The Atkins family suffered greatly during the Depression. Farm life was difficult and luxuries were scarce. Since his family did not own a radio or a record player, Chester would learn music from anyone who came to their house to perform or at his aunt’s house, where there was a windup Victrola and 78s by such artists as Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Lemon Jefferson. According to Atkins, friends would come over to their house and bring a ukulele and sing popular songs of the day, such as “My Blue Heaven” and “Painting the House with Sunshine.” Atkins also recalled favoring music by Jimmie Rodgers, the legendary Blue Yodeler. Songs such as “Waiting for a Train” and “T for Texas” became favorites. One of Atkins’ most vivid memories involved a friend dropping some Jimmie Rodgers 78s on some railroad tracks, smashing them to smithereens. Atkins mourned the loss since records were so valued during the Depression by families who had little other entertainment.
While Atkins was still a boy, his father left home and moved to Hampton, Georgia. His stepfather played guitar as well, playing finger style. He used to fashion thumbpicks from old toothbrush handles which he would whittle down and shape into a pick. Chester also took occasional trips to New York to visit his brother Jim and absorb everything he could about playing guitar.
Atkins suffered from asthma as a boy, and as a result, his mother sent him to live with his father and stepmother
Chet Atkins & Jerry Reed
Photo courtesy of Chet Atkins