In 1947, when the first material in this five-disc box set was cut, Chet Atkins (still using his given name Chester) was a struggling journeyman guitarist looking for a steady gig. By the end of disc five, Atkins was firmly established as one of Nashville's top-call sessionmen and a successful producer and A&R man at RCA Victor's Nashville office, and while Atkins' skill as a guitarist is a constant throughout these recordings, what's most telling is the context of his performances. The Early Years 1946-1957 opens with Atkins' debut single, "Guitar Blues (Picking the Blues)" and "Brown Eyes," cut for the tiny Bullet label who dropped him shortly afterward (a decision they doubtless came to regret), which leans towards the Western swing style of Bob Wills but with a mellower feel and more concise arrangements. Much of the first two discs is devoted to similar upbeat hillbilly sounds, though Atkins' famous air of sophistication often makes its presence known. His picking also reveals the clear influence of his friend and mentor Merle Travis, though it doesn't take long for the student to equal and even surpass the master at his own style. Atkins also sings on a surprising number of these tunes, and while he's a better picker than a vocalist, there's a warm, ingratiating quality to his vocals that's genuine and winning. By disc three, the dawn of the countrypolitan era is upon us, and there's a noticeably stronger pop influence in the material and production (and whoever suggested Atkins should incorporate an organ in his arrangements should have been sent to bed without supper), but if the surfaces are slicker, Atkins' picking (which suggests he'd been listening to Les Paul and Django Reinhardt and taking some notes) remains splendid, while the vocal selections usually have the singing handed over to guests. The bulk of the selections on discs four and five were cut when Atkins was renowned as one of Nashville's leading studio musicians, and they reflect the easy confidence of a man who was making music to please himself as much as his audience; the repertoire is devoted to pop tunes of the day, old standards, and jazzed-up arrangements of classical melodies, and the effortlessly dazzling guitar work is accompanied by the most minimal backing, sometimes just a drummer keeping time with brushes. While the selections from the '40s were clearly sourced from 78s, the remastering for the most part is quite good, and the liner notes offer an admirable amount of information on the sessions, as well as a lengthy biographical essay from Drew Kent. The result is an entertaining and compelling look at the formative years of a crucial figure in the growth of country music, and guitar fans will get a fine buzz from the first-class picking that graces nearly every cut.
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