Here’s an interesting bit of information — if you put “the essential” into Amazon music’s search field, you’ll get back over 4,000 hits. Even allowing for duplicates and different editions, it’s obviously a popular term in the naming of music albums. But although the term might be overused, it’s also meant as a signal that most music lovers recognize — that it’s a comprehensive album of an artist’s work. And while that might not always be reliable, it is certainly the case with The Essential Chet Atkins, newly released on RCA/Legacy via Sony/BMG.
In fact, I’d go a little further out on this proverbial limb and state that not only is this album an all-embracing collection of the legendary artist’s work, it’s also a perfect illustration of another meaning of “essential” — it’s a “must-have”. Of course, you might already have one of the other Chet Atkins Essential albums, and I probably should elaborate on that odd statement.
In 1996, a similar album with the same title was produced, but it was much more limited — both in scope and number of tracks. This new release has dropped a few of those tunes while keeping most, but has added a couple of dozen more, creating a more comprehensive 2-CD collection. (There was also a 2001 album titled The Essential Chet Atkins – The Columbia Years, which is something else entirely.)
Until his death in 2001, Chet Atkins pretty much owned Nashville, with a peerless run as performer, composer, and producer. Even if you’re into numbers, you’d soon tire of adding up all his best-selling albums, Grammys, and other awards, and there’s little doubt that he was a major component in the evolution of country music.
The collection of tunes provided here is about as perfect a set of an artist’s work as you’ll ever see. Not only does it span his entire career as a performer, but it also presents the tracks to us in chronological order. Starting with his original 1946 recording of “Guitar Blues (Pickin’ the Blues)”, and continuing through the decades to finish with 1995’s “Big Foot”, it’s an impressive list that allows the listener to hear Chet’s progression through the years.
Some delights from the early years include “Centipede Boogie”, a tune I’ve always liked, and “Mainstreet Breakdown”, with Chet sounding something like a countrified Django, but it was a recording from 1949 that really made me smile — Chet accompanying the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle on the country classic, “Root Hog, Or Die”.
One of the strengths of this collection is that although most of the cuts feature Chet front and center, sprinkled throughout are occasional selections starring other performers, strongly backed by Chet. In addition to the Carters, we hear in those early years from the likes of The Everly Brothers, and Don Gibson with his immortal country classic, “Oh Lonesome Me”.
Some of the cuts from later years also feature Chet in duets with talented performers ranging from Merle Travis to Mark Knopfler, and some that would probably have been extra special to Chet. His longtime friend, the talented Jerry Reed, shows up for a fun time on “Sneakin’ Around”, and on “It’s Been A Long Long Time”, a guitarist whose legacy rivals Chet’s, Les Paul.
Mostly though, this album features the unforgettable sound of Chet Atkins, and that covered a lot of ground, including some things you might not expect. Never afraid to experiment, his versions of songs from other sources, such as “The Third Man Theme” with Chet’s guitar replacing the original zither, continually showed his versatility. Another good example was his take on Brubeck’s jazz classic, “Take Five”, which is nothing short of amazing. And finally, he even tackled his good friend Boots Randolph’s hit, “Yakety Sax”, turning it into “Yakety Axe” — and although I hate to say this since Boots just died, I like Chet’s better.
Great stuff and highly recommended. The Essential Chet Atkins.
1. Guitar Blues (Pickin’ the Blues)
2. Bug Dance
3. Dizzy Strings
4. Centipede Boogie
5. Mainstreet Breakdown
6. Root, Hog or Die – w/ Carter Sisters, Mother Maybelle
7. Jitterbug Waltz
8. Third Man Theme
9. Black Mountain Rag
10. Country Gentleman
11. City Slicker
12. Mister Sandman
13. Poor People of Paris (Jean’s Song)
14. Big D – Eddy Arnold
16. Should We Tell Him – w/ The Everly Brothers
17. Hidden Charm
18. Oh Lonesome Me – w/ Don Gibson
19. I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles
1. Boo Boo Stick Beat
2. Hot Mocking Bird
4. Man of Mystery
6. Teen Scene
7. Freight Train
8. Satan’s Doll
9. Yakety Axe
10. Taste of Honey
11. Drive In
12. Get on with It
13. Cannonball Rag
14. Take Five
15. Is Anything Better Than This – w/ Merle Travis
16. It’s Been a Long, Long Time – w/ Les Paul
17. Polka Dots and Moonbeams – w/ Lenny Breau
18. Poor Boy Blues – w/ Mark Knopfler
19. Sneakin’ Around – w/ Jerry Reed
20. Big Foot