July 16, 2001 12:00 PM

Although he once scored a hit with something called “Yakety Axe,” it’s hard to imagine Chet Atkins wielding so blunt an instrument. The guitarist, who died of brain cancer at 77 at his home in Nashville on June 30, first dazzled radio listeners in the ’40s with his innovative thumb-and-finger-picking style. “People would think, ‘That Atkins is really good, but what about that guy playing along with him?’ ” says country star Steve Wariner. “They had no idea he was doing all the parts himself.”

Nor could those early fans have predicted that the man called the Country Gentleman—as much for his shy, courtly demeanor as for his 1953 signature hit—would go on to record more than 100 albums, win 14 Grammys and influence the next generation of musicians, including George Harrison, Vince Gill and Mark Knopfler.

But it was as a producer with RCA Records, from 1957 to 1983, that Atkins may have left his biggest mark. Simply put, says his pal Waylon Jennings, “he brought country music out of the Stone Age” by introducing the lush strings and backup choruses that came to be known as the Nashville Sound. Not that Atkins didn’t have misgivings. “Of course I had a lot to do with changing country, and I apologize,” he told PEOPLE in 1974. “We did it to broaden the appeal. [But] we’re about to lose our identity.”

Not so Atkins himself. The son of a Luttrell, Tenn., music teacher turned farmer and his piano-playing wife, Atkins plucked his first guitar at age 9. By 22, a Grand Ole Opry star, he wed singer Leona Johnson, mother of their daughter Merle (named for his idol Merle Travis), now 54. Though Atkins kept playing until 1999, he doubted fans would remember him. “But,” he said, “I wish they would.”

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