Lost and found: Chet Atkins at WNOX

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

A few weeks ago, Bradley Reeves was doing as Bradley Reeves does: spelunking through the basement of the dearly departed in search of lost treasure in the form of home movies, canned film, reel to reel recordings, albums, photos and ephemera of bygone decades.

On this particular occasion, it was the basement of his old friend Marvin Russell, a revered local guitarist based out of Maryville. Russell passed away back in March, and his family was preparing to sell his house. It was down to the “everything must go” phase or what remained would be lost to the dump.

Bradley Reeves with his newest prize possession, an early recording of legendary guitarist Chet Atkins.

After going through every nook and cranny, media archivist Reeves (see Knox TN Today’s story here) made it back to his home in Walland with a few boxes. In the bottom of one was a carboard acetate record, likely from the 1940s, in a state of general degradation. He didn’t hold much hope for it.

For late Boomers and GenXers, this type of record is similar to the 45 singles that could be cut out of cereal boxes from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Post brands ruled the breakfast Top 40 with artists like the Jackson 5 and The Monkees. The company’s most “on the nose” release was The Archies’ Sugar, Sugar included with a box of Super Sugar Crisp.

Anyway, Reeves explained that this particular disc had long since lost whatever was once written to identify it. The only thing to do was give it a whirl and record every play in hopes of getting a decent digital version. With the third needle (stylus for the pedants) he got a solid take. After giving it a listen, he was pretty sure of what he was hearing: a live recording of legendary Luttrell-born guitarist Chet Atkins at WNOX studios.

“I’m fairly knowledgeable about Chet’s style, and I certainly wanted it to be him, but I had to know for sure before I put it out to the world that it was,” he said.

So, Reeves turned to the experts, sending his digital file to guitarist Patrick Kirtley and Dr. Mark Pritcher, president of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society, which held its annual convention this past weekend in Nashville. Kirtley produced a two-volume instructional DVD set Pickin’ like Chet. According to Reeves, both know of what they speak, and he got his confirmation that what he had was indeed a recording of Mr. Guitar.

Chet Atkins, center with fiddle, and Tommy Covington, with steel guitar, at WNOX.

Another clue was the simple fact that it was found in Russell’s basement. Russell’s former father-in-law was Tommy Covington. Covington was an original member of the WNOX Midday Merry-Go-Round and is credited (along with Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle) with bringing Atkins into the fold in 1941. Though he played multiple instruments, Covington was best known as a steel guitarist. When Atkins first came on board, he was brought in to play fiddle (he also played banjo, mandolin and ukelele).

According to Reeves, Covington owned one of the disc cutters used to make these cardboard records, which could be used to record live or off the radio, adding that the finished product wasn’t built for multiple plays. He said two of Covington’s cardboard records are in the possession of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound (TAMIS) at Knox County Library. The flipside of the disc in question is a recording of another merry-go-rounder, Leonard Dabney, singing Waiting for a Letter.

“It’s rather amazing I got what I did from both sides of this record,” Reeves said. “And if that is not the first recording of Chet, it’s certainly one of the earliest.”

Reeves believes the recording was made between 1942 and 1945. Atkins’ chronic asthma prevented him from enlisting in the military during World War II.

Have a listen at the link below, where you can hear that distinctive guitar picking, the audience in the background (including a babbling baby) and the applause at the end.


Reeves said please have a look before you send lost history to the junkyard. And mark your calendars for a new exhibit coming to the East Tennessee History Museum in October, They Sang What They Lived: The Story of Carl and Pearl Butler. Reeves has written the accompanying book, Honky Tonkitis: On the Road with Carl and Pearl Butler.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com

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