In July, 1941, the seventeen-year-old Atkins got his first job on the radio. It was on WRBL, a small 1200 watt radio station in Columbus, Georgia. Chester would sing hymns during a program hosted by a radio minister. He remembered his first song as being “Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight.”
When World War II struck, Chester’s father went to Cincinnati to work for a railroad. Chester quit high school and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. He moved back home with his mother and stepfather and got a job playing fiddle with comedian Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle (of the Carlisle Brothers) on WNOX. As soon as station manager Lowell Blanchard heard Chester play guitar, he gave him his own solo spot on the “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.” (Another young performer on the program in 1943 was singer Kitty Wells.)
In 1945, Chester Atkins moved on to WLW, the station where he had first heard his idol, Merle Travis (this coming after he auditioned unsuccessfully for a position with Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys). Travis had moved to California by then, but had returned to Cincinnati to visit friends when he heard Atkins on the air. Travis was driving in a snowstorm at the time, but when he heard Atkins play guitar, he had to pull over to the side of the highway, so astounded was he at the technique exhibited by his young disciple. The two eventually met and Travis complemented Atkins on his performance. Although closely bonded because of their similar styles and respect for one another’s playing, Travis and Atkins did not record together until thirty years had passed from their first meeting.
On Christmas Eve, 1945, Atkins was fired from his job at WLW, thus beginning a nomadic existence hopping from one radio station to the next that would last for five years. It has been theorized that Chet failed to keep his radio jobs because he was working mainly as a sideman for other groups. His ambition and perfectionism apparently did not sit well with his bandmates, and he never lasted longer than a few months at any one station.
In 1946, he worked on WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina before he was fired. He then auditioned for Red Foley, then a star on WLS Chicago’s National Barn Dance. Foley was preparing to accede to the exalted role of host of WSM Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry,” and when he did, Atkins went