My records are organized alphabetically by artist, then chronologically by release date. I own two Chet Atkins records–1968’s From Nashville With Love and 1960’s The Other Side of Chet Atkins, both of which were given to me by my mom a few weeks before we moved to Chicago. Having never listened to Chet Atkins (and having always confused him with Chet Baker), I figured it might be best to forego the strict organizational regimen here, that I might hear the initial side of Chet Atkins before hearing The Other Side.
Atkins is a legendary figure in the history of country music. He’s credited with helping to invent the Nashville Sound, and if that word-pair send sonic shivers down your spine, bear in mind that he also produced records by Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare. Atkins was a strangely versatile figure; in the early sixties alone, he was an astute enough businessman to run RCA’s Nashville division, classy enough to play for JFK in the White House, and hep enough to play the Newport Folk Festival. Despite his industry bonafides, his interest in jazz guitar was too much for the Nashville establishment, and, after dropping RCA for Columbia, he began to show himself as a “more adventurous guitarist than was previously captured” on his early records, according to our old friend Stephen Thomas Erlewine.
So it’s hard to know what to make of From Nashville With Love. It comes seven years after Atkins’ White House appearance, and three years after the crossover hit “Yakety Axe” (a take-off of “Yakety Sax”), but, at least on this particular record, it’s hard to hear what all of the fuss was about. Atkins’ guitar-playing is the stuff of legend–he was designing guitars for Gibson and Gretsch before the fifties had even let out–but here he stays in the pocket, playing the role of gentle commander to a company of strings that end up doing most of the record’s work. This is not a good thing. To my ears, From Nashville With Love is flaccid, its occasional hop-step rhythm the only thing keeping the dreaded easy-listening tag at bay; had American Beauty been set somewhere west of San Antonio, Annette Benning would have used this record to score her dinners.
But it seems clear that Atkins isn’t shooting for mindless background wash. He appears in a light-colored jacket and a skinny tie on the back cover, the phrase “a labor of love” printed between two dotted lines above his photo. John D. Loudermilk’s liner notes extol Atkins’ playing, and spends nearly as much time rhapsodizing his guitar (“The guitar you hear was made by a craftsman–an artisan, a dedicated man whose skilled fingers gently caressed the materials,” etc.). The packaging suggests that Atkins was already envisioning himself as a jazzman, and while Atkins’ playing is articulate and often gorgeous, and his excursions do take him away from strictly country music, he never arrives in jazzland. Indeed, From Nashville With Love wears its country-music mantle lightly, but it isn’t quite able to try on anything new.
It’s worth mentioning that I’m not alone in my distaste: From Nashville With Love garnered a paltry 2.5 stars from AllMusic, who don’t even consider it a major enough recording to warrant a review. I’m disappointed that this is what I have to go on here, considering Atkins’ legacy: 14 Grammys (including a lifetime achievement award), nine-time winner of the CMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year (including the year of From Nashville With Love’s release), inductee of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, recipient of Billboard’s Century Award. I hear flecks of Django-Reinhardt across the record, flickers of the kind of picking that gave Atkins his name. And while he appears on the cover of The Other Chet Atkins in full mariachi gear, I’m nervous for tomorrow’s listen: The titular adjective suddenly looms very large.