Working With Chet Atkins – An Interview With Jimmy Moore21 min read
Tom: Can you tell me a little bit how you got your first start with photography?
Jimmy: We lived in this little small town, Lawrenceburg, TN. There was one small magazine store that got Popular Science Magazine and Popular Mechanics and I just read everything in there. I wanted to be an artist, and I kept trying but then I started thinking of doing photography when I was about 14. By the time I was 16, my dad bought me a kit to develop my own film. I found this old camera upstairs in the attic that was my grandmothers. It was an antique folding camera with bellows. She gave it to me. The bellows had so many holes, the pictures you would shoot would have white spots all over the film.
So I went in and rebuilt the bellows with cardboard on the inside. Then I did a balsa tack thing on the outside to make it more sturdy and I got it to work. I made pictures with it for a long time. The newspaper here saw some of my pictures and they started using them. The editor there was a friend of ours, and he just kept encouraging me. He said, “Let me show you how to get a story. Let me show you how to get things people want to see.” I guess my first break was when I started to win Sunday photo contests in the Nashville Tennessean. Seemed like I was winning almost every week.
My dad knew a guy at Union Carbide Corporation here in Lawrenceburg that did scientific photography. The guy called me and said “I want you to come down here and interview for this new job working with the Center of Space Flight on an Air Force contract. They want a research photographer.”
I did not think I was on that level just because I had won a newspaper contest but I went for the interview. Dr. Raymond Dull was the scientist there. He said, “You got any experience with microscopes? Infra-red, ultraviolet photography? Metallography?” and I said, “Sure.” The truth was I was working at the bicycle plant at the time.
But he called me back, and I took a test which I made a high score on. He hired me first as an hourly employee. I was the only research photographer on that project then. Within a month and a half I went on salary and they made me the director of photography. That was in the Advanced Materials Lab. They trained me there to be a metallographer and I did all the microscope photography. Anyway, that was where I think I really learned the basics.
One photo won an international prize from the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials). The photo knocked them out. It was a closeup of the re-entry shield for the Saturn rocket. The photo is shot through a microscope. It’s a magnified photo of the graphite heat shield particles. The funny thing about it was that it looked like modern art. When Union Carbide went up to New York, they had the pictures that won the contest displayed in the Museum of Modern Art up there.
We would grind down samples of polygraphite and uranium and other materials they use to make the heat shield. They polish it to a real high gloss with diamond dust. It’s a hard process, but when you get it done, you’re looking at the basic structure of it. The microscope goes down 1000 times magnification and you can see the structure. They were trying to find something that got stronger as it heated as opposed to steel which gets weaker the hotter it gets. That’s what they needed for heat shields. When I went to the Smithsonian Air and Space museum I saw they still had that capsule.
Jimmy: One of my heroes and mentors there was a German named Carl Ziess. He taught me so much about heat transfers and things like that. I just ate that up, because it was like the things I read as a kid in Popular Science magazine.
Tom: This was another employee at the lab?
Jimmy: Yeah. He was a real scientist. Odd fellow. He’d climb the Matterhorn every year. He was really a way out guy. He advised against drinking water because of impurities, pollution in the water. He would say alcohol is better for you. Some of those guys we still have in research are people that think a little bit outside the box. People think they’re crazy, but sooner or later, you go, “Oh, that worked.”
After 7 years I finally told Dr. Dull that I had not initially been truthful about my experience and he said, “I know that, but I’d rather have somebody like you that wanted to learn and do it right instead of some engineer out of college that comes here and tries to tell us what to do. You have worked out perfectly.” That just made me feel much better.
Tom: Can you tell me how you made the switch from a scientific photographer to music?
Jimmy: Well, even before I went to Union Carbide I was shooting gospel covers for JD Sumner, the Statesmen and the Oak Ridge Quartet, which was their name before becoming the Oak Ridge Boys. I won the Dove award for the best album cover for the Oak Ridge Boys’ gospel album “It’s Happening” in 1969.
I had done gospel for a long time, and even while I was working at Union Carbide I’d go shoot artists on the weekends.
The real transition was when John D. Loudermilk the songwriter wanted to meet me. He came to my house and we just hit it off perfectly. I think it’s because we are both borderline crazy. He’s a great songwriter.
He said, “I want you to meet somebody,” I had no idea who he meant. He took me in there to Chet’s office and John says to Chet, “You’re a damn fool if you don’t use him, because he’s the best.” Chet waited a minute and then looked up and said “Well, I won’t be a damn fool. Okay.”
I was very embarrassed. I was meeting Chet Atkins for the first time, and here’s this crazy songwriter going, “If you don’t do this… “
I was always nervous around Chet at first, but after I got to know him it was just like being with your brother.
After that it wasn’t a week until Felton Jarvis, who was a producer at RCA called me and said that Chet had suggested me for a shoot. Mr. Jarvis wanted to know if I’d shoot an album cover picture of Willie Nelson. I said yes and he told me where to go and what time. So I hung up the phone and my wife said, “Who was that?” I said, “That was Felton Jarvis at RCA. Chet told him to call me to go shoot an album cover of Willie Nelson.” She was quiet for a second and then said, “Who’s Willie Nelson?” and I said, “I don’t know.”
So we got a Billboard magazine out, and we found him. I said, “He’s a songwriter.” That’s before he was really famous. It was ’68 or’69. It was his early stuff with RCA. He’d done albums before, but he’d had a hard time. He’d written some great songs. I shot his photo for the album “Both Sides Now”.
When Willie came to Nashville, he couldn’t give a song away. We used to ride around together and we got to be friends. I took his family pictures and and other things. He didn’t have enough money so we’d have to put our money together to get 2 beers.
Tom: You and Willie?
Jimmy: Yeah, and Willie’s wife at the time, Connie. Willie would appear in a place in town like the Captain’s Table, and we’d go down there. It’d be happy hour and there would be a total of 3 people in there – me, Connie and Willie. He never gave up. He was unusual and different and worked hard.
Chet told me once, “This guy Willie Nelson is going to be a big star, he is going to be at the top.” Chet was almost always right about most of the people he helped.
Tom: Why do you think Chet was so successful that way? Did he have a knack for finding stars?
Jimmy: Chet knew good songs and what was different. He knew Willie had something and his songs are great songs. Other people record Willie’s songs and they have done very well.
Chet also helped Dottie West and Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton came to him as a teenager and he said, “You go back and finish school and then come back here and I’ll help you,” and she did.
He read people really well. He read me right off. When my first book came out he wrote a little thing on the back that says,
“Someone once said if God really loves you, he sees that you are born in the country near a small town. He must love Jimmy Moore, because in addition to being a country boy born near a small town, he is a very talented photographer and writer. You will enjoy sharing some of his experiences via his camera and pen. – Chet Atkins”.
I was honored he wrote that for me.
Tom: Before you were introduced to Chet did you listen to his music?
Jimmy: Yes, I knew about Chet Atkins. I had bought some albums and I watched him on TV.
Tom: Do you remember what the first Chet album was that you shot?
Jimmy: The first cover was “Chet Picks the Best” where he’s bent over the guitar, and the last photos for Chet were the inside photos from “When Fingerpickers Took Over the World.”
Tom: When you are shooting these album cover photos for artists, does the artist typically get involved with you in the collaboration of what photos you’re going to take?
Jimmy: If Chet was producing he would tell me what to do and I would go shoot it. If it involved the artist being in the photo I always tried to spend some time with them one day and shoot the next. I wanted to know them better than just shooting them the first time we met. I never used flash or anything. I just set up something really natural, then shot what I saw. I think it’s why Chet liked my work.
Tom: So you would hang out with Dolly Parton for a day to get to know her better, and then shoot her photos?
Jimmy: I didn’t get to do that all the time, but most of the time when I did do it I got good covers. A good example would be Jerry Reed. Jerry Reed loved to go shoot pictures. Chet would tell him that I was shooting the project and Jerry would come out to Lawrenceburg in his Jeep and we’d ride all over middle Tennessee taking pictures.
Tom: How did you decide which photos to turn in?
Jimmy: I’ve learned to take the “bad” ones out all together. You would be amazed at how some covers get picked. Sometimes artists would just let the secretary at the front office pick them and her reasoning would be, “He’s wearing a red shirt that’ll show up better.” RCA was continuously arguing with New York about whether the picture meant anything to an album. They would end up putting bright green lines and pink letters and all that over top of the photo. I would just raise Cain about it.
Chet would get tickled about that. He said, “I’m afraid up there they don’t think that we can do something artistic.” I said, “Well, I’m going to keep trying.” Finally I got to where I kind of broke through. I knew a couple of designers up there, and they would give me more leeway but that was a long, hard battle.
Tom: How well did it pay?
Jimmy:We used to shoot covers for $200 early on in my career. My last cover I think was $1500 a day plus expenses. But I remember when I was shooting for $200-300 down here. Jim Marshall in New York was charging $6000.
Jimmy: Sometimes when artists became famous or very successful, they would change photographers. A lot of them did because they wanted to go big time. I understand that and I didn’t take it personally. Some artists stuck with me such as Kenny Price, Roger Miller and Tammy Wynette. I felt honored to be able to shoot a picture of a star that was already a star.
Tom: You described your business relationship with Chet, but it also sounds like there was a friendship.
Jimmy: I think we were close friends, because he would tell me things that he wouldn’t want anybody to know. If somebody in my family passed away, he’d call me and talk to me about it. He would write me notes. If I went by his office and missed him and I left a picture or something I thought he might like, he’d write me and thank me for it and say come back by. He did thoughtful things that I know he didn’t have time to do for all his friends. He must have had a million friends.
I was always careful not to take too much of his time. Chet would call me at night, and we’d just talk about stuff, we wouldn’t talk about the business. We’d talk about people and simple solutions to the world’s problems.
One time I was in Chet’s office and I said, “Someday I want to learn how to play the guitar.”
He didn’t say a word. He just got up real slow and walked over to the closet and pulled out a guitar and said “This is yours.” Then he walks over to the other closet and gets his “Chet Atkins Guitar Method” album. Shows you how to do the chords and you sit and listen to it. I wanted to learn how to play the guitar and I worked on it for a few months.
Later I was up there one day and he said, “Show me what you’ve learned.” I thought I was going to faint. I start picking and he’s right in front of me which made me very nervous. I did about two or three chords very badly, and he reaches over, and puts his hand on the top of my hand on the frets.
He says, “Jimmy, I’ll make a deal with you. You don’t play the guitar, and I won’t shoot pictures. I’ve never discouraged anybody, but your fingers are not wired to your brain for this type of thing. Your mind is wired for what you see. I’ve never done that to anybody.” I said, “Okay, I’ll bring the guitar back.” but Chet said, “The guitar is yours.” I still have it.
Tom: He wanted you to keep the guitar?
Jimmy: Yes, he did things like that. It would always surprise you, but I’ve heard so many stories about him and the things he did for people, like sending some promising young kid to Julliard for 4 years, and they never knew where the money came from. Now that to me is the mark of a man, you know?
Tom: Tell me about your time with the Johnny Cash Show.
Jimmy: My partner and I had a company called New World photography. A friend who worked for the Hall of Fame invited me to the taping of the TV Pilot for the show. And so by luck I had gotten up in the front row and then had the opportunity go backstage. This lady that worked in the Hall of Fame took me back there and I talked to him. He said, “I’ve seen some of your pictures.”
I knew he liked trains and I told him I had written some poems about trains and there was one called “Last Train to Memphis.”
It was about the train that comes to Lawrenceburg, a little pasture train. The last time the train came through I was sitting at the depot that day writing. It was foggy and just perfect for writing poetry. I wrote the poem and then a policeman drove up. He hollered at me, “You need to go to the hospital as soon as you can. Your dad’s there.” I went out there and my dad had died.
After that first meeting Johnny went on the road and I sent some of my pictures and also wrote about my poem and sent it as well. He called about 2 days later. He said, “I love this poem. Can I keep it? I might want to use it sometime in a show.” I said, “Yes, you can.” We talked for a few minutes, and then he had to take another call.
His secretary called me the next day and said, “Jimmy, Johnny just wanted you to know that you got the ABC contract in New York to be the official photographer for the Johnny Cash show for 2 years.
I had a great time there. He had so many great people on that show.
One year Johnny Cash asked me to come out to their house to take the Cash family Christmas card photo. That was an honor for me, except when they were trying to pose for the picture, Johnny’s son in law kept making wisecracks and Johnny was so tickled that we just could not get the photo. We tried half the day. They ended up using a montage of photos on that year’s card but boy we had a good time.
Another fond memory I have of Johnny Cash was when he called me once and asked me to join him at the Country Music Hall of fame. He was hosting a visit by pop star Stevie Wonder who was coming in for a tour.
Since Stevie Wonder is blind they set it up so that the plaques were taken down and handed to him so he could touch the engravements with his fingers and feel the contours of the facial busts of the stars. Johnny hit it off immediately with Stevie Wonder; they were laughing and getting along like old friends.
Tom: It sounds like you had a lot of referral work from artists.
Jimmy: Chet used to jokingly tell people he was my agent. I wrote a poetry book called “A Value of Time” and Chet gave it to a bunch to people. Chet loved it and bought boxes of it. He’d give them to his friends. I saw Dolly Parton in Chicago once, and she said, “Chet gave me your book!”
Tom: Tell me more about this book.
Jimmy: It was a book of poetry published by the Benson company. Benson primarily published religious books. Mine was just free verse poetry but as a result of Benson being the publisher it was only initially carried in religious bookstores. It sold out. It was stories about people, about love, about families and animals and America and things like that.
Tom: I think there was another Jimmy Moore that wrote a couple pop songs that got on Chet’s album, but that’s a different Jimmy Moore correct?
Jimmy: Yes. Thank God there’s more Jimmy Moores. If somebody does something wrong, I can go, “That wasn’t me. That’s that other one.”
But I did write one song with Dottie West. She recorded it on a demo but they never published it. They never put it out on record. She and I were best friends and we were planning on going into the greeting card business. I’d write poems, and she’d write them too. At night I used to call her, or she’d call me. I would read some new poems to her, and she’d sing a new song to me.
Tom: Tell me about the photo on Chet’s album “Hometown Guitar”.
Jimmy: One of the most enjoyable times I ever had with Chet was when he and I went to his hometown, Luttrell, Tennessee to shoot an album cover. We left Nashville early one morning in a rent-a-car with cameras, film, guitars and a truck load of clothes and several boxes of those little cigars Chet liked to chew on. We talked the whole time in the car on a variety of subjects, like photography, music and the worlds problems.
As we drove into Luttrell, Chet began to talk: “There is the place where I heard a jukebox play for the first time, and over there is where I saw my first guitar, and over there is where I started to learn to play”. I could not believe my ears. I was with the greatest guitarist in the world and he was showing me where it all began and telling me in his own words.
He showed me the little short cut trail he would take through the woods to walk to school every morning and the old store where he and his buddies bought candy after school.
As we pulled up in the yard of his childhood home I noticed a little gray-haired lady sitting at the top of the steps on the porch. It was his mother, Ida Sharp Atkins. Chet reached out and hugged her and said “Mom this is Jimmy Moore, a friend of mine from Nashville”. She said, “Hello he has mentioned you before, you are the photographer” and I said, “Yes, Ma’am”.
Chet and his mother Ida Sharp Atkins on the porch in Luttrell
Chet and I went down to the old railroad station to see if we might use it on the album cover picture. We both thought it was a good idea, because the old wooden sign hanging on both ends of the depot identified the stop as Luttrell. We shot several rolls of film, mostly of Chet walking along the tracks with the depot in the background.
We went back to the house and his mother made sure I was stuffed with dinner which was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables and apple pie.
That trip was one of the highlights of my life, and inspired me to write the poem that is on the back of his album called “Alone”.
Tom: What did you do with Hee Haw?
Jimmy: I had the idea to do some short films for Hee Haw. I thought it might be funny to do some films sort of Charlie Chaplin style. These are very brief segments they use when the program is getting ready to drop out or between the main skits. There would be a lot of falling, jumping, etc. in these shorts so I hired a stuntman. Well we got our 16 mm camera and we went out but the stuntman did not show up.
I had done some TV commercials where I did falls and could do falls with tables and all that so I did the running and the falling and goofy stuff. We put it together and took it to the director, Bill Davis.
He took it off to Beverly Hills and a few months later I got a call and he said, “You got the contract – provided that you are the stunt guy.” I said, “I don’t want to be the stunt guy. I want to be the camera guy. I’m a photographer.”
But he said, “No deal. Your stunts are great, you’re funny. How many people can fall out of the upstairs of a barn and get up and run off?” So I had to do all that or there was no deal.
Bill Davis and I got to be friends, and we were put on as members of the show. I got to use some of my other friends on it sometimes. They’re still running in syndication and I still get checks from all over the world for them.
Tom: I know that there were so many pictures of Chet that you took. Do you have Chet pictures that were your favorites?
Jimmy: I’ve got several. That one where he was bent over the guitar on “Chet Picks the Best”. I did a cover for Nashville magazine that was real good of him, and I’ve done a lot of candid stuff. I’ve got probably thousands of pictures that he never saw. I did a lot of portraits of him and a lot of pictures of him with his family.
Tom: Tell me about the black and white photo that was on his biography.
Jimmy: That was the book Red O’Donnell did with Chet. It was a profile of him. It’s just solid black and white. That was one of the first pictures I made of him and what folks don’t know is that in the original picture he was with George Hamilton IV. George was right behind him in the original.
We didn’t have Photoshop back then, so when I got home I took black markers and marked out George. Then I made a mask and printed that picture like that. When Chet saw it, he said, “I want that to be on last album.” Of course, things change and that didn’t happen, but I like that picture and I know members of his family like it.
Tom: What did you think about Jerry Reed?
Jimmy: He was a wild man but he was so talented. He’d pick anything. He was great to photograph. He would just get in the right positions. I’ve got thousands of pictures of him, and they could all be covers.
He was just electric. You never knew what he was going to do. We were in a restaurant once just getting a Coke and the waitress said, “I know who you are.” He said, “You do?” She says, “Yeah, I’ve seen you on TV.” and Jerry says, “Well, who am I?” She says, “You’re Chet Atkins.” He says, “That’s right!”
Tom: She thought he was Chet?
Jimmy: It was hilarious but that’s how he was. Chet loved him for that, because he never knew what Jerry was going to say or do. Sometimes he would just amaze Chet with his picking. Sometimes he would just pick just unbelievable. So did John D. Loudermilk. He was a genius, really. He could pick classical music just like Segovia.
Tom: I know that you also have been involved with military contracts and emergency management. What can you tell me about that part of your career?
Jimmy: I started really as a kid getting interested in civil defense and eventually became civil defense director in Lawrenceburg which eventually led to a job with the Tennessee state emergency management department.
Basically, I traveled all over the state and provided photography and videography at disaster and emergency sites. Then I worked for the National Guard on disaster missions. I taught soldiers videography and photography which helps document damage and also improve preparedness and responses for future events. I’ve spent lots of time shooting photos and videos out of helicopters.
Tom: You were present in New York after the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 correct?
Jimmy: Yes. I was at home that morning and got a call from my director asking me to turn on the TV. That was just after the planes hit the buildings. They told me to quickly pack and head to the airport. I was in New York by the late afternoon taking pictures there. I spent twelve days on the ground serving as mission leader of the National Guard’s Rapid Response Documentation team.
Tom: What was the scene like? Is what you remember different than what you think most Americans remember from what they saw on television?
Jimmy: I remember how much it shook me up. I had seen bodies and body parts before but the huge scale of this was overwhelming. There were police and firemen and soldiers all in shock. Many folks who were used to seeing bad things; they were just really shaken up and crying as was I. It changed my life and the way I looked at things.
Tom: You shot John Loudermilk’s covers as well didn’t you?
Jimmy: I shot John’s cover, and I got nominated for a Grammy. I didn’t win it. Jim Marshall won that year with a picture of Bob Dylan which was really great.
Tom: Sounds like you really have a lot of creativity in you. Can you just tell me about the processes that you think you go through to try to create something, whether it’s photograph or poetry. What do you think sparks your brain to work?
Jimmy: If I’m taking a picture, I do it the way I see it. I know all the rules, what’s supposedly correct, composition and all that. But I’ve always believed the way you shoot it is to get just what you want, so that’s what is correct.
Sometimes I have to feel something in my heart to do things that are heavy. That is how I felt when I wrote that poem on the back of Chet’s “Alone” album. I think that most of my work that has done well are things that I honestly feel.
Tom: You give everything your best and try to do your best work all the time.
Jimmy: I do. I’ve worked all my life. My wife said, “When you get bored, you get in trouble.” So I need to not be bored.
Tom: Thanks Jimmy
Jimmy: Thank you.