Back in 1966, John Sebastian noted in his song “Nashville Cats,” that “there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville,” each of whom “played clean as country water.” Years later, he recalled, with a laugh, someone “with too much time on their hands” went through the local AFM book from 1966 and found out “I was only 30 off.”
In the 46 years since The Lovin’ Spoonful made history for themselves and for Music City with that song, that number has obviously grown. Many guitarists have come and gone, dreamed and died, which makes the task of deciding a consensus “best ever” picker to play Country Music a tough one. Still, it’s worth trying to do, particularly with the aid and counsel of some of those heralded Nashville Cats themselves.
Almost everyone interviewed put Hank Garland at the top. The young South Carolinian hit it big when he debuted at the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 15, back in 1945. For the next 16 years, he was an A-Team session guitarist and an inventive and influential musician, unafraid of blowing right past musical boundaries. Sadly, a bad car wreck in 1961 robbed him of much of his facility. He died in 2004.
“He’s the guy who all the Nashville guys thought was the best guitarist besides Chet (Atkins), who was Mr. Elegant,” John Sebastian noted. “He was the guy you could hang a whole session on. His style was so solid.”
“There’s no question it’s Hank Garland,” said Kenny Vaughan of The Fabulous Superlatives when asked who is No. 1 in Country guitar. “His technique was generally unsurpassed and his harmonic knowledge was far advanced beyond what you’d hear today. He had quite a loose, playful feel that seemed to be spot-on. Never sloppy, he played some wild licks. Hank Garland was also a fiddle player, and he could burn a fiddle tune pretty fast on a guitar.”
“Hank was rare in the fact that he was equally comfortable playing jazz or Country,” addedSteve Wariner. “He was so sought after by producers in Nashville for the Country sessions, but he could play any style and lightning fast. He would play just the right thing on any session. We’ve all heard hundreds of the hits he played on and yet may not know it was him. So goes the life of a session musician!”
“Because of his jazz playing, Hank Garland was revered by everyone in the world,” agreedHarold Bradley, a member of CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame. “Although his career was short, it was incredible work he did in a short period of time. On ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,’ that’s Hank and myself playing the intro — and then he borrowed my guitar and played it on Elvis’ ‘Little Sister.’”
Some say Garland would have to wrestle Grady Martin for the No. 1 spot. Coming from rural poverty near Lewisburg and Chapel Hill, Tenn., he played with an encyclopedia of greats, from Buddy Holly to Roy Orbison to Willie Nelson to Country Joe and the Fish.
“I first became aware of him as a kid through Ray Price and Marty Robbins recordings,” said Wariner. “He created a style that is much imitated. His use of tape echo in the studio was awesome. He was equally brilliant on acoustic guitar. I guess my favorite Grady recording is still the Marty Robbins classic, ‘El Paso.’”
Martin “was a consummate guitar player and studio hero,” said Richard Bennett, member of the Notorious Cherry Bombs, sideman for Neil Diamond and Mark Knopfler, producer for Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart, and first-degree studio ace. “The guy could play anything. I was told by one of his studio contemporaries that he could hear a song for the first time and ‘hear it’ completed, like an interior decorator walking into an empty room and imagining it perfectly appointed and furnished.”
“He defined the styles on Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty recordings,” Bradley observed. “He also defined the Tex-Mex sound with ‘El Paso’ and played the fuzz on ‘Don’t Worry’ by Marty Robbins. He was huge, and because Hank Garland was injured, he became the major voice in the recording studio.”
“Hank Garland and Grady Martin are the two top guys,” Vaughan insisted. “At that time in music, people were generally more educated about more advanced harmonic structures. They were incorporating elements of bebop into their playing. These two guys were not hillbillies. They were able to ‘hillbilly it up’ when called for, and they were able to play rock ‘n’ roll and tear it up. But I listen to them and say, ‘Wait a minute. You’re playing a note there that nobody has been able to do.’ You don’t notice it because it’s so well done and the melodies are so brilliant.”
“You have to include Chet Atkins,” said Bradley. “He did so much internationally, not only for the guitar but for Nashville. While we were the A-Teamers, the 12 guys who were digging the coal every day, Chet was like my brother Owen: They turned out to go on to bigger and better things. Chet went on to become a concert player. He wasn’t a guitar-for-hire after he became an executive. But he kept getting better and better. There was a progression to the stuff that he was doing in those last 10 years. It was very musical and easily absorbed because it was so tasty.”
“Along with Owen Bradley, he has been called the architect of the Nashville Sound,” Wariner added. “It was partly because of his producing, but a big part, in my estimation, was his guitar wizardry. He may be the most imitated guitarist ever. He was a brilliant innovator, rightfully called ‘Mr. Guitar.’”
“Chet Atkins was an iconic original from the 1940s until his death,” said Bennett. “You always knew who it was when Chet was playing the instrument. His conception, tone, humor, dignity and elegance all came bursting from his fingers. Genius is no exaggeration when talking of his musicianship and record production.”
“There was something about Chet that humility came with the act,” reflected John Knowles, who nurtured his fingerstyle chops and has worked with Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed and countless others. “I think Chet knew he had worked hard, gained ground and accomplished something. Chet was like the biggest iceberg guy: There was way more going on than he’d ever reveal. I used to kid him that when you look at pictures of great Country artists, Chet was always in the picture, playing guitar. He was the Forrest Gump of Country Music.”
More briefly, in the words of contemporary session giant Brent Mason, “Chet Atkins was definitely the cat-daddy of them all.”
If not for his on-screen performances, his friendship with movie star Burt Reynolds and his “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “Amos Moses” novelty hits, Jerry Reed might have been viewed primarily as a virtuoso guitarist — possibly the top player of his time. After all, Wariner remembered, “I heard Chet say several times that Jerry was the best guitarist. Period.
“It was funny,” he continued. “Jerry really came to town as a songwriter, but he was probably the most naturally gifted player I’ve ever been around. I’m not even sure Jerry knew how good he was. Young players fawning over him would ask, ‘What guitar did you play on this record or that?’ And Jerry would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know. It’s just wood and strings, son.’”
“Jerry Reed was one of the most original guitar players to come out of Nashville,” Knowles said. “He grew up on Merle Travis and Chet Atkins and those guys, and he turned it inside out. He’s had influence in the studio too. He played on a couple of Elvis records. Nobody else could sound like him. He was so aw-shucks about himself, but his whole career had size and scope. He’s got the talent, the songs and the showmanship.”
“Where to start with James?” Wariner asked himself. “He is famously played on so many Ricky Nelson and Elvis hits as well as tons of Country recordings too numerous to mention. The highlights for me are the West Coast Capitol recordings: Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’ and ‘Workin’ Man Blues,’ to mention a few. For me, he is one of the fathers of twang. He had every young player in the world trying to get their hands on a Fender Telecaster. He is famous in the rock ‘n’ roll world and Country for bending those strings on his paisley Tele.”
“You gotta remember James,” Vaughan insisted. “He was huge playing with Emmy (Emmylou Harris) and the Hot Band. He was very influential with everyone. He sort of changed the electric guitar, with his teenage stylings.”
Bennett more than agrees. “James Burton stood at the crossroads of hillbilly, rock, R&B and swamp. A stalwart of the Wrecking Crew, L.A.’s esteemed studio musicians of the 1960s, James brought his distinctive style to any kind of music and made it work.”