by Tom Redmond
An interview with Tommy Emmanuel, cgp
(bio courtesy of wikipedia)
Tommy Emmanuel was born in Australia in 1955. He received his first guitar in 1959 at age four, being taught by his mother to accompany her playing lap steel guitar. At the age of 7 he heard Chet Atkins on the radio. He vividly remembers this moment and says it greatly inspired him. By the age of 6, in 1961, he was a working professional musician. Recognizing the musical talents of Tommy and his brother Phil, their father created a family band, sold the family home and took his family on the road. With the family living in two station wagons, much of Emmanuel’s childhood was spent touring Australia with his family, playing rhythm guitar, and rarely going to school. The family found it difficult living on the road; they were poor but never hungry, never settling in one place. His father would often drive ahead, organize interviews, advertising and finding the local music shop where they'd have an impromptu concert the next day.
After his father died in 1966, the family settled in Parkes. Tommy eventually moved to Sydney where he came to be noticed nationally when he won a string of talent contests in his teen years. By the late 1970s, he was playing drums with his brother Phil in the group Goldrush as well doing session work on numerous albums and jingles. He gained further prominence in the late 1970s as the lead guitarist in The Southern Star Band, the backing group for vocalist Doug Parkinson. During the early 1980s, he joined the reformed lineup of leading 1970s rock group Dragon, touring widely with them, including a 1987 tour with Tina Turner. He left the group to embark on a solo career.
Throughout his career he has played with many notable artists including Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, George Martin, Air Supply, John Denver, Les Paul, Edgar Cruz, Martin Taylor and Doc Watson.
Emmanuel has said that even at a young age he was fascinated by Chet Atkins’ musical style (sometimes incorrectly referred to as Travis picking) of playing bass lines, chords, melodies and harmonies simultaneously using the thumb and fingers of the right hand, achieving a dynamic range of sound from the instrument. Although Emmanuel's playing incorporates a multitude of musical influences and styles, including jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk and rock, this type of country fingerstyle playing is at the core of his technique.
As a young man in Australia, Emmanuel wrote to his hero Chet Atkins in Nashville, Tennessee. Eventually Atkins replied with words of encouragement and a longstanding invitation to drop by to visit. In 1997, Emmanuel and Atkins recorded as a duo and released the album The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World, which was also to be Atkins' last recorded album before he died. In July 1999, at the 15th Annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention, Chet Atkins presented Emmanuel with a Certified Guitar Player award, an honor Chet personally bestowed to only four guitarists. A fifth CGP was awarded to Chet's longtime sideman Paul Yandell by Chet's family at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011.
For more information on Tommy, visit www.tommyemmanuel.com
TR: Every time I have seen you and in every article I have read about you there is some reference to Chet.
Tommy: Of course. How can I not reference him? He has been my source of reference all of my life. He’s been the bar that I aimed at, and the man that I learned from, and the guy who really showed so many of us the way. There are so many areas of my life, of my playing, and even down to how I do business relates to Chet and things I learned from him. Of course recording with him was my dream, and from when I was a little kid. He made that happen.
TR: What did it feel like to hear Chet for the first time as a child?
Tommy: It was just like being hit in the stomach. It was like a hammer. I realized that whatever he was doing, that was what I’ve got to do. It was like a moment of total revelation and clarity. That sound is what I like, and it just stirred me up in such a way and challenged me as well. I didn’t have a clue what he was doing but I wasn’t going to quit until I worked out what was going on. When I started to make those sounds, when I started to fumble my way around "Windy and Warm", I can’t tell you how exciting that was. I couldn’t concentrate on eating or sleeping or doing anything because I was so distracted by this.
That’s what it was like at the start. It was hard because nobody believed that Chet's playing was not a recording trick. Everybody said, "No, it’s a recording trick and you can’t do all that". But I didn’t believe anything that anybody told me. I just worked it out myself. When I finally got together with Chet in 1980, and I played for him, I noticed that a lot of my technique matched his in the way I played the thumb, the way I held my little finger, and everything. I learned without seeing him play, I just worked it out.
However, our musical ideas are very different because we’re different generations. I’ve got a letter from him that he wrote me about a month before we started recording and he was concerned that he might sound a little old fashioned and he said he’d been listening to my stuff that was electric and acoustic that was much more pop and rock orientated. He said, “You have to remember that I’m a dotted eighth note kid from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and you’ll have to bend back a little”. That’s what he said. He was concerned about him sounding a bit old fashioned. I wrote back to him saying, “Look Chief, don’t you worry, you just do what you do, and we’ll all love it. The whole world will love it”.
I remember in ’93 when I went to his house and I had him play on a track called Villa Anita on my album The Journey. When he heard the track, he listened to it, and he said, “It’s a bit modern for the old guy”. I said, “We'll see how you go”. Of course the first solo he played was a gem, and then he played two more really good solos. I ended up going with his first take, because it was so damn good. Yet he was like, “Oh I don’t know whether it’s any good”. He was not sure but it was beautiful. He’s actually a lot better than he thought he was. (Laughing)
TR: Ray Stevens told me when I interviewed him that Chet had the capacity to take a stack of recordings, and listen to them all and instantly pick the one hit out of a hundred. Was he able to identify stuff that really had legs?
Tommy: Absolutely. I think that’s another reason why I was so encouraged by him, because he loved my writing which meant so much to me. I know he knows what a good song is, because I learnt that from him. When I played him my original songs he loved them. He would listen and close his eyes, and when the chorus came round, he’d say, “Yeah”. That is when I knew it was going the right way.
TR: Chet was a melody man wasn’t he?
Tommy: Absolutely and so am I, and that’s where I get it from. Merle Travis was the same way. Merle’s melodies were wonderful. They were more, bluesy and were more honky-tonk, but just as powerful in their own way. Chet’s melodies are beautiful - like "Every Now and Then", and "To B or Not To B", they’re beautiful melodies you know. The other thing was if he had a capacity to find a good melody that’s written by someone else, and do his own thing with it.
TR: I think of Don McLean's song "Vincent" that way.
Tommy: Yes. That talent in itself is a great thing to observe and learn from. Every day in my life people send me stuff on Facebook, and YouTube, asking if I can listen and tell them what I think.
I guarantee you that in 99 out of a 100, there’s no melody. There are grooves and there are ideas and people are trying to be clever, but they miss the point. We want to be told the story and be taken somewhere, and you can do that without words. That’s what I learned from him about melodies.
TR: Did you and Chet write Smoky Mountain Lullaby together?
Tommy: No, he wrote it. I reworked it but I’m not the composer.
TR: It was nominated for a Grammy wasn’t it?
Tommy: Yeah it was. That was the one that the record company picked. Alison Krauss won the Grammy that year, and I was sitting beside her, and the band; we were all sitting in the same row. They really deserved it. When I rang Chet and told him he said exactly the same words, “Yeah she really deserves it”. I think he was happy with his lot - he had 12-13 Grammy’s and so many other awards.
TR: There was an innate humility that he had, wasn't there?
Tommy: Oh absolutely. There was no bullshit in him. He was always about the melody and he was very protective of me with other people as well. If your secretary came in to visit or whatever and we were recording, he’d say come on let's get out of here and let this guy get on with his work. He didn’t want her sitting there while I was playing, thinking that I might be sensitive to someone’s proximity. Do you know what I’m saying? I wasn’t actually but that’s what he was like. He cared so much about others and about what was going on.
When I struggled with To Be or Not To Be, I had a few passes at getting my solo, and I wanted it to be really spontaneous but yet very memorable, and all the things you look for in a good solo. I was hoping for all those things. And I struggled a little for a while and he just walked in the control room, and I said, “Hey chief”, to ask his advice but before I could ask him anything, he just turned around, and he said, “Well you can’t beat the melody”. And he walked away. So I started my solo with quoting the melody; and I got it the next take.
TR: That song was written by Randy Goodrum, correct?
Tommy: Randy wrote the bridge, Chet wrote the rest. It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful song and I still love playing it so much. I played it in the show a lot. It’s just a way of bringing him into the room almost. It's almost magical. If you play a Jerry Reed song it's like bringing Jerry into the room.
TR: Tell me about "Ol’ Brother Hubbard".
Tommy: Ol’ Brother Hubbard was a tune that I really wanted to write for Jerry Reed, and I got to play it for him before he passed away which was nice.
TR: You have been a working musician since six or seven years old. Don't you play over 200 dates a year?
Tommy: It’s more than that yeah.
TR: More than that! What have you learned from such hard work at music?
Tommy: I’ve learned that you’ve got to get a roll on. I don’t like my tours to be too short, because I start getting a momentum and my playing starts getting better as the days go by.
Each night, it’s a challenge to see what can make each night magical. There are some times when I just dig for things that I never thought about playing. I just jump out there and go for it. I never work to a set list. I always come running out there and start playing and see where it’s going to take me. I know what I’m like and when I’m on stage, I try to give everything I can, and I’m exhausted at the end. That’s I believe how it’s supposed to be. So, I’m ready for sleeping at the end of the night so I can get up and do it again tomorrow. I don’t know how long I can keep that up physically, but thankfully I’ve never smoked cigarettes and I’ve never been a real heavy drinker so I stand a chance of lasting a while. Chet said “The harder I work, the luckier I get”.
TR: That’s right. (Laughing) All right Tommy thank you.
Tommy: Thank you so much.