Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Intrinsic Sounds of a Master*

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: The Other Chet Atkins. My parents’ record collection was a pretty random assortment of cast albums, moods of Mantovani, Arthur Murray learn-to-dance records, a bare smattering of classical essentials, Firestone Christmas anthologies--by and large an uninspiring lot, even viewed nostalgically. In that middling group, a modest oddity like this made a strong impression, even if it was an ironic title for a household that owned no other country or guitar-picking records; this lilting Spanish-guitar reverie was, to my young ears, the only Chet Atkins. And while I’ve since come to grasp his wider stature and to admire the sophisticated Nashville sound for which he’s justly known, I’m so glad to have first met the plucky Tennessean on this exotic turf, where his attention to detail, singing tone, and sneakily unshowy showmanship seems utterly at home.

Heard again all these years later, the record’s nylon-string warmth still charms, and on at least one occasion proves deeply moving (in the prayerlike simplicity of “The Streets of Laredo”). In assaying a swath of mostly Cuban-derived Latin tunes, with a few tourist diversions (and one Israeli folk tune), Atkins lets the songs’ shape and pace dictate the scale of his arrangements, with a dense gallop for the busy “Delicado” or “Sabrosa” and an ambling trot for “Maria Elena” or “Poinciana.” My favorite as a kid was his spare, strummy, sunny take on “Peanut Vendor,” but this time around, the solo-guitar pieces sounded like the album’s heart, not only “Laredo” but an aching “Marcheta,” a brooding “Siboney,” a hearty "El Relicario," a sweetly unadorned “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.”

If there are traces of Django in the showier pieces’ chord-crawling virtousity, the solo tracks sound homier, even campfirey, and they give the entire effort a dust-blown authenticity. One of the record’s saving graces is that it never really sounds like anything other than a consummate country picker trying his hand at Latin music; but in these quiet, finger-traced moments, the distance between the Tennessee hills and the llanuras dwindles, dancingly, to nothing.

*This is a quote from Jim Reeves' liner notes.

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