Chester and Lester

Chet Atkins and Les Paul

album cover

An Honest-to-Goodness Picking Party

If the effusive volleys of the opening track, "It's Been a Long, Long Time," don't tell all about these sessions, which feature two of the world's most expressive electric guitarists, what comes next will. As country guitarist Chet Atkins (1924–2001) and jazz pioneer Les Paul (born 1915) begin a medley of "Moonglow" and the theme from "Picnic," the two are heard discussing possible introductions. Atkins offers one idea and before anything seems set, Paul starts playing, and the song takes off.

This whole affair is governed by that sense of spontaneity. It isn't a country record, though Atkins's twangy guitar defines the canvas. It's not a jazz record either, despite Paul's liquid tone. Rather, the album is thirty-six minutes of utterly relaxed carousing, a consistently surprising dialogue between masters who enjoy each other's company. They harmonize and fly in formation on "Out of Nowhere." They trade six-string tricks on a spry version of "Caravan" that has both men wrestling with the ghost of Django Reinhardt.

Atkins, who'd done a series of successful instrumental records before this, explains in the liner notes why he was anxious to work with Paul, who invented the solid-body electric guitar and other music-making devices. "He really does know everybody who's playing and what they're doing on the instrument," Atkins said. "Of course, a lot of stuff they're doing now, Les was doing in 1937." And the low-key stuff these two did together here? Guitarists are still trying to figure all of it out.

Genre: Country, Jazz
Released: 1977, RCA
Key Tracks: "Caravan," "Out of Nowhere," "It Had to Be You"
Catalog Choice: Atkins: Mister Guitar. Paul: The Hit Makers!
Next Stop: Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant: Stratosphere Boogie
Book Pages: 29–30

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