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Chet AtkinsCompared to most of my recommendations for the holiday season, Christmas With Chet Atkins (1961) is a pretty tame record. But, if you appreciate the artistry - or at least the craft - of Chet Atkins (read more), you'll understand why this is one of my Christmas favorites. Some background: as a staff producer and artist for RCA Nashville in the late 50's and 60's, Atkins helped pioneer a smooth, cosmopolitan approach that ultimately had a deeply deleterious effect on country music. This "countrypolitan" sound can be heard on Christmas With Chet Atkins as clearly as it could in the early 70's when it came to rule Nashville. That does little, however, to dampen my enthusiasm for this beautiful, gentle album. Whether bending his knee in reverence or dashing through the snow, Atkins always puts the song - and therefore the listener - first. Easy listening? Sure. Memorable? You betcha. Heart warming? Absolutely, and I'd recommend this for any Christmas party - hip or otherwise.

On the other hand, my favorites selections from Christmas With Chet Atkins gravitate strongly towards Atkins' more substantial moments - the solo acoustic numbers like "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" or the nudging, winking rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock" or the confidently jaunty "Jolly Old St. Nicholas," which NRBQ used as a model for their own arrangement. Either way - easy or hard - Chet's pitch perfect picking runs through the album like a finely-tuned Ford, and that kind of exactitude is a rare and precious thing.

It's worth noting that Atkins recorded a couple of Christmas singles for RCA long before he waxed Christmas With Chet Atkins. These were "The Bells of St. Mary's" (1953), which he also recorded on his 1974 Superpickers LP, and "Christmas Carols" b/w "Jingle Bells" (1955), which he recorded again on the 1961 LP. "The Bells of St. Mary's" shows up on Guitar Legend: The RCA Years (2012), and all of them are appear on Bear Family's insanely expensive boxed sets. As an alternative, all three appear as bonus tracks on Songs Of Christmas (2012), a compilation of somewhat dubious origin.


Chet AtkinsMore than 20 years later, Chet Atkins finally revisited Christmasland. By this point, he had become a venerated elder statesman, having been inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1973. He even began appending the title "C.G.P." to his name (as in "certified guitar player"). But, Atkins was also something of a has-been, and he was dropped in the early 80's by RCA Records, his label since 1947. This misfortune became a blessing, however, when Atkins signed to Columbia Records and produced a string of fun and adventurous albums that brought his music to a new audience and greatly enhanced his legacy. Sadly, East Tennessee Christmas (1983), one of his very first records for his new label, is not one of those albums. Promisingly, though, the record kicks off with a nearly note-for-note remake of Atkins' playful 1961 arrangement of "Jingle Bell Rock," except that Chet's guitar lines are even more deft and sophisticated than before!

However, most of East Tennessee Christmas is absolutely slathered in sticky-sweet strings and bland vocal choruses that only serve obstruct the view of what we paid to see - a master at work with his instrument. The situation is exacerbated by Chet's habit of beginning many of the tracks solo or with a small combo - only to dash our hopes halfway through by trucking in the entire cast and crew of The Lawrence Welk Show for a maudlin finale. The last two tracks on the record ("Silent Night" and "Away In A Manger") begin as really lovely acoustic readings of timeless carols. In both cases, however, Chet uses a children's chorus - children! - to complete the arrangement, and the cloying result is maddening. Frankly, I wanted to scream.

Which is my way of saying, you've really got to admire Chet Atkins to enjoy this record. His earlier album, Christmas With Chet Atkins, has some dicey moments, but nothing to match this schmaltz-fest. A couple of tracks on East Tennessee Christmas, "White Christmas" and "The Christmas Song," add only strings to Chet and his group - that is, no chirpy, white-bread vocals - and are quite nice. Another, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," is just Chet and his guitar - and is resplendent. The rest of East Tennessee Christmas is unlistenable, a poor representation of an important artist, and a sure way to ruin your hipster's holiday. [top of page]

Albums Albums


  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (1983)
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1961)
  • Jingle Bell Rock (1961)
  • Jingle Bell Rock (new version, 1983)
  • Jolly Old Saint Nicholas (1961)
  • Medley: The Coventry Carol/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (1961)
  • Silent Night (1961)
  • Silver Bells (1961)
  • White Christmas (1983)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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