original interpretation.
Atkins, with this performance, shows dignity and respect to the music. Quite typical of the humility he often showed with a guitar in his hand.
11 – Freight Train
Let’s finish where we started. Back in the makeshift dressing room of the 100 Club in Oxford Street in London. Where a young guitarist was warming up for the set playing this. Not the easiest of pieces, but as I remember, he did a decent job. Listening to Chet Atkins play it later, I realized he had done a very good job.
Not what you would expect in this sweaty deep underground blues club that had been a bomb shelter in WW2. The music seemed at odds with the surroundings. It didn’t matter.
Are You a Fan of Great Guitarists?
Perhaps you play the guitar yourself, and Atkins is one of your favorites. In that case, you may want to get a better guitar. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Classical Guitars, the Best Acoustic Travel Guitars, the Best Blues Guitars, and the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars you can buy in 2021.
Also, take a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $500, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $300, the Best Jazz Guitars, the Best Resonator Guitar, and the Top 3 Takamine 12 String Acoustic Guitars currently on the market.
And don’t miss our helpful guides on 11 Amazing Acoustic Guitar Solos You Must Hear, Different Types Of Chords You Should Know, and 10 Classical Acoustic Guitar Compositions to Wow Your Friends for more useful hints and tips.
Chet Atkins’ Most Memorable Songs – Final Thoughts
Chet Atkins’s music can fit most environments if you let it. In his style, one of the great players. If you aren’t familiar with him, do what I did; take a listen.
This Very Best Of CD set covers many of Chet Atkins’ most well-known works. Freight Train is one of them. Live on stage one night with Jerry Reed, Chet Atkins & Jerry Reed In Concert is a fantastic musical experience. And to top it off, there is Picks On The Beatles, which demonstrates Atkins’ appreciation of the first global pop band.
Until next time, happy listening.