Tommy Emmanuel is one of those musicians that may not be a household name – unless those households are filled with musicians. However, if you happen to see him – even in a video – you realize why he is held in such high regard by other musicians. His technique and sound are enough to leave you in awe. By phone he discussed his beginnings playing guitar and going on the road, his new album, and his first encounter with Chet Atkins.
Americana Highways: You started playing guitar pretty young. When did you realize you have a knack for it?
Tommy Emmanuel: I’m not sure. All I can remember is that by the time I was four years old, all I wanted to do was listen to music and play music. My brother was the same. Our mother and father brought us some cheap guitars and got us started. A lot of family friends came over and showed us chords and gave us records and encouraged us. We were a product of the village, so to speak.
AH: What were some of your favorite things to listen to at that age?
TE: There was a band from England in the late 50s-early 60s that was huge called The Shadows. A lot of bands like The Ventures were based on that band. They made great records. They sounded good. You’d hear them on the radio all the time. They played melodic and powerful music that appealed to everybody. My mum and dad both had Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams records. That was really what caught my ear. I learned a lot of Jimmie Rodgers songs. Everybody listened to Hank Williams in those days.
AH: That’s a good starting place.
TE: It sure is, if you want to be a songwriter.
AH: How old were you when you first went on the road, and what was that experience like for you?
TE: It was great. It was an adventure. We went from having to go to school everyday to doing school via mail. We traveled to a town and to the local radio station, and played live on the radio, talked up the show. Then we did a run-through at the hall when kids were coming out of school, trying to drum up some business. It was fun. We entered into band contests and stuff like that. We got ourselves an appearance on a television show: Six O’Clock Rock or something like that. It’s when rock and roll really hit, and there were lots of TV shows like Bandstand. We were on those kind of shows as kids. After my father passed away when I was 10, we went to a public school and did normal school things like other kids while still playing in a band.
AH: Chet Atkins was one of your musical heroes. What was your reaction when you met and played with him?
TE: It was a dream come true as you can imagine. I felt like I knew him because I listened to him so much. When I met him, I did know him. He was exactly as I thought he would be. We all owe him so much. He showed us the way really. His records that he produced, the artists he signed, the team he had around him, everything was a great example of how to do it on the best level that you can. His arrangements were better. His records sounded better. When I heard other people, they never came up to his mark.
AH; You re-recorded some of your classic songs for the new album. What was the biggest challenge in re-recording some of those songs?
TE: Just getting my hands around them again. A lot of my early stuff is not easy to play. I had to rework it. That was fun and challenging. Once we got there and we got the sound really good in the studio, I was flying through them. I recorded the whole album in two days.
AH: The sound is really pure on the album.
TE: Oh it is. It’s just guitars with microphones in front of them. It’s a normal acoustic recording. We had a beautiful choice of mics. We had a matched pair where one was above the sound hole and one was below it pointing up. We had a ribbon mic that was an ambient mic, which gives the overall sound a certain ambience. Then there was a big Neumann microphone in the middle. The sound has everything.
AH: You went from playing rock in arenas to returning to acoustic. Why was that an important thing for you to do?
TE: I was already playing acoustic. My main job at that time was playing in rock bands. I was concentrated on that. But when I’m sitting in my hotel room, I’m playing acoustic. I would get booked to play clubs in Australia. Most people said, “We really love you playing with a band, but our favorite thing is when you play solo.” I started writing some songs for me to play in that kind of genre. It didn’t take long before I realized this is what I should be doing. I quit the road with a band, and went out on my own. It worked really well so I just kept going. When I toured with my own band, I had the same amount of people at the show as when I came back and played solo. So it’s not about the band. And it’s not about that particular kind of music. It’s just what I do. I kept at it. I moved overseas in the 90s. I moved to England and started working around Europe. I moved full-time to America in 2003. I’ve been here ever since and now I’m a U.S. citizen. I was sworn in last year.
AH: There’s a certain intimacy with just you and an acoustic guitar.
TE: It’s like being naked on stage. Everything is exposed: your songwriting, your arrangements, even down to your tuning. Everything is amplified and exposed. It’s fun and challenging at the same time.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
TE: If I wasn’t making music? I’d be making babies. (laughs) I don’t know. I’d be a person who came and fixed your garden and mowed your grass. That’s what I love doing.
Emmanuel’s new album The Best of Tommysongs was released on May 8. Order your copy here.