Growing up in Australia a young Tommy Emmanuel started playing Irish music and joining bands before coming to America and playing bluegrass. Encouraged by his mentor Chet Atkins he's stayed true to his roots and helped revive the fingerpicking style of playing, introducing it to younger guitar players. His latest album, Accomplice One was only released in January but it's already making an impact on the American album, even reaching the top spot on the bluegrass chart. Over the years you may even have caught Tommy's music without realising it: he played at the Summer Olympics in 2010 and his rendition of classical gas also appeared on America Dad. He was voted Best Acoustic Guitarist in a readers' poll in Guitar Player twice. Even with a relentless touring schedule, he's still managed to put out over 26 albums during his career. Currently on tour in the US with fellow guitarist Rodney Crowell. Photogroupie caught up with Tommy from his tour bus on the way to State College in Pennsylvania.
Tommy has certainly been characteristically busy with his album issues in recent years releasing Live at the Ryman, Pickin' (with Dave Grisman) and Accomplice One in close succession. Accomplice One is another great collaboration between Emmanuel and some of his favourite musicians and made up of a collection of self-penned songs and cover versions. It's an album, which he was adamant, had to be recorded as if it were live, ‘it’s the real deal’ he tells us. So many artists record separately these days, emailing their parts in to be tweaked and edited in the studio, but there’s something magical about musicians playing live together, after all, that’s what it’s about. His recording style may be a little unorthodox by today's standards, but there is no doubt that this is where the fun is. His session style is relaxed and the tracks are often set down in as few takes as possible to maintain that fervor between the musicians. The songs on this album are no exception: the track he made with Rodney Crowell was written at Rodney's house and Mark Knophler’s contribution was recorded in one take in his studio. There’s an urgency, and an excitement when you listen to the album that cannot come from a manufactured setting and can only be achieved by the synergy between musicians. He points out, with characteristically good humour, that many of the artists on the album are younger than him, but from a producer's point of view that keeps things fresh and exciting. 'These are people that I really admire and they bring something different to the album and as the producer, it gives me a chance to use my imagination.”
On listening to the album, one thing that stands out is the sublime musicianship from Ricky Skaggs, Jason Isbell, Dave Grisman, Clive Caroll and many others. The other is the vibrant reworkings of classics such as Dock of the Bay (with JD Simo) and one of the most surprising tracks on the album is a reworking of Madonna’s Borderline featuring the vocal and violin talents of Amanda Shires. The track is pretty left of field considering the roots feel of the album, so what propelled him to cover the classic 80s pop song? 'I always thought that that was a good song, it just needed a better treatment than what it originally got...It's a whole different take on it, but the bottom line is a good song is a good song: whoever wrote it, whatever genre it is. If it's good it's good. ' Madonna has been known in recent years to rework some of her own songs when playing them live too, so what did Madonna think of Tommy's version? 'She liked it. Madonna's publicist wrote to us and said that 'Miss Madonna really likes this version.' To be honest, it's impossible not to like what Emmanuel and Shires have done to the track.
Of course, it would be an obvious question to ask if there will be an Accomplice Two; it's a project that Tommy is already working on. He’s already recorded a few tracks with Alison Krauss and is lining up to record something with another luminary, James Taylor.
Tommy was given the honour of Certified Guitar Player (CGP) by the legendary Chet Atkins. Anybody who has heard Emmanuel play on his beloved Maton guitars will understand that this is definitely praise from Caesar. Few would argue with Tommy's comments that Atkins is 'the greatest player.' He continues. 'In that style, I don't think there's anybody that could come close to what he did, but there are others who have done amazing things, Merle Travis, before him and Gerry Reed, he was in a league of his own too.' Another huge influence for Emmanuel is Django Reinhardt, who he considers to be the greatest guitar player of all time. Tommy revamps the iconic track Djangology along with Frank Vingnola and Vinny Raniolo on the album and even the take for the track has slightly unconventional roots and the outcome is made even more magical for it. The song was recorded in the old RCA studio Havanah where Tommy was holding the first ever guitar camp in Cuba. 'We seated 120 students in the orchestral room and we set up in front of them. The lesson of the day was Frank, Vinny and I would arrange Djanology for three guitars and we worked out our parts in front of them to show how it all fitted together then we set up microphones and recorded it with the group sitting there.' This track sums up how much difference it makes when musos are able to put a microphone in front of them, just like they did originally, and all play together, not in isolation. It really makes all the difference to the finished album.
Nobody who listened to Tommy’s playing would ever say that it was not memorable, and his mentor Chet also takes credit for keeping his music mellifluous. 'He would say “you always gotta look for a melody that you can sing or you can hum.” That was the number one priority, the music has to be singable. So that's what I try to do, I try to write melodies that are singable. If you think about some of the songs on the album Rachel's Lullaby is a very singable melody and that song is an example of my songwriting style.'
Having a huge back catalogue of material to draw from, Tommy is a prolific creator of music. With keeping things fresh and melodic, it can't be easy to maintain the standard of writing he's known for. What's his secret to the longevity of writing and his inspiration? 'It's a fascination.' He tells us. 'I just never know what's around the corner creatively. Sometimes I get ideas because I've been inspired by someone I've heard or met or read about or I've watched a movie and some part of the film inspired me to write a song.' The film Lincoln transported him to another time so much it inspired the song Old Photographs. Another track on the Live at the Ryman album entitled Eva Waits came about after watching Bridge of Spies. Film buffs would have noticed that a certain director proves to influence Tommy's songwriting, and that is no coincidence. 'Steven Spielberg is one of my big inspirations because he makes the kind of films that really move me.' Spielberg's movies certainly tug at the heartstrings and provoke an emotion in the viewer , similar to how Tommy's music hits the heart and soul of all who listen to him play. With so much material to draw on there seems to be a seemingly endless supply of inspiration for Tommy, so does he suffer from the dreaded writer's block? ' Absolutely. But you just don't worry about it, just carry on and play what you already have. Sometimes a songwriter just has to wait for an idea to come to him. Sometimes you have to be quiet and listen to something else. It's not something you can force and I've learnt in my years of being in music you can't worry about it either. If you don't feel like writing a song today or you don't feel on a creative level, don't worry about it. If I'm not writing, I'm trying to improve my playing.'
With a career that’s spanned nearly four decades, Tommy has always been on the road, averaging 300 gigs a year - even Iron Maiden don’t manage that with their grueling world tours! How does Tommy cope with life on the road? 'It takes some doing, it kills most people but it's what I've always done. I love playing concerts and playing for people and when I play people get happy.' The job of a music man is to bring joy and Tommy’s music certainly is upbeat, part of the wonder in seeing him live is watching his skill up close. Before we wrap up and he gets ready for another show, he leaves us with a final line of classic Tommy Emmanuel humility, 'I can't think of a better job than making people feel good.' His dedication to music and touching people through his guitar playing is palpable.
Whether he is playing alone or has his accomplice's with him, Tommy is one of the finest guitar players of our age. He may site Chet Atkins and Django as some of the greats, but there can be little doubt to anyone that ever hears him play that Tommy Emmanuel should be added to that list too.