Tommy Emmanuel - Dedicated to the guitar
It was an early lesson that’s served Tommy Emmanuel well. The Australian guitarist was just seven or eight years old when he looked out at the audience in one of the endless round of venues the family band played and noticed their eyes were on him and their faces were lit up as they watched him moving around and having a good time.
“I was only doing what my father had told me,” says Emmanuel, who has barely stopped travelling and performing since those days some fifty years ago – three hundred shows a year are his norm. “Dad always drummed into us that we should communicate, speak clearly and put some expression into our playing, and he was right. I’m still up there basically to enjoy myself and make the audience feel that there’s nothing else to think about, no worries, no cares, just fun.”
The family band – four siblings, his oldest sister on drums, oldest brother on bass and another brother, Phil, who’s still playing guitar professionally – may sound like a novelty. But from the age of six, for Emmanuel, it was a necessity. Australia in the early 1960s, he says, was not the land of opportunity it is now and all six Emmanuel children had to work to keep the family above the poverty line.
So they put in the hours, travelled long distances and learned how to perform, and along the way Emmanuel developed guitar skills that impressed no less a figure than Chet Atkins, who advised him to get over to Nashville. Which he did but it took quite a while.
Music was always a magnet for Emmanuel. His mother sang along and danced to the radio constantly as she did the housework, and as a child this fascinated him. He was even more fascinated when it turned out that his mother could play guitar and when he was four, she presented Tommy with one and showed him his first chords. Soon afterwards he joined his siblings on the road as – variously – the Emmanuel Quartet, the Midget Surfaries and the Trailblazers.
By the age of ten, he had been all over Australia. By his twenties, he was playing on sessions with Air Supply, Men at Work and other Australian pop and rock bands including Dragon, whom he joined in time to record the platinum-selling album Dreams of Ordinary Men as they went on to become one of Australia’s biggest bands of the 1980s. Nashville was still calling him, however, and having eventually saved enough money, he took Atkins up on his offer.
“I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a travelling concert guitarist playing solo acoustic guitar,” he says. “But I had to invest every penny I earned in myself to achieve this. For me, acoustic guitar is more expressive. I can play all the supporting parts, you know, I can play a bass line with my left hand and a drum pattern with my right and sing on top. But I had to go out and prove that I could put on a show and I spent quite a few years building up a reputation, paying my own way to play in new countries, that sort of thing.”
His performance with his brother Phil during the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 helped and with Atkins’ support (the Nashville legend conferred the title of “Certified Guitar Player” on Emmanuel, a distinction shared by only four other people) he became established in the U.S. He now bases himself in Nashville when he’s not travelling, although his down time is limited.
“People ask me why I work so much and I say, It’s the only way I know to get better at what I do,” says Emmanuel, who has just released a compilation of his work, The Guitar Mastery of Tommy Emmanuel. “And that’s true. I don’t want to do too many plate-spinning tricks but I do want to keep surprising people. So I go out there and try stuff like playing the guitar with a drummer’s brush and when I’m not working, I’m watching. I love to see musicians – I’ve just been watching Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton on film and yesterday I watched some fantastic drummers – who are reaching for the stars. I find that so inspiring.”
Jazz guitarist Martin Taylor, who brought Emmanuel to Scotland for the first time a few years ago and has subsequently toured in a duo with him, is known to practise almost obsessively but even he baulks at Emmanuel’s dedication.
Emmanuel laughs and says, “Ah yes, the Governor, as I call Martin. When we did our most recent tour together as The Colonel and The Governor tour, Martin said to me, I thought I practised a lot but coming out on the road with you is like boot camp!”
The Guitar Mastery of Tommy Emmanuel is available now. Emmanuel tours the UK, including Celtic Connections, in January.
From The Herald, December, 16, 2014.