WORDS Paul Polycarpou
PHOTOGRAPHY Jack Spencer
“I was into music right from the beginning. So as long as I’ve been here is how long I’ve been into music.”
The accolades thrown at Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel might seem a touch exaggerated and hard to believe. That is until you actually watch and hear him play. And then those accolades seem totally insufficient in capturing the enormity of his talent. Eric Clapton and Chet Atkins both said that he is the greatest guitarist they ever saw, and Todd Rundgren stated, “The two best guitarists in the world are Tommy Emmanuel.” And yet all that means very little to the Nashville-based guitarist. He’s way too busy, immersed in his love of music and performing, to stop and check the praise meter. He very modestly says, “It’s just what I do.” He just happens to do it better than anyone else.
Do you remember your earliest introduction to music?
My mother said when I was a baby that the only way I would calm down and go to sleep is if the record player was playing a stack of records. When the records finished I’d yell my lungs out and she’d come and turn them over. I was into music right from the beginning. So as long as I’ve been here is how long I’ve been into music. My first words were “turn it over” referring to the records.
Your parents were in show business. How about the rest of the family?
Mom and Dad and six kids, we were all into show business. I was about seven years old and I’d already been on the road with my family band, my eldest brother on drums, my elder sister on Hawaiian steel, my brother Phil on lead guitar, and me on rhythm. We modeled ourselves on the British instrumental group The Shadows. My brother was Hank Marvin and I was Bruce Welch. It’s funny that now Hank and Bruce are both close friends. We were taking songs like Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” and making them instrumentals. Mostly American and English music. Then the Beatles came along in the early sixties and that was yet another big influence.
Did you know back then that music would be your life’s career?
Oh yes, never even thought about doing anything else. Never occurred to me. I wasn’t interested in anything else . . . except cars and girls just like every other musician.
Who were some of your early influences?
When I was a kid there was no video or Internet. So we would listen to Homer and Jethro Live at the Country Club and steal all their jokes. They were really funny but could also play. And it’s been a reoccurring theme in my life—great artistry with great humor.
Chet Atkins fit right in there. When I met him, he was funny as a circus, and he had a great way with the audience. I was always more interested in watching comedians, singers, great entertainers. And I stole as much as I could from everybody. I took notes—the way they moved, their interaction with the crowd, the timing of the joke. So I learned from a lot of people.
Was it American music that made an early musical impression on you?
Definitely. My first memories of music were through my mom and dad and how much they enjoyed it. They were into Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Ferlin Husky, Lefty Frizzel, Jim Reeves. Music from America. Then in the early sixties the whole world started talking about Chet Atkins. We heard his records and thought that it was a recording trick. You can’t play all that at once. It struck a chord with me. I could tell he was playing everything at once, but I didn’t know how he was doing it. I was determined, though, to figure it out. His playing inspired me early on.
What drew you to America? Was it the music . . .
Someone sent a tape of me playing when I was eighteen, and I got a short note from The Desk of Chet Atkins, and it just said, “I’m very impressed. Call me when you get to Nashville.” But it took me about six years to save up the money to get here. I still have the note. It’s not every day Chet Atkins asks you to call him. I came in 1980. Saw Elton John at the Hollywood Bowl, Buddy Rich in New York. Chet told me Nashville is where I need to be.
You travel the world playing for sellout audiences everywhere. What keeps you coming back to Nashville?
I love traveling, especially to Italy. Italian audiences are the most enthusiastic about my music. But I want to be a part of the music community here. I feel a part of this place. I get to play with some of the best musicians in the world here. I collaborate with many great songwriters in Nashville. I love bluegrass. I love the blues. You have every genre of music here. You don’t get that anywhere else in the world. I get to play with stellar musicians like Bryan Sutton and Jack Pearson.
You build a very quick rapport with your audience. By the end of the night they all seem to be your best friends. When people watch me play, they’re trusting me to take them on a journey. Success involves the quality and the integrity of whatever it is you do. That’s what lasts. All the other stuff is just scenery. I’m in show business; I’m in the entertainment business. I don’t care if I win awards for my guitar playing; that’s nice but that’s not my goal. The guitar is not the end of the story. And when you come to my show I will disarm you, and you will be mine. That’s what an entertainer’s job is.
How do you go about composing? Does the guitar lead the way or does the melody come first?
I try to write music for people to sing. I follow the melody. The guitar doesn’t lead me. I’m writing a song for a singer in the band. I use all the tools that songwriters use, verse, chorus, verse. Most of my instrumental stuff I write by myself. But I also co-write with a great lyric writer.
So is the guitar a means to an end for you?
I love to play, absolutely love it, but I never said I’m a guitar player so I’d better do this. I’ve always felt that I should give the audience whatever I have. And that is everything. It’s the same when I play solo guitar; I never think I’ll just give the audience what they expect. I’ll always think outside the box, because that’s how I’m wired. It’s hard to explain. You can’t go to college and learn what I do. You have to be me to do what I do.
The press have reached new heights in hyperbole when they write about you. One wrote, “The two best guitarists in the world are Tommy Emmanuel.” Is that praise or pressure for you?
I’ve had wonderful things said about me and that’s nice, but all that doesn’t touch me. I just keep going doing what I do. I know when I’ve had good days and bad days, and I know when I have to work harder at what I do. I’m a taskmaster on myself. I still practice every day. I’m very critical of myself. So I don’t really believe all that stuff.
What advice do you give your students?
When I’m teaching at places like Berkeley I always tell my students that I have a secret weapon. And they say, “You practice hard,” and I tell them yes I do, but that’s not a secret. Everybody knows to practice hard. I tell them my secret weapon is that I am just myself all the time, doesn’t matter where I am, on stage, television, recording, I’m just myself, and I don’t have to do anything else. Just be yourself, do your best, and that’s it.
What’s on your bucket list?
I’ve always wanted to work with Mark Knopfler. One of my favorites of all time. A great player and writer. Last month we did a track at his studio in London for my next album. Life is good.
And with that I shook Tommy’s hand, hoping some of that genius would rub off on me. For more information, visit www.tommyemmanuel.com