June 30, 2001, the day Chet Atkins died, was a sad day in Nashville, Tenn. The headline in Music City whispered, “Guitars Gently Weep as Nashville Pays Tribute to Chet Atkins.”
According to the New York Times, “Chet Atkins was as lean and spare and intense as Nashville is boisterous, a reticent musical craftsman who shaped and defined a city of showmen.”
Garrison Keillor gave the eulogy at the famous Ryman Auditorium.
Keillor related how a woman who saw Atkins play in a roadhouse in Cincinnati in 1946 once wrote, “He sat hunched in the spotlight and played and the whole room suddenly got quiet. It was a drinking and dancing crowd, but there was something about Chet Atkins that could take your breath away.”
In 2005, I was working at Integrated Biometric Technology, near the Nashville Airport. My wife Brenda would often stop by to go to lunch with me at the Sheraton Music City Hotel, which was just across the street from our office.
One afternoon we were sitting in the lounge eating when we heard guitar music coming from the hallway. Although it wasn’t uncommon to hear country music coming from the most unusual places in Nashville, we were taken aback by this particular sound.
“It’s the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society,” our waitress said. “They hold a convention here every year and people from all over the world attend.”
After finishing our lunch, we took a walk down the hall. There were easily a thousand or more people lining the conference rooms, listening to some of the most prestigious musicians in Nashville. We didn’t know their names, but we had seen them on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and in other famous venues around Nashville.
They had come to pay their respects to Chet Atkins.
According to a document handed out at one of the tables, those with a sincere interest and appreciation for Chet’s music formed the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society in 1983.
One of the friendly musicians told us that Chet himself participated in the annual convention himself until the year 2000, when his health worsened and he could no longer attend. “His presence was warmly appreciated by the members, I can tell you that,” the musician said.
Since his passing, the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society has continued to preserve his legacy. They strive to encourage pickers to keep his music alive and appreciate the many contributions he made to the guitar and to the music of America.
A man standing beside his booth told us that people attending the convention loved Chet Atkins. “Here, read this,” he said, handing us a copy of the eulogy delivered by Garrison Keillor a few days after Chet’s death.
We did, and it was truly touching to both us.
“It’s fitting to meet here at the Ryman because it was here, on a Saturday night in the summer of 1946, Red Foley came on The Grand Ole Opry and sang “Old Shep” and then, before the commercial break for Prince Albert in a can, nodded to his guitarist and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Chester Atkins will now play ‘Maggie’ on the acoustic guitar,” and Mr. Atkins did, and afterward Minnie Pearl came up and kissed him and said, “You’re a wonderful musician, you’re just what we’ve been needing around here,” Keillor said.
Keillor went on to say that Chet looked like a guitar picker. “You could tell it whenever he picked up a guitar, the way it fit him. His upper body was shaped to it, from a lifetime of playing: his back was slightly hunched, his shoulders rounded, and the guitar was the missing piece,” he said.
“When he was almost 50, he had a stroke of good luck when he got colon cancer and thought he was going to die, and when he didn’t die, he found a whole new love of life. He fell in love with the guitar again and started living by his own clock, so he had time to sit and talk with people and pick music with them and enjoy the social side of music and have more fun.
Chet was curious and thoughtful about religion, Keillor said.
“I believe that when I die I’ll probably go to Minnesota,” Chet once said. “The last time I was up there it was freezing and I remember smiling and my upper lip went up and didn’t come back down.”
Keillor closed his eulogy by saying, “God looks on the heart and is a God of mercy and loving kindness beyond our comprehension, and in that faith let us commend his spirit to the Everlasting, may the angels bear him up, and may eternal light shine upon him, and may he run into a lot of his old friends, and if he should wind up in Minnesota, we will do our best to take care of him until the rest of you come along.”
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.