Concert Preview: Tommy Emmanuel — A Guitar Player’s Guitar Player

By Scott McLennan

“I just want to fly my kite like everyone else. I’m not interested in being the greatest. That sounds like an awful ball and chain. I love the freedom that I have.”

Tommy Emmanuel. Photo: Simone Cecchetti

Tommy Emmanuel is about as good as it gets when it comes to being a self-contained musician. His guitar playing is expansive – both technically and thematically. He is a songwriter. And an arranger. And a producer.

However, the one thing he is not interested in being is “the greatest.” He wouldn’t want to be considered top of the class for any particular one of his musical skills or accept the mantle of being overall best in show. “I just want to fly my kite like everyone else,” Emmanuel said during a recent interview. “I’m not interested in being the greatest. That sounds like an awful ball and chain. I love the freedom that I have.”

To be clear, Emmanuel isn’t doing any ‘humble’ bragging. He remembers being a young artist in Australia; as he came up in the ranks, older musicians he admired never found any opportunities to work with him. Emmanuel said he chalked the indifference up to the veterans not wanting to cede any turf. And that Emmanuel swore that is not a way he would carry himself as an artist if he became a musician whom others looked up to.

The guitarist’s most recent record, Accomplice Two, for example, is a blazingly good set of duets between Emmanuel and an array of guest artists, with four young acoustic music trailblazers prominently featured. His duets with Sierra Hull (“Precious Time”), Yasmin Williams (“Mombasa”,) Molly Tuttle (“White Freight Liner Blues”), and Billy Strings (“Doc’s Guitar”/“Black Mountain Rag”) are fun and fearless performances that display mutual respect as well as brilliant talent.

Emmanuel himself is a guitar player’s guitar player. He earned one of the few “Certified Guitar Player” accolades bestowed by legendary picker Chet Atkins, the very artist the guitarist credits as inspiring him to play music from a young age. Emmanuel is in a league with the likes of Jorma Kaukonen, Larry Campbell, and Jerry Douglas, all players on Accomplice Two who have redefined the art of guitar music over the course of their careers while also maintaining popular accessibility, reaching audiences for rock, folk, and country music.

Accomplice Two is a primer on music that doesn’t leave listeners behind as the musicians charge ahead, playing songs that burst with passion and excitement as they flaunt the players’ advanced chops.

“I let the song tell the story,” Emmanuel said. “I never think of myself as a solo guitar player. I write songs and play songs with a singer and band in mind. I’m trying to write a hit record when I compose.”

And Emmanuel has scored some hits, notably “Angelina,” “Song for a Rainy Morning,” and “Lewis and Clark.” He has also put out riveting arrangements of songs made famous by others, running the gamut from Nirvana’s grunge anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the standard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Emmanuel, 68, is a self-taught musician who started messing around on the guitar when he was just 4 years old. He and his brother Phil showed enough promise to win the support of his musical parents, who assembled a family band with the talented Emmanuel siblings that traveled throughout Australia. Emmanuel eventually joined popular rock bands touring Australia and Europe. He released his first album as a solo artist in 1979 and has been busy ever since with multiple projects.

Emmanuel will be performing on Sept. 14, at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams are also on the bill.They are also on Accomplice Two, assisting with a rollicking version of Campbell’s “Everybody Loves You,”so  it’s fair to expect that they and Emmanuel will join forces during the show.

Emmanuel makes musical vagabondage sound effortless. He moves with ease from blues jams with Kaukonen to country kicks with Jamey Johnson to bluegrass swing with the Del McCoury Band, from the humor he and Sam Bush conjure on “Yeller Rose of Texas” to the romanticism he and Michael McDonald summon on “Someone Like You” to the wistful poetry he and Raul Malo craft with “Far Away Places.”

Accomplice Two is the follow up to 2018’s Accomplice One and the Accomplice EPs Emmanuel has released over the past couple of years.

“Our approach was to find the right song for the accomplices. I wasn’t worried about what kind of songs we picked. There are only two kinds of music, good and bad. I want to be involved with the good stuff,” Emmanuel said.

Likewise, the performances were not overly labored. Emmanuel said he likes his records to mimic the live setting. He commented that he is not interested in “manufacturing it.”

And, because he is a bit of a musical statesman, Emmanuel was able to cross-pollinate some of his accomplices. Thus, Little Feat’s Billy Payne and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jimmie Fadden join forces with Jamey Johnson, who leads the charge on “Daddy Frank.” Mandolin ace Sam Bush sits in with Little Feat when Emmanuel “accomplices” that band’s “Cajun Girl” with the group. All of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pops up later on the album revisiting “Tennessee Stud” with Emmanuel.

And, while he’s worked up wonderful treatments of songs chosen for the “Accomplice” projects, Emmanuel is still very much into improvising throughout the course of a show: “it’s instant composing, I just let the ideas flow from my head to my hands.”

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know when to hang back. “Coming up, I did tend to overplay everything,” Emmanuel confessed. “Other guys would tell me, ‘You don’t have to give 120% every time. 100 % will be fine.'” He has learned when it is appropriate to simply let a song be the song: “‘Angelina’ or ‘Endless Road” or ‘It’s Never Too Late,’ they need nothing. I just play them. Give me Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer” and I can improvise all over it because the song is open to that.”

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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