Young Thumbs Keep Chet Atkins’ Music and Legacy Alive
By Fred W. Gretsch
There was a noticeable and refreshing youth movement at this year’s 32nd annual CAAS (Chet Atkins Appreciation Society) Convention held July 13-16 in Nashville. According to John Knowles CGP, there was one young performer at last year’s event, but this year’s lineup expanded to more than eight young performers on stage – some not even old enough to drive.
Many of these young men and women, who came from all over the U.S. – as well as Denmark, New Zealand, and Japan – visited the Gretsch Room to plug in and play a Gretsch Chet Atkins model guitar. Not only was I impressed with their mastery of Chet’s fingerstyle playing technique, I was also impressed by their deep knowledge of Chet Atkins’ music and legacy. Many of them even include Chet quotes on their business cards and websites.
One Young Thumb who caught my eye and ear was Parker Hastings from Richmond, Kentucky. Parker, who turned 16 during the CAAS event, has won not one, but two Gretsch guitars through the International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Competition, which is held each year in Powderly, Kentucky. In 2014, he was the youngest person to be crowned Grand Champion, winning both traditional and contemporary categories, and won a Chet Atkins 6120 electric guitar. Parker was also inducted into the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame in 2014 by winning their “Horizon Award” and recently received their “Thumbpicker of the Year” Award in 2015. He has played at numerous Chet Atkins Tributes and recently performed a fingerstyle guitar demonstration with John Knowles at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that explored the acoustic and electric guitar styles of Chet Atkins. (Read a special Gretsch interview conducted with Parker during the CAAS event. I know you’ll be impressed with this rising young guitar star.)
Another Young Thumb, 19-year-old Katelyn Prieboy, performed for the first time at CAAS and delivered an impressive “Chet Set” on her Gretsch 6120. The Belmont University student was inspired to play the guitar by Taylor Swift and Brad Paisley. Paisley led her to discover Garth Brooks, whose duets with Steve Wariner opened her eyes to Steve’s music and, according to Katelyn, used Google and YouTube to discover this guy named Chet that Steve Wariner was always talking about. Once Katelyn found her way to Chet Atkins, she was hooked. She got her first thumbpick and a Gretsch guitar, because she says that’s the way to get Chet’s tone, and has been working the past four to five years to learn Chet’s technique and style.
So, why the increase of young guitar players performing at CAAS this year? You can start with two of Chet’s CGP award recipients: John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel. In an effort to fill the CAAS pipeline with young, teenage pickers and introduce them to the music of Chet Atkins, they formed the Young Thumbs group. Through a dedicated Facebook page, social media, and events like CAAS, these young musicians can meet and connect with other young guitarists. It was cool seeing these Young Thumbs socializing, jamming, and exchanging guitar licks and tips in the hotel lobby over the four-day event. Chet would’ve loved seeing that.
In addition to talented teenagers, there were plenty of young “twenty-something” performers that impressed me as well, including Kirby Easler, Brooks Robertson, Dan Bankhurst, and my and Dinah’s friend, Joe Robinson, who showed up with his Gretsch Country Gentleman and wowed the audience with a terrific 45-minute set. While in Nashville, Joe also participated in the Gretsch Sounds/Guitar Pull performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Joe was onstage with Tommy Emmanuel (playing Chet’s famous “Dark Eyes” prototype Gretsch guitar), fingerstyle legend Eddie Pennington, and Striking Matches, the impressive guitar duo of Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman. The artists performed a superb mix of Chet songs, thumbpicking classics, and fresh, original songs. It was a classy way to bring the “American Sound and Beauty: Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection” exhibit to a close.
All told, it was a great week in Nashville for fans of Chet Atkins and Gretsch guitars. I believe Chet would be pleased that his music and fingerpicking style of guitar is being passed down to so many young, talented players today. He would also be happy that many of his friends – especially John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel – are investing so much of their time to mentor, guide, and help these young artists succeed. After all, Chet did the same for John and Tommy years ago. They obviously learned from the best and are now “paying it forward” to the next generation of guitar players. That’s how Chet would want it.