REVIEW: Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles’ Deeply Affecting “Heart Songs”

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“Cold, Cold Heart” and “How Deep Is Your Love” are very different songs. On Heart Songs, they occupy the first and second track of the album, and guitar virtuosos Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles make them both shimmering, creating, with two guitars, a full, awesomely beautiful sound, as every note and chord rings perfect and true. This is instrumental acoustic guitar work of the very highest caliber.

Heart Songs marks the first collaboration between Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles, two of the last three Certified Guitar Players, a designation personally bestowed by Chet Atkins. Each has a plethora of honors. Emmanuel, twice voted Best Acoustic Guitarist by the readers of Guitar Player magazine, has been honored in his homeland as a Member of the Order of Australia; Knowles is a Grammy winner and member of the National Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame.

Playing the familiar tunes on Heart Songs as guitar duets could easily result in a stripped-down feel, but these songs do not feel like bare recreations of their well-known inspirations. These songs sound every bit as rich and complete as the original versions, owing to inspired arrangements that capture their sonic textures. On “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Emmanuel says, “I try to phrase like Bonnie [Raitt].” On Heart Songs, Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles evoke Bonnie Raitt’s voice as well as Billy Joel’s piano and other iconic sounds with their unparalleled guitar mastery.

Recreating the sonic textures of the original songs only represents one level of the depth of Heart Songs. Emmanuel and Knowles focus as much on fidelity to the emotional core of the classic songs. In “Somewhere,” from West Side Story, Emmanuel and Knowles added a “key change at the end to emphasize their [Tony and Maria’s] belief in their love.

Anyone who appreciates good guitar playing will love the rich, evocative Heart Songs of Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles. A fine beginning to 2019.

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