What’s a country boy doing in New York?
August 15, 2016
HE WAS JUST a country boy in jeans and boots, and he carried a guitar, which made him hardly any different from the hundreds of others who walked the streets of Nashville, night after night, hoping to sing a song or write a song or have someone pitch them a song.
Their minds were filled with the pain of love – lost, found, misguided, handed down, or thrown away, and they were always trying to figure out how to make the lines of their syncopated poems rhyme with such words as momma and rain and drunks and trains. Pickup truck was the toughest.
The country boy with jeans and boots watched them come and go. He found a few nuggets in the flotsam of country singers. He felt bad for the ones just passing on through.
He heard their songs and knew how to fix the bad ones unless they were really bad, and he told me about the late night he sat down in a booth across from Roger Miller at Linebaugh’s Café.
Roger was a genius. No doubt about it.
But no one let him sing his songs.
He was also crazy as hell.
And the big boys with suits and ties and cuff links in Nashville were afraid to let him sing his songs.
Roger had run out of money.
No. Roger had never had any money. He was born penniless and kept most of it.
He refused to leave Nashville.
Roger Miller sat with the country boy wearing boots and jeans at Linebaugh’s Café, which was just down the street from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which was just across the alley from the back door of the Ryman Auditorium, which held the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
And he ordered a glass of water, then poured in catsup until the mixture was thick enough to make tomato soup. He ate the crackers on the table and thanked God for another meal and another day in Nashville.
But then, said the country boy in jeans and boots, that was before anyone had the courage to record “Dang Me” and “Chug-A-Lug, Chug-A-Lug, then let him sing the Kris Kristofferson classic,“Me and Bobby McGee,” before he walked away with five Grammy awards.
Before the night was over, Roger was invited to come on down to RCA. The country boy in jeans and boots had never cared about singing a country song, but he knew the good ones when he heard them, and a lot of the great singers would have never left the streets of Nashville if Chet had not gone out and tracked them down. As was said of Roger Miller: “The song writers of Nashville would eventually follow him around just to pick up his droppings.”
Chet had heard the droppings before they reached the floor and rescued the genius.
And, by the way, Chet could play a little guitar, too.
Country music called him a legend. But Chet told me that he looked in the mirror every morning and decided it wasn’t true. He did not have the face of a star. He had the face of a guitar picker.
As the sound of country music began roaring across the landscape in the early ‘70s, he received an invitation to play a black tie concert with the famed New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He didn’t know why he had been asked but said he would go, and he walked onto the stage, realizing quickly that it was grand but not the Grand Ole Opry.
The concert association, if anyone had listened to their closed-door meetings, was trying to sell tickets and wanted to cash in on the guitar picker who had single-handedly created then polished to perfection the Nashville Sound.
The orchestra wasn’t so sure.
The conductor was livid.
He did not want a country boy in jeans and boots out there on stage ruining the great music of the world with an ill-timed strum or a finger-picking twang.
Chet Atkins didn’t particularly care what was being played. As he saw it, the only difference between Bach, Strauss, and Hank Williams was the beat and maybe the rhythm. Neither Bach nor Strauss had ever made anything rhyme. Hank did.
To Chet, music was music.
Let him hear it once, and Chet Atkins pretty much had it down. Pick a key, any key, and he would catch up in a hurry.
So here he was at practice.
He wore jeans.
The orchestra was dressed in tuxedoes.
He wore boots.
The orchestra members held themselves together with cumber buns.
Chet would dust off his suit and tie before the curtain was raised on Saturday night, but it would be against his will and better judgment. But today, it was jeans and boots, and the orchestra figured jeans and boots were about all a cotton and guitar picker could afford.
They sat on stage.
He sat on a stool over in the corner, just a boy and his guitar.
The director, his back rigid, his head thrown back, a scowl on his face, marched across the stage with a handful of sheet music.
The director sneered.
He dropped the sheet music in a pile on the floor at Chet Atkins’ boots.
“Mr. Atkins,” he said.
“I do presume you read music, don’t you.”
Chet nodded and grinned a boyish grin. “Yes, sir,” he said. “But not enough to hurt my picking.”
By the time Chet Atkins finished his version of the Strauss version of “The Blue Danube Waltz,” the orchestra had ceased to play. Its members kept staring hard at their sheet music.
They knew where Strauss was.
They had no idea where Chet Atkins had gone.
He had strung together an assorted collections of notes that they couldn’t find but wished they could and wondered why Strauss had let them get away.
The orchestra quietly placed their instruments on the floor beside them.
They stood. But they didn’t leave or walk away.
One by one, they turned toward Chet Atkins and applauded.
He had been given standing ovations before.
This one, he said, meant the most.