Album Review: Steve Wariner – My Tribute To Chet Atkins
The acronym stands for “certified guitar player,” a designation given by Atkins to a select few musicians who he felt made significant contributions to the world of guitar–Wariner was one of only four to receive this honor (the others were Jerry Reed, Tommy Emmanuel, and John Knowles).
Atkins, who died in 2001, is one of music’s most important figures. He worked with Red Foley, toured with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, released over 100 albums, influenced countless guitar pickers with his unique style, and, of course, spearheaded the Nashville Sound movement. He was also the man who signed Steve Wariner to his first recording contract at RCA in 1977 (Wariner was still a teenager when he got his start playing bass for Dottie West and Bob Luman, and was barely in his 20s when he signed with RCA) then subsequently “fired” Wariner as his bass player when Steve’s solo song “Your Memory” cracked the Top 10 a few short years later. The two men were dear friends, and this friendship/mutual admiration is tenderly displayed in the music and liner notes, which feature pictures of the two as well as the revelation that they called each other “Big Hero” and “Little Hero.”
My Tribute to Chet Atkins is generally arranged in chronological order, interspersing biographical Wariner-penned originals with songs that Atkins recorded during his six decades in the music business; the album is bookended by “Leavin’ Luttrell,” a song representing the start of Atkins’ musical career and “Silent Strings,” a moving eulogy in which Wariner pays tribute not only to his dear friend, but the guitar he left behind. As Wariner makes very clear in the liner notes, “You can’t out-Chet Chet.” He doesn’t try to, eschewing Atkins’ arguably best known singles “Yakety Axe” and “Mr. Sandman” in favor of songs that hold personal meaning, such as “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” (recorded for the 1954 album A Session with Chet Atkins.) a song that Wariner, an Indiana boy, listened to religiously.
A highlight of the album is “Producer’s Medley,” a compilation of eight songs that Atkins produced, including “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “End of the World,” and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” According to the liner notes, Atkins used to play “Producer’s Medley” on the road, but never recorded it. Here, Wariner reconstructs the medley, making it all sound incredibly effortless, as though certified guitar playing is no more difficult than a marathon session of Guitar Hero.
For the most part, My Tribute to Chet Atkins is an instrumental album, letting the masterful fingerstyle guitar work–often supported by fiddle and piano–speak for itself. However, “Chet’s Guitar” features Wariner singing his lifelong admiration of Atkins, beginning with a childhood spent listening to “the touch and the tone and the twang of Chet’s guitar” on his father’s 45s, playing dive bars as a young man, and eventually making the Opry stage, “fingers all flying up and down the frets/Playing every lick that [he] stole from Chet.”
Clocking in at approximately 35 minutes long, My Tribute to Chet Atkins, may run a little short for some listeners’ tastes, but it’s a masterful tribute to a great friend and a legendary figure in American music that simultaneously showcases Wariner’s c.g.p. skill. He doesn’t deliver a carbon copy of Chet’s musical style, but instead pays homage to the man and the artist with a sense of understated grace that makes each song a joy to hear.
Will guitar-loving kids pick along to this just like Steve Wariner did to Atkins’ records so many years ago? It wouldn’t be surprising.
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