December 1, 2020

‘Slightly Above Below Average’

John McClellan plays a classical guitar during his “Tribute to Chet Atkins” concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 24. McClellan was promoting the release of his album “Slightly Above Below Average: A Tribute to Chet Atkins by His Friends.” McClellan is the director of the guitar department at Webster University. PHOTO BY BRITTANY RUESS

John McClellan, director of the guitar department at Webster University, remembered his late friend Chet Atkins during an album release concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. McClellan, along with other special guests, performed songs written by Atkins — who died in 2001 — to raise money for the department at Webster.

“The point of the concert was to help raise funds to assist the guitar studies at Webster University,” McClellan said. “There are artists and friends of mine who will happily come and work with the students, but unfortunately it takes money to give honorariums and such.”

McClellan’s album, “Slightly Above Below Average: A Tribute to Chet Atkins by His Friends,” was a way of coping with the death of his friend.

“I needed to get it out because it was somewhat like a scarlet letter hanging around my neck. Some of the artists said, ‘Hey John when’s that gonna come out?’” McClellan said, laughing.

McClellan began his album project about nine years ago, as well as starting a book project with Deyan Bratic, called “Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions.” The two have published two volumes, chronicling Atkins’ life.

McClellan said Atkins’ friends, who were still grieving, thought it was a wonderful thing to be able to play on the project. Atkins has a fund to help educate poor students from Tennessee and his friends hoped the tribute would raise money for the program.

Growing up, McClellan’s father often listened to Atkins’ music, which McClellan said led to his earliest memories of Atkins. The early exposure to Atkins’ music led McClellan to pursue music and guitar as an adult.

“I think all of us when we were young can find someone who inspired us …. gave us a role model,” McClellan said.

Hascal Hale, a guitar builder from Kentucky, heard McClellan play throughout his house as he grew up. McClellan discovered that Hale knew Atkins and told him about his gift for the guitar. Later, McClellan was taken by surprise when he received a letter from Atkins inviting him to play a tune with him if he ever came to Nashville. Astounded by this, he sent him a letter in reply and started the beginning of their friendship.

“I heard that young guitar players, if they played his music back to him, that didn’t impress him,” McClellan said. “He was only impressed by people that would do his own thing. While I was honored to have that letter, I didn’t feel like it was right.”

In 1996, Webster University hosted the Guitar Foundation of America International Festival. At this festival, McClellan gave Atkins the Lifetime Achievement Award. During this time, he hadn’t played Atkins’ music in more than 20 years.

Atkins’ last show was scheduled to be at the Sheldon Concert Hall — the venue where the album release was held. When Atkins was unable to perform his last show, McClellan was there to comfort his friend. A few months after Atkins’ death, McClellan’s father died as well.

“I sat in front of him for about three hours and played for (Atkins),” McClellan said. When McClellan was done, he said, “Chet, you need to play, because 10 percent of your talent is more than pretty much anyone out there.”

McClellan said Atkins “looked up at me and says, ‘John, I’m done playing, its up to all you young guys to do all the playing now.’”

McClellan said his album “Slightly Above Below Average, A Tribute to Chet Atkins by His Friends” was a promise to Atkins to contribute to the education of guitar students and musicians who care for the art. Not only to help with his grieving, but also to pass on the legacy that Atkins left for upcoming musicians.

“All I’m trying to do is represent Chet’s legacy and his family … represent them in a way that I should,” McClellan said.

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