2023 CAAS: Four Days of Guitar Music Heaven
Two generations of the Gretsch family reflect on this year’s successful Chet Atkins Convention.
Four days of guitar music heaven. That’s how many people describe the annual convention of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS for short). Every July, guitarists and music lovers from around the world make the annual pilgrimage to Nashville (a city Chet Atkins called home and helped put on the map), to perform, trade licks, learn, jam, and carry on the legacy of their hero, Chet Atkins, a still-revered musical force who was deservedly called “Mr. Guitar.”
Although considered one of – if not THE – greatest fingerstyle and thumbpicking guitarists who ever slung a guitar strap over their shoulder and slid on a thumb pick (he won 14 Grammys and nine CMA Awards!), Atkins is also remembered for being a groundbreaking record producer, RCA record label executive, and having a keen ear for talent. Chet signed a long list of notable artists including Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Dottie West, Steve Wariner, and Charley Pride, the first successful black country singer.
The 38th CAAS Convention would’ve made Chet proud as over 50 of the world’s best fingerstyle guitarists displayed their talent on multiple stages over the four-day event. As Mark Pritcher, longtime CAAS President and Convention Organizer said in his welcome letter, “Our esteemed lineup of artists will inspire and entertain you throughout the convention. Prepare to be amazed as virtuosos take the stage, highlighting their incredible skills and paying tribute to Chet Atkins’ unique style.”
Some of the artists performing this year included Tommy Emmanuel, Doyle Dykes, John Knowles, Guy Van Duser, The French Family, and even Meagan Taylor Anderson, who was there to carry on the music tradition of her great uncle, Chet Atkins. Members of the “Young Thumbs,” a group of talented teenagers carrying on Chet’s fingerstyle music into the 21st century also performed, as well as former Young Thumb members (now in their 20s) which included Parker Hastings, Tanner Duckworth, Kirby Jane, and others.
In addition to watching performers on multiple stages, there were also opportunities for learning, networking, and participating in a lot of impromptu jam sessions. Many of the artists led small-group, up-close-and-personal workshops where attendees could bring their guitar and learn everything from basic thumbpicking and fingerstyle jazz, to picking patterns and rolls, B-Bender techniques, and more.
Gretsch guitars and Chet Atkins had a long, legendary relationship and Fred and Dinah Gretsch have been longtime sponsors of the CAAS Conventions. In fact, 2023 marks not only the 40th anniversary of CAAS, but it also marks the Gretsch Company’s 140th anniversary and the 70th anniversary of Gretsch and Chet beginning their historic partnership. Gretsch still produces a lineup of Chet Atkins signature guitars today and, thanks to Lane Music in Nashville, many of those professional models were on display and for sale in the convention’s Gretsch Room.
Two generations of the Gretsch family, fourth-generation Fred and Dinah Gretsch, along with two of their sixth-generation grandsons, Will Gretsch and Logan Thomas, attended and soaked up all of the sounds of this year’s convention. Logan, owner of Logan Thomas Media, also captured the sights of this year’s convention and provided the photographs you see in this article. I had a chance to catch up with the four of them to get their thoughts and memories of this year’s CAAS Convention and why it’s important to the Gretsch family to support CAAS and continue keeping Chet Atkins’ legacy alive.
For starters, what was your overall impression of this year’s CAAS Convention?
Will Gretsch: It was my first time attending and I was impressed with the following that Chet Atkins still has today. I was also really impressed by how many young guitarists were there and how the younger generation really appreciates the talent that Chet had and the skillset they’re trying to imitate.
Fred Gretsch: It was great to see so many people there. There was a lot of excitement about everybody getting back together, like, it had been too long and the band was getting back together again. There was a real joy and comradery in the air that you could feel.
Any favorite moments or special memories from this year’s convention?
Dinah Gretsch: All the great music, of course. It’s music from eleven in the morning until eleven at night! And to see all these young performers playing guitar, no matter if it’s a Gretsch or not, and seeing young people coming and wanting to attend the convention is really a plus. It’s very encouraging.
Fred Gretsch: Like Dinah said, the music is always a special gift to every attendee; the breadth and depth of the music is incredible. And the Young Thumbs and other young musicians who attended and performed made it even more special this year.
Will Gretsch: Being my first CAAS, I was impressed at how packed it was for the night performances and how everyone in the audience just seemed to appreciate and be in awe of the artists playing onstage. I was paying attention to the people, watching, and noticing the expressions on their faces, especially when an artist goes through a difficult run. You can just see their faces light up and they’re in awe, like, wow, that was impressive. That was really neat to see and experience.
Why is it important to the Gretsch family to support CAAS and keep Chet Atkins’ legacy alive?
Fred Gretsch: In 1953, the Gretsch family partnered with Chet and a year later, the first Chet Atkins signature guitar was made in our Brooklyn factory. It’s very gratifying to say that 70 years later, there’s a vibrant community around the work our family did with Chet all those years ago. And that community is strong, and is worldwide. Chet used to say, the music will last and will live for hundreds of years. And, obviously, the Gretsch family contributes to Chet’s music through the instruments we have made all these years, and that we continue to make and fine tune. We’re all part of the Chet Symphony as it were.
Logan Thomas: It’s a lot of legacy like Grandpa said. Seventy years ago, we partnered with Chet Atkins as a family, and that’s half the time of Gretsch’s 140 years in business. It’s a long history and an appreciation of the impact Chet has had on Gretsch, thousands of guitar players, and music in general.
Dinah Gretsch: To me, Chet Atkins was the first Gretsch endorser that really made an impact. We love coming here, enjoying the music, seeing old friends, and making new ones. People come up and tell us that they appreciate the Gretsch family being at the convention. They see Chet and Gretsch as being hand-in-hand, and they like seeing that the Gretsch brand is still alive which, I think to them, means Chet Atkins is still alive too.
Logan, you’re in your early 20s, why is it important to keep Chet Atkins’ legacy alive to your generation?
Logan Thomas: I think looking back on how today’s music got here, especially the different types of music, and appreciating the different time periods and eras of music are important. A lot of people today, even the young ones, are finding the music of Chet Atkins and all the genres he explored over his long career. It’s such a different style of playing but it’s still influencing people. It’s still relevant today.
Will, as a sixth-generation family member, how does it feel to see your family’s name on legendary guitars and drums and being so closely tied to a musical icon like Chet Atkins?
Will Gretsch: It’s an honor, it really is, to be blessed and born into this family. You don’t see many brands that are 140 years old. And of those that are 140 years old or more, how many are still in the family and being carried on? That’s a testament to grandma and grandpa and their vision to resurrect the Gretsch brand from the ashes, if you will, forty years ago and bring it back to life. Many people don’t know how close Gretsch was to extinction. It just makes me proud of all the hard work they put into bringing the brand back to where it is today. It wasn’t easy.
Logan and Will, what would you say to people your age who have never attended a CAAS Convention?
Logan Thomas: I’d encourage people to go without hesitation. Because even though it’s a convention with a lot of people, it feels like home and a community and like a family. Just about everyone you go up to is going to be friendly and wanting to talk with you and wanting to know what music you’re interested in or if you play. Even people who are not guitarists come. I would just encourage fans of good music to come and join the community.
Will Gretsch: I’m already telling people that if you want to see some of the best guitarists on the planet and experience a good, close-knit family environment where everybody is welcome whether you are just picking up the guitar or not, you need to go. It is an experience unlike any other. And for a drummer like me, it makes me want to pick up a guitar and go get some lessons. I want to get in on this. This is really cool!
To learn more about the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society and their annual convention, please visit chetsociety.com.
— Ron Denny, Gretsch Contributor
Feature photo: Lane Music from Nashville provided Gretsch guitars to play (and even purchase) in the Gretsch Room.