Roots Watch: Guitar Legends Who Changed More Than Picking

Barry Mazor | August 9th, 2011

For a city that’s been referred to as “Guitartown,” even by people who aren’t Steve Earle, Nashville rarely goes out of its way to spotlight music-altering git-pickers. This summer is different.

The Country Music Hall of Fame has a new exhibit opening next Friday, August 12th that will run all the way through CMA Music Week (in June 2012), dedicated to an all-time string legend, Chet Atkins:  Certified Guitar Player.  I’ve had an early look, and I can tell you that it’s a classy, understated feast, for guitar aficionados in particular, since Chet’s own spectacular instrument collection is featured. Following the arc of his life, there’s the hard-played mail order Sears Roebuck Silvertone he first picked up as a kid in the east Tennessee hills, the 1940s Martin F-1 and Gibson L-10 he employed in his rise from obscurity, his first hollow body electrics, the Chet Atkins models made to his specs by Gretsch, than Gibson—mistakenly Western in design for a moment, but soon looking just like modern country—and on to his innovations such as electrification of classical/Spanish guitars.

The exhibit also reminds us that they didn’t name a Nashville street after the man just for the picking, but for his crucial role as a producer and fashioner of The Nashville Sound in the 60s and 70s—which has always been controversial for tilting towards pop, but produced much great music and kept the field alive when rock radio nearly killed it. The displays are especially good in relating Chet’s fostering of that music, and his later turn towards more jazz in his own playing, to his life—from the lesser known older brother who played and sang pop and lighted a path for a country boy’s possible career, before Chet played with the Carter Family, through Chet’s awarding of his self-invented “Certified Guitar Player” status to such varied pickers as Steve Wariner,  Mark Knopfler, and Tommy Emmanuel.

A few weeks back, on July 23rd, the singular James Burton was saluted, and well interviewed by Bill Lloyd for the Hall’s “Nashville Cats” instrumentalist series.   Burton is rightly celebrated for his funky, Deep South contributions to rock ‘n roll, and was headed for the Rock Hall from the moment, when still a teenager, that he played the monumental riff on Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q, inventing a swampy guitar sound on which others have built whole careers—on guitars and everything else.   James’s long stands with Ricky Nelson in the 50s and Elvis in the comeback years cemented the rock reputation, but this walk back through his career recalled that he was a guitar slinger of such magnitude that he’s the one you hear on many of the great Bakersfield sides from Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, despite the guitar talent they had in their own bands, and continues to work in country today, alongside Brad Paisley, for instance.  Burton never made distinctions besides his rock twang and country twang, always handled both and more—and, good news, the Hall’s just posted the video of the entire talk, so you can see it now:

In the cases of Chet Atkins and James Burton both, the player’s own broad interests and astonishing abilities, and their willingness to play to both of those as far as they could go, has affected what we’ve all heard since.  There was a third guitar virtuoso in town as well, on July 28th at the Ryman, who’s had every bit as much impact, and been inducted in the Bluegrass Hall—Doc Watson. He’s 88 now, and this was likely his last major Nashville appearance, as he’s finally cutting back on his touring.  Here’s the thing: I’m a fan who figures Guy Clark had it right when he compared Watson to Renaissance masters, and I interviewed Doc at some length for my Jimmie Rodgers book.  (I waited on the phone as Doc finished dragging 50 pound bags of flour into the family kitchen from their truck, before our talk actually began.)

Coming up with the lyrics, occasionally took him a few moments in this show (in which he was generally accompanied by David Holt on banjo and slide guitar, T. Michael Coleman on bass, and, sometimes, by Mr. Sam Bush on fiddle), but the sheer, sure fluidity of Doc’s picking never wavered, pure body memory and the musician he simply is taking over, and his always smart, bluesy singing was still very available to him. For this fan who’s seen him in various U.S. States and situations going back to the 1960s, this was all tremendously touching and thrilling; that’s a very good way to be 88.  As Doc he worked through familiar parts of his broad repertoire—some Delmore Brothers style blues here, old time ballads there, then suddenly Johnny Mathis’s pop “Twelfth of Never” or a jazzy Merle Travis-style turn, we were reminded that he was playing electric rockabilly and honky tonk in bars before he was discovered by the folk revival, loves his Mississippi John Hurt and fluid pop, too. This tendency to Just Say yes is, of course, the sensibility behind his Merlefest, so here too, the man’s tendencies have become those of thousands.

Some pickers don’t just come from mountains—they move them.


By the way:  I was on hand at the “Red Beet Records Bunker’ in East Nashville the other night to observe as the perpetually entertaining duo Eric Brace and Peter Cooper conducted a new installment of their weekly interactive appearances on the “Stage-It” website.  That’s a very promising new performing outlet that marries webcast shows with social media, so the audience can send messages as the singing and picking ensues, make requests—and send tips, no middlemen in the way.  The talented Aussie transplant Anne McCue was their guest, and the whole event had a “right at home” informal feel I think you’ll like.  They try out new songs, play favorites and those requests, and do it all with a simple set-up, at home or on the road, which looks like a model for musicians well-known and less so. (Country songwriting heavyweight Don Schlitz is another performer appearing via Stage-It.).  You can check on the details, and the shows, here.



  1. Rick
    August 9, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Nice article, Barry. When I first saw the title I was fearful it was about Dex Romweber! (lol)

    When I saw Merle Travis’ son Thom Bresh perform awhile back he told some wonderful stories about conversations he had with Chet Atkins back in the late 1960’s. Thom even tried to mimic how Chet spoke to add authenticity. Fun stuff.

    It sounds like James Burton has played on a lot of music I really like and yet the name is not familiar. He’s obviously not a glory hound.

    Is “Stage It” kind of like a low budget “Music City Roots”? Hmm…

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