Posts Tagged ‘Country Gentleman’

Chet Atkins’ Little Black Book (of Songs)

Monday, June 27th, 2016

By Fred W. Gretsch

From the outside, it looks like an everyday, ordinary pocket-sized memo book. The kind you can still buy at any office supply store. Its black leather cover is worn around the edges and it’s scuffed from years of being put in coat pockets, briefcases, suitcases – and even guitar cases. Just like the man who bought it, the book’s cover is understated and unassuming. But once opened, you’re given a fascinating glimpse into the musical journey of the book’s original owner: Chet Atkins.

Chet bought this memo book in 1950 when he played with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters act on KWTO, a radio station in Springfield, Missouri. You see “Chester A. Atkins, Feb. 12, 1950, Springfield” written in pencil on the first page. Chet started out using this book to select songs for the daily morning radio show, and the many public appearances Chet and the Carter family made across Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

When Chet first created his list, the songs were typed on loose-leaf paper and organized in alphabetical order. Many included the songwriter and if it was licensed through BMI or ASCAP. As new songs were added, Chet wrote them down by hand with whatever ink pen or pencil he had on him at the time. Some of the songs were written neatly, others hurriedly, and some included the key they were played in. It’s also heartwarming to see several scribbled pencil drawings throughout the book made by Chet’s young daughter, Merle.

“Caravan” and “Country Gentleman” were two popular songs Chet added; young daughter, Merle, made the pencil drawing. Photo by Ron Denny.

In addition to being a master guitarist, Chet was famous for the vast number of songs and song styles he could play. There are 475 songs listed in this book alone. 475! And they include a wide range of genres: classical, blues, country, ragtime, bluegrass, pop, and even Spanish-influenced. It’s mind blowing.

It’s also a treat seeing songs listed that played a part in launching the successful Gretsch – Chet Atkins guitar endorsement in the mid-1950s. “Mr. Sandman” and “Silver Bell,” two instrumental hit singles from 1955, were hand-written in the book along with “Country Gentleman,” a signature song that became both Chet’s nickname and the name of his top-of-the-line Gretsch guitar model introduced in 1958.

You also recognize dozens of songs in the book that made their way onto Chet’s RCA Victor albums of the 1950s and early 1960s. These songs would have been recorded on a variety of Gretsch Chet Atkins Model guitars built at our Brooklyn factory: 6120s, prototype 6120s custom-built for Chet, and, of course, his iconic 1959 Country Gentleman, considered the most recorded guitar in music history.

Chet liked surprising his friends with little gifts and tokens of appreciation, and no one was more surprised than his longtime bandleader and confidant, Paul Yandell, at the 1996 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. After awarding John Knowles with a CGP (Certified Guitar Player) Award, Chet pulled the black book out of a hat, which had been placed on a stool onstage, and presented it to an unsuspecting Paul.

Paul’s wife, Marie, and son, Micah, have been friends of mine for years, and shared that Paul had no knowledge of the song book until Chet gave it to him and told him the story behind it. When Paul got home that night, he sat down and looked through the book page-by-page, astonished at all the songs Chet had played through the years.

Marie also shared that the book was a sentimental treasure to Paul, and felt Chet gave it to her husband in appreciation of the deep friendship the two guitarists had formed from playing together for more than 20 years. Micah added that it represented the bond, respect, and love his father and Chet had for each other. They were as close as two brothers, and his father always looked up to Chet and considered him a father figure.

Chet Atkins and Paul Yandell performing together in 1979.

The book is an interesting diary of the most important decade in Chet Atkins’ musical career. In the summer of 1950, just a few months after creating his song book, Chet was lured to Nashville and never looked back. In the 10 years that followed, Chet established himself as a successful recording artist, producer, and record executive; created the sophisticated “Nashville Sound;” and had his name on a popular line of Gretsch guitars. He also earned the nickname of “Mr. Guitar.”

Chet influenced and inspired thousands of young guitarists. In fact one of the songs Chet typed in the book, “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Guitar,” was heard on the radio one night by a young guitarist in Kentucky. Chet’s song changed the teenager’s life, and he became obsessed with Chet’s trademark fingerpicking style and bought as many Chet Atkins records as he could afford. The name of that Kentucky teenager was Paul Yandell.

How fitting that 40 years later, Chet would entrust Paul with his old song book which included not only “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Guitar,” but dozens of other songs Chet and Paul had performed together for decades. What a gesture of friendship and love to the man Chet described as not only a great guitar player, but also someone who knew everything Chet had done and could do it better. Classic Chet.



Great Gretsch Guitarists: Joe Robinson

Friday, May 13th, 2016

Multi-talented Wonder From Down Under

By Fred W. Gretsch

In 2001, the Gretsch family lost a dear friend with the passing of Chet Atkins, one of the most talented guitarists and influential musicians of a generation. That same year, a 10-year-old boy named Joe Robinson, living half a world away in Australia, was jumping on a trampoline one day, heard Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” on his Dad’s stereo, and decided it was time to stop the piano lessons and start playing a much cooler instrument: the guitar.

A young Joe at home in Australia doing what else? Playing guitar!

I’d like to thank Joe’s parents (and Eric Clapton) for their roles in that pivotal moment. As many of you know, Joe was a quick learner for his age. The 10-year-old soon outgrew his guitar teacher, and because he lived in a small, remote town in Australia, taught himself primarily through online lessons and YouTube videos. A year later, an 11-year-old Joe was being mentored  – and playing onstage – with fellow Australian (and Chet Atkins CGP Award winner) Tommy Emmanuel, one of the world’s pre-eminent fingerpicker guitarists.

The prodigy picker’s teenage years were just as eventful. There are too many highlights, awards, and accolades to list, but here are a few: Joe won the Australian National Songwriting Competition at 13, recorded his first album at 15, won Australia’s Got Talent grand finale (playing a blistering Tommy Emmanuel-inspired version of “Classical Gas”), and recorded his second critically-acclaimed album “Time Jumpin’” at 17. He was also named “Best New Talent” in Guitar Player magazine’s reader poll, and toured extensively across Europe, Japan, Australia, and America, impressing audiences and winning over new fans with his jaw-dropping guitar chops and intense, energetic live shows.

And Joe hasn’t stopped evolving or showing any signs of slowing down in his 20s. He released a breakthrough album, “Let Me Introduce You” in 2012 that featured one of Joe’s best-kept secrets: his smooth, soulful voice.  The five-star album was an impressive mix of mature, melodic songwriting, superb acoustic and electric guitar playing, and a voice that complimented his own style of blues, rock, jazz and R&B.

The Guitar Army Tour featuring Robben Ford (left), Joe Robinson, and Lee Roy Parnell.

The Guitar Army Tour featuring Robben Ford (left), Joe Robinson, and Lee Roy Parnell.

Now a resident of Nashville, Joe has continued his growth and evolution as an artist by honing his singing, songwriting, and composing skills. He recently released three highly-rated EPs and is a current member of the Guitar Army Tour, sharing the stage with legendary guitarists and musicians Robben Ford and Lee Roy Parnell. Dinah and I had the pleasure of visiting with Joe recently and attending a show in Virginia. It was an amazing performance by this trio of superb musicians. What a show!

Dinah and I are so proud to have Joe in the Gretsch family of artists, and were happy to learn that one of Joe’s heroes and early influences was Chet Atkins. Joe’s parents were amateur musicians and had a lot of musician friends at their home, especially on weekends, jamming into the wee hours of the morning. According to Joe, one group of friends lived and breathed Chet Atkins. They played Chet’s songs on a Gretsch Country Gentleman and even showed young Joe how to play with a thumbpick. Through Chet’s music, Joe learned a wide range of styles, the importance of a good melody, and how to fingerpick. It also exposed him to fellow Australian and Chet disciple, Tommy Emmanuel, and Joe said he continued to “absorb Chet Atkins” through playing and mentoring with Tommy.

Joe with a Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman.

It’s appropriate that one of Joe’s main guitars onstage and in the studio is a Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman. He plays both a full-sized 6122 and a Country Gentleman Junior. And, it’s even more appropriate that Joe first fell in love with his Country Gent at the Gretsch display at a Chet Atkins Appreciation Society event in Nashville. Although he thinks of himself as an acoustic player first, Joe was drawn to his Gretsch because of its fingerpicking-friendly feel and its versatility when plugged in. He also loves his Country Gentleman for what Joe calls its “big, fat sound.”

Dinah and I also appreciate Joe’s willingness to share his love of music with students. Joe has made three visits to Thomas Heyward Academy in Ridgeland, S.C. as part of Dinah’s Mrs. G’s Music Foundation, which supports music education in rural schools. Joe said he remembers musicians visiting his rural high school in Australia and encouraging and inspiring him, so he jumps at any chance to get in front of children and teenagers to do the same. Joe’s friendly, down-to-earth personality and his own inspiring story of hard work and determination really help him connect with the students. Plus, Joe uses the opportunity to try out new songs, because he says kids will give you honest feedback and tell you exactly what they think, which he finds refreshing.

If Chet Atkins were here today, he would undoubtedly like Joe Robinson and enjoy trading licks, playing, and recording with this young Australian virtuoso. He would approve of his work ethic (Joe woke up at 4 a.m. and practiced four hours before school, then practiced four hours after school), the level head on his shoulders, his drive to grow and explore new musical directions, and his total love for the guitar (like Chet, Joe often falls asleep with his guitar).  I also think Mr. Guitar would approve of Joe representing Gretsch and playing one of his signature guitars onstage and in the studio, because like Chet, Joe is also a gentleman. He just happens to be from another country.

Joe Robinson and Pat Bergeson performing their Salute to Chet Atkins at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2011.

YouTube Clips:

This clip of 16-year-old “Smokin’Joe” Robinson performing his “Day Tripper/Lady Madonna” instrumental on Australia’s Got Talent TV Show has had over 3 million views.

Joe performing “Lethal Injection” with Bernard Harris on bass and Marcus Hill on drums.

Joe obliges Fred Gretsch’s request from the audience to play “Adelaide” at the Gretsch 130th Anniversary Celebration in 2013.

Joe and Richard Smith (right) honoring Merle Travis and Chet Atkins by performing an impromptu fingerpicking classic, “I’ll See You In My Dreams” at the Gretsch 130th Anniversary Celebration in 2013.



Christmas 4 Kids Concert & Gretsch Guitar Auction

Monday, December 5th, 2011

From the Christmas 4 Kids Organizers:

Santa & Mrs. Claus and the Gretsches pictured with a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar.

This year was the 10th Anniversary of the Charlie Daniels and Friends Concert benefiting Christmas 4 Kids (C4K).  The concert was held on Monday, November 21 at The Ryman Auditorium and was the 10th consecutive sellout event.  With so much to celebrate, the Gretsches sent another amazing guitar to be auctioned off.  This year’s guitar has previously been exhibited at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, Georgia, as well as at the Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta Airport in a Georgia Music Hall of Fame exhibit.  It has been photographed extensively and admired by musicians and the public alike.

The winning bid went to the Erickson family from Des Moines, Iowa.  They were on their way to spend Thanksgiving with their family and heard about the C4K concert on a Nashville event calendar.  Being avid country music fans, they decided to stop; however, the concert was sold out.  As they were discussing what to do, a gentleman overheard them and offered his tickets to the Ericksons.  Mr. Erickson offered to pay him, but the man said, “Go and enjoy – in the end, it’s all for the kids.”

Cole Erickson happily accepting his family's new Gretsch Guitar.

The Ericksons placed the first bid on the guitar and as the bidding was about to close, checked their status on the list and saw that someone had bid higher than they had.  So, at the last minute, they placed the winning bid.  Fred and Dinah Gretsch presented the Erickson’s son, Cole, with the prized guitar on the Ryman stage.  Clearly, an event this young man won’t forget.  Needless to say, the Ericksons have said that the Christmas 4 Kids concert is going to be a new annual Thanksgiving tradition for the family.

C4K wants to extend their deepest gratitude for the support that the Gretsch Foundation continues to show through their donation of guitars for the concert auctions.  Most importantly, Christmas 4 Kids appreciates Fred and Dinah Gretsch’s personal commitment to the children and their valued friendship.

For more information on Christmas 4 Kids, please visit their website.

For more information on the Gretsch Foundation, click here.