As long as I can remember the guitar has been my favorite musical instrument.
There are probably two reasons for this. First, our home in Morell, PEI, was always an evening gathering place for some of the young people in the village (three single MacInnis girls likely being a factor), and there always seemed to be at least one person with a guitar leading a sing-song. Second, when my brother Ronnie came home from the war he brought a guitar with him.
The guitar players I remember enjoying during my early years were Les Paul, Merle Travis, Leon McAuliffe, Jerry Byrd and Hank Snow. Then, probably around 1950, I heard Chet Atkins and every other guitar player was suddenly just another picker; Chet Atkins became my guitar idol.
After Anne Murray became a client in 1971, I was frequently in Nashville and always had my eye out for an opportunity to meet Chet. It never entered my mind that we would ever become friends; but early in 1977 that’s exactly what happened.
Sometime in late 1976 Anne received a demo tape from an unknown Nashville songwriter by the name of Randy Goodrum. She liked the song, so she put it in her “listen to again” box. The next time she listened to it she realized it wasn’t just a good song, it was an extraordinary song. She played it for her manager Leonard Rambeau and her then record producer, Jim Ed Norman (who went on to become president of Warner Music). All three agreed it was a hit. But there was a problem. Because of album release dates Anne wouldn’t be able to record it for quite a while, and they were all worried that someone else might.
For those of you who are not familiar with the music business, I should explain that when someone writes a song, no one can record it without the writer’s permission. But once the writer allows the first recording, anyone can then record it provided the applicable royalties are paid to the writer and publisher of the song. Because of this, a procedure developed in the recording business under which an artist can pay the writer a negotiated, non-returnable advance against royalties, thereby gaining the exclusive right, for a defined period of time, to record the song. This procedure is called a “hold.”
We decided that I should go to Nashville to meet with Randy Goodrum and try to arrange a hold on his song. Jim Ed tracked him down and arrangements were made for me to meet him a couple of days later at a Nashville recording studio where he was working on a recording session.
I arrived at the appointed time, gave my name to the receptionist, and told her I had an appointment with Randy Goodrum. She made a phone call and then told me someone would be right out. Imagine the look on my face when the “someone” turned out to be Chet Atkins.
Chet walked over to me, extended his hand, and said, quite unnecessarily, “I’m Chet Atkins, nice to meet you, Lyman. Randy is putting down a couple of tracks right now but we can have a coffee in the Green Room and watch them work.” (“Green Room” is the name given to the guest lounge that overlooks every recording, radio, TV, and movie studio in the world.
With coffees in hand we sat down to watch and listen to the musicians who, as I learned, were laying down background tracks for a Chet Atkins album. I asked Chet which one was Randy. “He’s playing piano,” Chet replied.
After a few minutes of watching and listening, Chet said, “Jim Ed tells me you’re Anne Murray’s business manager. Do you know she and I have the same birthday?”
“Yes,” I replied, “but you’ve had a bit of a head start on her.” He chuckled politely and then asked, “Do you know Lenny Breau?”
I told him I certainly did (Lenny played guitar for Anne for a while before she had to let him go because of a severe drug addiction. He either drowned accidentally or was murdered in his swimming pool in LA in 1984). “What do you think of him as a guitar player?” Chet asked. I was able to truthfully say, “I think he’s fantastic.”
“Well,” drawled Chet, “I think he’s the best guitar player in the world. I’ve never seen anybody play like him.”
“Then I guess you’ve never played in front of a mirror,” I quipped, relieved when he again chuckled.
“Speaking of guitar players,” I said, “one of the best I ever heard was a young guy I saw back in the mid 50s at the Casino Theatre in Toronto. He was backing up George MacCormack and Ralph Emerson......” but I got no further because Chet interrupted me exclaiming, “You remember George MacCormack and Ralph Emerson!” I said, “I even remember Doc Williams, Riley Puckett, Al Dexter and Milton Brown.” “Good God!” Chet exclaimed, and then said, “Anyway, about that young guitar player?”
“Well,” I said, “his name was Paul Yandell. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of him since because he was really good.”
Chet pointed at the musicians in the studio, saying, “See that guy playing the Telecaster? That’s Paul Yandell. He’s been playing with me for over twenty years.”
We chatted about country music, guitar players and guitars until the musicians took a break about twenty minutes later. Chet took me into the studio and introduced me to Randy and Paul, telling Paul about my seeing him in Toronto over twenty years ago. Chet, in his inimitable drawl, said, “Lyman thought you weren’t too bad, Paul.” He then turned to me and asked, “Would you have time for lunch after you do your business with Randy?” That question fell squarely within “Is the Pope Catholic” category.
I had lunch that day with Chet Atkins at the Sunset Grill. Many times after that, right up until I left the music business in 1995, when I was in Nashville, we either had lunch at the Sunset or a coffee in his office at RCA. Neither of us ever seemed to tire of talking about country music, guitar players and guitars.
Two follow-ups to this story:
I asked Chet one day how many tunes he could play. “How many are there?” he replied. “Are you serious?” I asked. “Yeah,” he drawled, “if I hear it, I can play it.”
And, yes, I was able to get a “hold” from Randy on the song he’d sent to Anne. You’ve probably heard it. It was You Needed Me.