RIP Paul Yandell, 1935-2011

Friday, 02 December 2011 02:09 AM Written by 

Anyone who saw Chet Atkins in concert from the 70's through the mid-90's, or caught him on a TV show like Hee-Haw (which had some good music at times amid the moronic barnyard jesting) Austin City Limits or anywhere else, no doubt say a dark-haired, bespectacled player next to him. That was Paul Yandell, a Kentucky native and like Chet, a master fingerstyle guitarist.  Yandell died on November 21 in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just outside Nashville, after a battle with cancer. He was 76.


Atkins fans know his major inspiraitons were Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, George Barnes (all jazz greats) and Merle Travis. Chet was a high school kid when he first heard Travis on the radio from Cincinnati in 1939, playing the thumb and index finger guitar style he'd picked up in Western Kentucky, where men and women alike, played in that style. 

Yandell hailed from Mayfield, Kentucky and learned the same picking style Travis had from his neighbors.  He worked at a radio station in nearby Benton as a teenager and in 1955 ended up hired by Grand Ole Opry stars the Louvin Brothers to play fingerstyle with them after Atkins, then a busy studio musician, made fingerstyle guitar an integral part of the Louvin sound on records.

This is Yandell with the Louvins in the mid-1950's playing a red Chet Atkins model Gretsch, at the time a very new guitar model.  He's in the right background, though the inept cameraman doesn't quite catch him as he solos.  The song is their hit "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby."

And on "Love Thy Neighbor."

Yandell stuck with the Louvins from 1955-59, when he was drafted into the Army. Discharged in '61, he returned to Nashville and signed on with husband-wife Grand Ole Opry stars Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright.  In this 60's performance, she sings her 1952 signature hit, "It Wasn't God who Made Honky Tonk Angels," Yandell to the left with the Buddy Holly style glasses.

In 1970, Yandell joined Jerry Reed, another fingerstyle virtuoso (who learned the style from Atkins and Travis records) then on a star trajectory with hits like "Amos Moses."  On one of his records (this one loaded with surface noise), the pair did an instrumental tribute to Atkins and Travis. 

First song is "Windy and Warm," associated with Atkins (one of the few fingerstyle songs I ever learned to play when I went through my fingerstyle phase) followed by "I'll See You In My Dreams," the pop standard Travis and Atkins both played (Merle first). Third is "Cannonball Rag," a Kentucky fingerstyle favorite Travis learned as a kid and required learning for any fingerstyle player.

In 1975, Yandell joined Chet. Along with recording popular guitar albums, he'd been running RCA Victor's Nashville operation since the late 50's. producing a slew of country classics and pioneering the so-called Nashville Sound production style. Having beaten cancer, Atkins was scaling back his RCA executive duties to concentrate on performing and recording. Yandell was with him nearly a quarter-century. 

Jerry Reed wrote a number of instrumentals for Atkins, his musical mentor, who he called "the Chief" (Chet signed him to RCA Victor in the 60's) and was one of the few later players who influenced Chet's playing.  This is Chet and Yandell playing Reed's "Twitchy."

"San Antonio Stroll" comes from from one of the old TNN (The Nashville Network) evening shows. TNN was the country cable network before CMT and in the eyes of many, far better than CMT is at the moment.

Chet's cancer returned in the late 1990s, forcing him to retire (he died in 2001). Yandell continued working and recorded five CD's, the first a Chet tribute.  He also was active in the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society, or CAAS, a worldwide fan organization who hold an annual convention that Atkins attended in his healther days. Here's Yandell with singer and fingerstyle master Steve Wariner (who Chet hired as his bass player in the 1980s) at the 2010 CAAS show, playing "Blue Angel," a tune long associated with Chet's repertoire.

He also appeared on Wariner's 2011 album Guitar Laboratory on the track "Pals."

Yandell was the last of the first generation of fingerstyle giants to go, after Reed, Atkins and Travis.  The style is hardly endangered. It lives on through Travis's son Thom Bresh, Wariner, young Ben Hall, Eddie Pennington and many others. 

One other thing. In the 1980's Yandell came up with the idea of an acronym, sort of like those describing a degree (M.A. or  PhD) or profession (CPA, RN) to describe guitar virtuosos. It was "C.G.P." or "Certified Guitar Player."  Chet bestowed the title (which he copyrighted) on himself and only four other players: Reed, and educator John Knowles, Wariner and Australian fingerstyle great Tommy Emmanuel. with whom Chet made his last album.

Typically modest, Yandell did not seek the honor for himself, feeling since he conceived it, it was inappropriate for him to receive it.  This past August, as the Country Music Hall of Fame opened their Chet Atkins exhibit (there until next spring),  Chet's daughter Merle Atkins Russell (named for Travis) presented Yandell with the final C.G.P. award to be awarded.  Yandell, survived by a wife and son, was buried in Kentucky.

This little study in photos, to a later recording of "I'll See You in My Dreams," pretty much speaks for itself.


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