Chet Atkins: Certified Jazz Guitar Player?
We’re all familiar with country musicians that branch into pop and rock. Shania Twain is the posterchild for country crossover artists. Even Garth Brooks attempted a jump into the rock world (Chris Gaines, anyone?). One country music legend, however, branched out into uncharted territory when, in 1985, he released a jazz album.
Jazz had always been one of Chet Atkins’s loves. In fact, jazz influences can be heard in some of his work. However, Atkins did not record a jazz album until he left RCA Victor records for Columbia in 1982. Unlike RCA, Columbia’s executives were willing to allow Atkins to record an album that was unlike and more adventurous than any of his previous work. His first album with Columbia, Working It out with Chet Atkins, mostly featured the country-and-western sound for which Atkins is known. Atkins’s next album would show a move towards a jazzier and more experimental sound.
Atkins’s 1985 release, Stay Tuned, was his first jazz release. It is a product of its time, as many of the songs on the album are similar to other smooth jazz tracks recorded in the six or seven years leading up this album’s recording. Atkins also enlisted the services of some of the best musicians in Los Angeles to work on the album. Jazz guitarist George Benson played on the album. Toto’s David Hungate (along with Benson and Atkins, a co-producer of the album), Jeff Porcaro, and Steve Lukather; Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and saxophonist Boots Randolph were among the musicians who appeared on the album. Although Stay Tuned was a far cry from his earlier works, it still maintained some country roots. Atkins’s picking, along with Mark O’Connor’s fiddle in “Cosmic Square Dance,” remind the listener that Atkins had no intention of abandoning country-and-western altogether. The resulting product was a record that was unlike any other that Atkins had released up to that point and unlike any other jazz or country album that has since been released.
While Stay Tuned was a commercial flop, it was a critical success. Atkins would go on to win the 1985 Instrumentalist of the Year Award from the Country Music Association. Atkins and Knopfler would win a Grammy for (ironically) Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Cosmic Square Dance.” Atkins also proved to his doubters at his old record company that he could indeed record a high-quality jazz album.
Next time you hear of a country artist jumping into pop or vice versa (if you haven’t heard yet, Cher is going to record a country album), think of Chet Atkins and Stay Tuned. Or, even better, give it a listen (you can find it on iTunes). You’ll be pleasantly surprised, just as I was when I discovered it.
Here are two of the tracks from the album. The first is “Sunrise,” and the second is the aforementioned “Cosmic Square Dance.”