This Top 10 Chet Atkins Songs list presents the best Chet Atkins songs including “The Entertainer,” “Jam Man” “Yakety Axe” and many more..Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924 in Luttrell, Tennessee, which is near Clinch Mountain. When he was just six years old, his parents divorced that saw him and his three older siblings mostly raised by their mother. As a child, he began to play the ukulele, then the fiddle, before trading with his brother for a guitar. According to Aktins, his family was so poor that when the Great Depression ravaged Americans during the 1930s it really didn’t seem to make any real difference in his eyes at the time. Chet Atkins did, however, relocate to Georgia to stay with his father due to a critical asthma condition he suffered from. In order to cope with his health issues, he became obsessed with music, playing the guitar while forced to sleep on a straight-back chair just so he could breathe comfortably. Throughout the entire course of Chet Atkins’ life, this was a habit that stayed with him.
While in high school, Atkins became quite an accomplished guitarist, often using the school washroom to practice as he felt it offered good acoustics. Later, he purchased a semi-acoustic electric guitar and amp but found he had to travel in order to find an electrical outlet as his family home didn’t have one at the time. Chet Atkins wasn’t the only sibling in the family to become a successful guitarist. His half-brother, Jim Atkins, established himself as a member of New York’s Les Paul Trio.
Despite his talent with the guitar, Chet Atkins didn’t begin developing his own solid style until 1939. The cause for the influence came from hearing Merle Travis on the radio, inspiring Atkins to expand his right-hand style to include picking with his first three fingers, along with his thumb on bass. This trait would earn him the nickname of Mr. Guitar. He even designated himself as a Certified Guitar Picker, a trademark that has since become an Atkins Family legacy.
In 1942, Chet Atkins dropped out of high school, landing a job at a radio station in Knoxville. He played the fiddle and guitar with the singer, Bill Carlisle, and the comedian, Archie Campbell. He later became a member of the station’s instrumental group, Dixieland Swingsters. Three years later, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to work at the same radio station his idol, Merle Travis, previously worked. Six months after that he moved to Raleigh, then to Richmond, Virginia. While there, he performed with Sunshine Sue Workman. Due to the shy personality of Chet Atkins, along with the sophisticated manner he carried himself, his peers didn’t take him seriously enough as a potential country music star. This, essentially, is what gave Chet Atkins another nickname, which was The Country Gentleman.
Am I Country Enough Now?
Chet Atkins married Leona Johnson, the twin sister of Lois Johnson who married Jethro Burns of Homer and Jethro fame. The Johnson Sisters were also performers at the time Atkins and Burns met their wives. Chet remained married to his wife until he died on June 30, 2001. Before Chet Atkins was finally taken seriously as a world-class musician, he often found himself fired by radio stations and other entertainment venues as they felt his style wasn’t country enough for their liking. However, finding new work wasn’t difficult for Atkins as his unique playing ability was enough to impress new employers in the beginning. It wouldn’t be until he caught RCA Victor’s attention while in Denver, Colorado. Chet Atkins made his first recording out of Chicago in 1947 but they were not sellers. In 1949, he joined June Carter and the Carter Family that would ultimately lead him to Nashville and its Grand Ole Opry. Soon afterward, his popularity was growing where it was only a matter of time the country gentleman would taste some real success in the music industry.
Starting in 1957, there was a shift in management with RCI Victor due to the success of Elvis Presley. This placed Atkins in charge of the label’s Nashville division as country music record sales went into a state of decline as rock and roll grew in popularity. Atkin, along with Bob Ferguson and Owen Bradley, eliminated the use of fiddles and steel guitars as a means to make country singers more appealing with pop fans. This is what officially began the Nashville Sound, a label that was created by the media due to its style of recording.
What was now happening in the music industry was a bridge of country music and pop-rock performing as crossover hits that also saw Chet Atkins make his own records that visited pop standards and jazz. This paid off for him as he released hit after hit, becoming one of the biggest names in the country music industry, as well as the genre of rock and roll at that time. The span of Chet Atkins’ career saw him win fourteen Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame Museum.
To his credit, Chet Atkins has eighty-eight studio albums, fifty-three compilation albums, nineteen extended plays (EPs), three live albums, and one hundred and thirteen singles. This, at the very least, is what’s been documented so far.
Top 10 Chet Atkins Songs
#10 – Snowbird
1972’s Grammy Awards recognized Chet Atkins and “Snowbird” as Best Country Instrumental Performance for its plucky and playful guitar version of one of Anne Murray’s signature songs. Although Ann Murray’s 1969 lyrical version is the most popular ever recorded, it was a Gene MacLellan original.
#9 – Cosmic Square Dance (with Mark Knopfler)
In 1986, “Cosmic Square Dance” earned Chet Atkins his seventh Grammy Award, namely for Best Country Instrumental Performance. The start of the violin served as a set-up something spectacular was about to happen at a musical level. When the guitaring combo of Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler kicked in, the song seemed to dance itself between soft disco and the classic Nashville sound that is credited as a Chet Atkins creation.
#8 – Red Wing (featuring various artists)
“Red Wing” was a multi-artist collaboration performance that earned a 1994 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. This 1907 original was a folk favorite that was inspired by the 1948 piano composition “The Happy Farmer, Returning From Work” by Robert Schumann. The tale of a young American native girl’s loss of her sweetheart that was killed in battle was the original theme behind “Red Wing,” which was lyrically told by Thurland Chattaway. The plucky guitar version played out by Chet Atkins in 1954 has seen it covered many times over in movies, television, and a lengthy list of musical talent that find inspiration behind the song and its meaning.
#7 – So Soft, Your Goodbye (with Mark Knopfler)
At the 1991 Grammy Awards, “So Soft, Your Goodbye” won the award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for collaborators Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler. The instrumental beauty behind “So Soft, Your Goodbye” demonstrated sometimes the best songs have no need for words, allowing the music to play itself out and cause the listener to get swept up in the harmonious motion. Soft, just like a gentleman expressing the sensitive side of himself, “So Soft, Your Goodbye” also continues to serve as an emotional piece, ideal as music for a tribute in memory of a lost loved one.
#6 – Poor Boy Blues (featuring Mark Knopfler)
“Poor Boy Blues” was one of three collaboration performances produced by Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler. In 1991, it won the duo Best Country Vocal Collaboration at the Grammy Awards. 1990’s “Poor Boy Blues” featured the brilliance of Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler as musicians who seemed to take the art of picking guitar to a whole new level. The combination of Atkins and Knopfler did more than deliver harmonious guitar at its finest but a lyrical acknowledgement of “Poor Boy Blues” and the hope it will be overcome.
#5 – Mr. Sandman
“Mr. Sandman” was the first hit single for Chet Atkins, which was a 1954 original produced by Vaughn Monroe & His Orchestra. Catchy and fun, Atkins’ guitar picking version peaked at number thirteen on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart after it was also released in 1954. This song was a needed boost for Chet Atkins as he was still not taken seriously enough by an industry that saw his brand of music not country enough for their liking. “Mr. Sandman” actually served as a bit of a wake-up call to the industry as the introduction of electronics fused it with traditional guitar sounds that amplified its performance level. T
he creative collaboration that took place between Chet Atkins and Ray Butts inspired Sam Phillips, Scotty Moore, and Elvis Presley to set the music industry on fire with a rockabilly sound that has since embedded itself into the music industry that shaped the Nashville Sound, as well as the birthing stages of rock and roll as a genre. Mr. Sandman may be best known for the 1954 chart-topping smash that was lyrically performed by The Chordettes.
#4 – Wildwood Flower
In 1954, “Wildwood Flower” was a song Chet Atkins released as an instrumental piece that switched from the soft play of chords to a subtle rip-up, which served true to nature of this classic American folk song. The lyrical version was made the most famous by the original Carter Family in 1928. “Wildwood Flower” was a variant to the song, “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets,” which has also seen a series of versions emerge from it. The guitar genius Chet Atkins put into “Wildwood Flower” seemed to make this song all his own and it would have been a real treat for the listener if this was played alongside the vocal delivery of the Carter Family as this would have been a musical match made in Heaven.
#3 – Yakety Axe
“Yakety Axe” was the Chet Atkins guitar version of the 1963 “Yakety Sax” classic that was originally popularized by Boots Randolph and his saxophone. As a pop classic, it was “Yakety Yak” in 1958 by The Coasters. In 1965, Chet Atkins gave this song a go as “Yakety Axe.” His infamous guitar picking style replaced the saxophone and made this song as Atkins’ own. For Atkins, this became his highest charting song on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart as it peaked at number four. On the US Billboard Hot 100 it charted at number ninety-eight.
#2 – Jam Man
The fourteenth and final Grammy Award won by Chet Atkins as a performer was in 1996. “Jam Man” won Best Country Instrumental Performance, a brilliant piece of recording that came from the album, Almost Alone. This was one of the few songs produced by Atkins that featured overdubs and has since become one of his best-known melodies of all time. Chet Atkins was seventy-one years old when he recorded each of the tracks on the album. It was simply Chet Atkins and his guitar, seeming to go out in style as Mr. Guitar.
#1 – The Entertainer
In 1976, “The Entertainer” won the Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy Award for Chet Atkins and his rag guitar take on the 1902 piano classic. Poppy and upbeat, this song remains as an instrumental favorite that seems just as timeless as Scott Joplin’s original. This timeless piece of musical beauty was a 1902 original that started off as a classic piano rag by Scott Joplin. During the 1910s, it was often rolled on the piano as one of the all-time favorite songs during its era. The first recording was by the Blue Boys in 1928, using the mix of mandolin and guitar. To this day, “The Entertainer” remains as one of the beloved ragtime classics. The guitar performance Chet Atkins pours into “The Entertainer” adds a gentleman’s touch to one of the most entertaining songs to ever grace the radio waves.
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Top 10 Chet Atkins Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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A fine article especially in the brief history of my favorite guitar player of all time. Chet is, in my view, so important and was so skilled he belongs immortalized with a huge statue in Nashville, to remind the country know it alls who knew it all, and helped keep country from getting too hokey and frankly, insulting to some people who didn’t like the ultra rural yodeling, steel guitar and other cliches that turn a lot of people away. It was perhaps him, Merle Travis, who was also astonishing, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and a few others like Jerry Reed and Buck Owens who showed country need not be music for hicks.
I would include though his album “Chet Atkins Picks On The Beatles”, and both albums with the equally great Les Paul, “Guitar Monsters” and “Chester and Lester”. “Avalon”, “Limehouse Blues” and a very funny song called “I’m Your Biggest Fan” make these albums a must.