Guitarist John McClellan channels Chet Atkins

Harold DuckettFeature, Our Town Arts

The moment I saw that guitarist John McClellan would be performing for the Knoxville Guitar Society at the Church of the Good Samaritan on Cedar Bluff Road, and that he would be playing works by J.S. Bach, Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, I knew I had to go to his concert.

One doesn’t normally think of Bach, Atkins and Reed in the same thought pattern. But McClellan is a rare master guitarist who lectures and teaches the full range of guitar techniques and performs around the world. He is also the foremost authority on the great East Tennessee native and world-renowned Atkins, who could easily play Bach at one moment and rip through Reed the next.

If one could smell music, as well as listen to it, McClellan’s celestial performance of Atkins’ ephemeral version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” would be transported to a rose garden with the gentlest of breezes blowing through. It was a magical orchestration for a single instrument.

McClellan made the piece his own by playing it more impressionistically than Atkins’ clean, precise rendering that can be heard on YouTube. But his playing also exquisitely captured the transparent, shimmering sound that was characteristically Atkins.

McClellan is also a satisfying storyteller. At his recent performance at Good Samaritan, his relaxed demeanor clearly showed he thought of himself as playing for a group of fellow guitarists. It wasn’t so much a public performance as sitting in front of a bunch of friends playing music he loves and telling stories he knows well.

Before playing each piece, he took a moment to adjust the tuning on his guitar strings, then a few more moments of meditation to settle into the space of the music. He quietly began.

He launched the program with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Prelude No. 3 in A Minor,” subtitled “Homenagem a Bach (Homage to Bach),” part of “Five Preludes” written in 1940. It was delicate playing, with none of the string squeaks one sometimes hears as fingers slide on the guitar fretboards.

McClellan played it as an introduction to his own following transcription of Bach’s “Chaconne,” the longest movement from “Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin,” BWV 1004, written sometime between 1718 and 1720.

It’s believed that Bach himself considered this chaconne to contain Bach’s understanding of the universe and his emotional place in it. It was written upon his return from a trip to find that his wife had just died.

The music is Bach pouring out his emotions, the depth of his soul. It is devastating music to absorb. But Bach is also writing about universal characteristics, composing music that is to the glory of God. It was a musical moment that rivaled the depth of any music I have ever heard.

McClellan’s playing was filled with the depth of pain and suffering Bach put into the music, as well as the sense of calm and peace.

After a beautiful performance of Antonio Lauro’s “Two Venezuelan Waltzes,” McClellan played Francisco Tarrega’s “Five Tone Poems.” Each had a mood of its own, but his playing of the fifth one, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” had ephemeral atmospherics, gossamer trills and pristine harmonics that sounded like chimes.

After more classical music, including Julian Arcas’ “Fantasia on Themes from ‘La Traviata,’” in which McClellan explored his love of opera, he came back to the music of Atkins and Atkins’ marvelous transformations of Reed’s rough compositional sketches.


More of Knoxville Guitar Society’s concerts can be found here.

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