Working With Chet Atkins – An Interview With Earl Klugh

Earl Klugh is a smooth jazz guitarist and composer. At the age of 13, Klugh was captivated by the guitar playing of Chet Atkins when Atkins made an appearance on the Perry Como Show. Klugh was a performing guest on several of Atkins’ albums. Atkins, reciprocating as well, joined Earl on his Magic In Your Eyes album. Klugh was also influenced by Bob James, Ray Parker Jr, Wes Montgomery and Laurindo Almeida. His sound is a blend of these jazz, pop and rhythm and blues influences, forming a potpourri of sweet contemporary music original to only him.

Klugh first took up piano but at 10 switched to guitar, facsinated by the sound of the guitars on western shows he saw on television. Once exposed to the music of Chet Atkins, Earl learned very quickly and had cut his first record deal at age 22. His career rapidly progressed to working with the likes of George Benson, George Shearing, Chick Corea, and many others.

For their album One on One, Klugh and Bob James received a Grammy award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance of 1981. He has since received 12 Grammy nods, millions of record and CD sales, and continues touring worldwide to this day.

Klugh has recorded over 30 albums including 23 Top Ten charting records – five of them No. 1 – on Billboard’s Jazz Album chart. With 2008’s The Spice of Life, Klugh earned his 12th career Grammy nomination.

TR: Can you tell me a little bit about your musical childhood?

EK: I started playing guitar I guess when I was 10 but before that I was taking piano lessons like many kids did. I started when I was about six. It was my mom’s idea for me to play the piano and it really wasn’t my favorite instrument. But, I’m really happy that I started on the piano because I was able to get a good musical background. I’ve kept up piano well enough that I write quite a bit of my music on piano these days as well as guitar.

TR: The piano lessons probably helped you get to know and understand the fretboard on the guitar too?

EK: Yes, absolutely.

TR: How about guitar music? Did you start hearing some particular guitar music and think “Wow! This is what I really would like to play”?

EK: I was always fascinated by the sound of the classical guitar and I remember whenever they had westerns on television, I always liked that Spanish flavor and I really gravitated towards it. Growing up in Detroit that “Spanish sound” was so exotic, it sounded like something so far away.

TR: Did you have certain artists that you particularly liked?

EK: Not really as a kid, I just knew the sound of that instrument and knew I wanted to get my hands on one.

TR: So eventually you get your first guitar. Can you tell me about your first guitar?

EK: It was a nylon string classical. When I was 10, I convinced my parents that I really wanted to play the guitar. That was in 1964.

TR: Now, when you were 10 years old and playing a classical guitar, did you have a standard 2 inch neck to get your fingers around?

EK: Yes, absolutely.

TR: How did you manage that?

EK: It was somewhat frustrating for such small hands but I adapted to it as best I could. I wanted to play so much.

TR: That probably helped you later in life in making some of the more difficult stretches.

EK: Yes, I think so.

TR: Do you remember when you were first exposed to Chet Atkins and jazz music?

EK: I can tell you precisely because up to that point in time I had really only been exposed to a little bit of guitar – mostly classical and flamenco. In those days I thought of the guitar as something that people would play to accompany singing. This was January of 1967. My mom liked to watch all kinds of musical shows and I usually watched them with her. One night there was a Perry Como special and there was this gentleman named Chet Atkins on the show. He had that beautiful Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar and he was playing the theme from “Dr. Zhivago”. When he came on and started playing, it was like the way a person plays a piano. Nobody was singing and he was playing all parts on the guitar. Right from that moment I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do. I was 13 at the time. It changed the course of my life.

After that my mom would take me out shopping on the weekend and Chet had a large array of albums out so I would go out with my mother a couple of times a month and buy one of the records and play it for a week on the record player and learn as much as I could.

He was my teacher that way for years. Probably for a solid 2 years it was the only way I learned, there was just so much there.

From that I got into jazz and classical some, listening to Laurindo Almeida, Howard Roberts, Charlie Byrd and others but it was Chet’s music that really got me going.

TR: Somebody cynically might say that the 2 years you didn’t have an instructor might have been a waste of time. Do you think the time you spent with the record player could have been as instructive in some ways as opposed to formal lessons?

EK: I think so. But of course before hearing Chet’s albums there was a time I took lessons for about 8 months, and I had an instructor who had great right hand technique. Good right hand technique had been drilled into me up until I began hearing Chet and that helped me advance faster. From playing the piano I had developed a pretty decent ear for harmony as well. So after I heard Chet, I began to develop really quickly. I went to school, and I was an okay student. But I knew at that point I was not going anywhere else. Music was going to be my life. I didn’t have to pretend I was going to school to become a physicist.

TR: A lot of people have trouble categorizing Chet Atkins. He influenced you in classical and jazz, but some would think of him as a country artist. How would you categorize him?

EK: He is someone who played a very wide variety of music extremely well, and had a real affinity for many styles. He was really a one of a kind artist, especially at the time. Nowadays you go on the internet and find that everything is readily available to help you get exposed to different styles. But he was able to adapt to so many different styles on his own. When you think of the limited things available to put those styles together, his accomplishments were really incredible.

TR: Do you remember the first time you met him?

EK: It was in the late 70s. I think it was 1978. By then I had made a few records and they had started selling well. I called my manager who also handled Kris Kristofferson and told him that I would like to meet Chet Atkins because I had always admired him. So when I happened to be in Nashville to do some recording my manager set it up so I could call Chet, he came by and picked me up. We went back to his house and played a little bit. He was such a wonderful person. I tried not to wear him out or go on and on about stuff, but I was a huge admirer. We developed a pretty good friendship and did quite a few things over the years. We did a telethon up in Toronto together and some TV specials. I even did Hee-Haw with him twice and we were in the corn field together!

TR: I did not know that.

EK: It was a lot of fun. Pickin’ and grinnin’!

TR: And of course you played “Goodtime Charlie’s got the Blues” together. For many Chet fans, that was the first time they were exposed to you, when you and Chet played together in 1994 on the TV special called “Read my Licks”. How do you think the two styles match?

EK: I think we sounded great together. For me, I could do my own thing, and I think I knew so much about Chet’s playing that I never got in his way when we played, so I think we sounded really good.

TR: I saw a video clip of Chet saying that he really loved your song “If it’s in your Heart”. Do you know if there were particular songs of yours that he really liked?

EK: That one I knew that he really liked because whenever we got together or we played somewhere in a show he wanted to play that together.

TR: Would you say you learned other things from Chet besides things related to playing guitar?

EK: The biggest thing was when I was young and started making money. Chet was trying to get me to move to Nashville. “Chet, I can’t come. I can’t do Nashville, my mom is getting older and I should stay in Detroit.” I figured I would buy myself a big house. So we bought a house and it was like: “Well, now that’s over”. Meaning, don’t spend all your money on anything like houses.

TR: You mentioned some early success. Was that a part of your life where most of your financial success was coming from recordings? Did you play a lot of shows?

EK: When I was younger, I used to really hate going on the road. Part of it was because it was just so hard to really get a career started. You start right at the very beginning where you can hardly pay a band, driving in cars and in vans. You make bad decisions with record deals and it’s hard to get the money. After 5-6 years, if you’re lucky you get out of that first deal and move on. Things become better, you hopefully learn from your mistakes. As for me, after 5-6 years I really embraced everything about what I did. I had always worked hard on my music but I also I tried to concentrate on having the best band that I could, making sure the players got along, and that there was positive feel to the music. When you straighten out those things, things become good more quickly.

TR: I would think some of those things might be difficult for folks who maybe very talented musically. Those types of thing required managerial skills, don’t they? You are managing relationships, and egos, and facilities.

EK: Absolutely, everything.

TR: I think people who listen to your records would think “Wow, it’s gotten so much airplay. This guy must be making a mint out of this”. But they don’t realize that there are a lot of fingers in the jar there.

EK: Yes. Back in those days, it was really hard to do it without a major record company, because they were the only game in town. It is very different now. There are problems now, but different types of problems. I was very fortunate because the gentleman who signed me first with Capital was a very honest individual. And to this day, I’ve been with Blue Note, Capital, Warner, and several labels. But the most honest deal was the first and the royalties still come from the first record deal.

TR: I remember hearing your music being played when I was watching golf on Sunday. Is that CBS Sports?

EK: Yes. They’ve used that for years.

TR: I like to watch people’s playing styles and I noticed you get a great amount of sound from your guitar but looks like your right hand is really not attacking the strings very much. It looks like a softer touch. Tell me, how do you get the sound out of your guitar with your technique?

EK: That’s interesting. You’re the second person who has mentioned that I don’t seem to do much with my right hand. From my perspective, I really do, maybe not as hard as some players, but I am trying to pull sound out of the guitar. When I came along they were quickly developing better electronic pickups and other things for the electric nylon string guitar. So I never had to sit down on the edge of the stage like Julian Bream and bang it.

TR: Where is your playing these days?

EK: I have been doing solo a lot gigs the last couple years and I’m really enjoying that. I’m looking forward to doing more of them. I think things at this stage are getting easier and more peaceful.

TR: So, tell me about your recent projects.

EK: The biggest thing I’m doing right now is a solo album. I am taking my time. I think the last solo record I made there were a lot of standards. This time I’m going another direction and do some of the music I grew up with. It’s hard for me to sit down and write good solo guitar pieces. I’m up to about 6 or 8 of them now. I’m going to start to record soon. Once I record the initial songs, I know it will write some more. But I want to have a good variety of stuff and I have some good ideas about the kind of things I want to do that will make it an interesting recording.

Also, I’m really looking to do more solos shows, some strictly guitar-oriented shows.

About 2 years ago I did a three guitar thing. It was myself, Bill Frissell and Russell Malone and we played solo pieces but also with each other and it was just so much fun because you improvise so much. You are not glued to any paper or anything, you are just playing and having a great time. I really enjoy doing stuff like that now as opposed to just playing with the band all the time. I have come to really enjoy playing by the seat of my pants in live shows, either by myself or with a couple of buddies.

TR: Well, you mentioned you like to play whatever you want but don’t the fans want to hear hits from your albums, I mean they expect to hear them like they are on the records don’t they?

EK: That’s a very good question. We do cover those songs but also try to change it all around. And it still goes well because people really react positively to the fact that you’re trying to give them something special.

TR: But I’ve heard other artists say that when they’ve done some new projects, they were like “Wow, that’s a relief because my big hits, I always felt like I had to play them exactly like they were on the radio station”. So to be able to branch out and just play less scripted was liberating.

EK: I still do plenty of band shows where I play those songs. I went over to Japan for shows with Bob James and that was really good, because we’ve made a couple of albums together. And so we both played each other’s music as well as the music from our joint projects. Since we had made those records together, it’s kind of makes sense to the audience for us to do those songs.

One thing I’ve noticed though when I began doing solo shows is that afterwards I always come back with new ideas because nothing is really scripted. So, you are constantly moving ahead, and generating new ideas. Now if I play “Living inside your love”, “Dance with me” or “Heart String” in a solo show I really have to think about what I’m doing because it’s just me up there.

TR: Of course you have been nominated for multiple Grammy awards, and you won a Grammy for your “One on One” project with keyboardist Bob James who you mentioned earlier. Can you tell me just a little bit about that project?

EK: That was a really fun and very musical record. Around that time Bob and I had the same booking agent, and they booked us on a tour that started in San Diego and went up to Seattle. In those days everybody was going by buses and we shared the same bus. I think we made about 15 stops between San Diego and Seattle. We were staying in the same hotels, so we started talking and going to the movies and doing whatever you do during the day.

So we developed a friendship and after that we decided that at the end of the show, we would all just come out together and play a couple of numbers for the encore for everybody. It was a lot of fun and we sounded good.

About two months after that tour, I got a call from Bob and he said “I don’t know about your label, but my label might be good with us doing something together”. His career was already established and we were able to work out a deal where I was able to do the album on his label, Columbia. So that’s how the whole thing worked out. I wrote some songs and Bob wrote some songs. Interesting thing about it is that when you look back, it was only a three-day recording session for the whole record. Three days including the band, orchestra and everything. That absolutely was the quickest record.

And the success was almost immediate. It was one of those things that just took off from out of nowhere. I had never experienced anything like that. The stuff that I did with George Benson, “Collaboration” was really successful too and great musically but the “One on One” album with Bob James stands apart, it just took off.

Nobody expected “One on One” to be anything but a really good jazz record.

TR: Well is was a huge success and a grammy-winner.

EK: Exactly.

TR: By the way, I had heard that Chet and George Benson had recorded a bunch of duet stuff together that never came out because of some disputes between the record labels.

EK: Yes, I believe they did record quite a few tracks.

TR: George was in Nashville I guess. It’s a shame that they couldn’t find a way to come to agreement and release an album.

EK: That’s the kind of stuff about music that drives you crazy. And you never know, it could still happen I guess. I’m sure any thinking person would transfer the tapes into some digital format where later on somebody can make a deal work. I talked to George during that time, and he was really excited about it.

TR: Have any funny memories of Chet?

EK: I’ll tell you one thing that was funny. He invited me to join him the Cracker Barrel in Nashville and he had a bunch of friends with him. I was the new person in the group. I think he was doing TV commercials for Cracker Barrel at the time. Well after we were done eating I pulled my money out and I reached out to get the check and Chet beat me to it and grabbed it. But the waitress said “Oh no, Mr. Atkins, you can’t pay this. This is on the house for you and your guests”. After she left they all looked at me and laughed and said “You haven’t seen Chet pull that trick before?”

TR: How big was Chet’s influence in the world of music?

EK: You could start by just looking at the amount of his own records, I think close to 100 albums? Then you see what an influence he had as a producer and executive. I was in Japan for a couple of weeks in January and I’ve been there probably 30 times. It’s frustrating because you can’t find a record anymore in the United States. But in Japan, almost every time I go, I am able to find Chet’s CDs in the Tower Records or other stores there. Not every record, but probably 5 or 6 every time. There were 15 Chet CDs that I picked up once in Japan.

TR: Internationally he is so well known and loved isn’t he?

EK: That’s for sure. The music stands on its own.

TR: Thank you so much for your time today Earl, I hope you have a great week.

EK: Thank you, Tom.