Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with celebrated Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel about what keeps him motivated on the road, how he navigates the line between kitsch and musical integrity and how he decides what to play every night.
CP: I know Chet Atkins later became very outspoken in his admiration for your playing. How influential was he in your decision to take up the guitar?
TE: I started out as a rhythm guitar player for my brother and my mother. That's how I got started. It was my mother who showed me how to play the guitar in the first place, just playing chords and understanding how a song works.
It was a few years later when I heard Chet Atkins. I had one of those moments where it changed my life forever. I said, "I have to do that." I knew I had to work out what he was doing. When I met Chet later in life, he told me the same thing, that when he heard Merle Travis on the radio, he said, "I've got to work that out. I've got to do that." We both had the same experience, just at different times.
This is a long time ago, so you have to remember what kind of music was around in those days. When someone comes along whose playing is so beyond anyone else's and arrangements that are interesting and with music that was so full of life and interesting ideas, it was almost confusing it was so good. It kind of sent me back to the drawing board, you know? I worked out what was going on, technically, and I then set about to learn as many songs of his as I could.
The other thing that I learned from him was that you had to raise the level of everything. By the time I was 12 years old, I was already playing fairly sophisticated arrangements of songs most young players had never heard or even dreamed of playing. It was because I was so fascinated and inspired by his music. It changed my life, and I'm really grateful for that.
CP: What was it about his music that so captivated you?
TE: That he was doing everything at once, and the way he defined the melody. It really stuck with me. It doesn't matter what I play now, I'm always searching to define the melody in the right way.
I think it was also the quality of his recordings, the level of quality of the recording was beyond everybody else. It wasn't until years later that it seemed like the rest of the guitar playing world slowly caught up, quality wise. Chet, still to this day, some of his stuff is beyond anything I've ever heard.
That was just one phase of my musical life. At that time, I was playing in a band with my family, and we were playing stuff by the Ventures and Duane Eddy and The Beatles, stuff like that. We were an instrumental group who played an entertaining show that had variety and all kinds of music and comedy - all that stuff.
CP: Has anything you learned from playing with your family in The Emmanuel Quartet carried over to how you approach performing today?
TE: I would say it's not necessarily playing with my family. What has always been instilled in me is that, when I walk on stage, first of all, I have to give it everything I can every time. Secondly, when you go on stage, you're an entertainer. If you want to be just a musician, then go work with classical or something like that, but if you want to be in the music business and play concerts and be on stage, you better be an entertainer first and have your show together.
I learned all that, and I learned it from being around people who were good at that, not necessarily guitar players but singers and comedians and people who hosted shows. I watched them and studied them and listened to their timing and all that kind of stuff. It was like learning my craft, and I was really drawn to it.
No one made me do anything; I was like a sponge around people. I think Michael Jackson said the same thing, that when he was young he was like a sponge around all his heroes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and people like that. You can see it in him. All it is is that we're responding to our natural call. We're called to do this. We don't know why, but this is what we're doing. [Laughs.]
CP: Does that mean being an entertainer came naturally to you or was it something you still had to work at?
TE: Oh no, I've always worked very hard at it, but it's what it does to people that excites me and makes me want to be in show business. The fact that when people have a great time and laugh and cry and feel real emotions, that's one of the greatest gifts I can give people, to use whatever gifts and abilities I've been given to bring that kind of thing to the public. I'm a sucker for making people feel good; I really enjoy it.
CP: As much time as you spend on the road now, do you still get many opportunities to perform with your brother, Phil?
TE: Yeah, only if I create them. Phil lives in Australia, and I live here in America. We only get to see each other once every few years. We usually get together to tour and to get a chance to play.
What we used to play when we were young is kind of fun, but when we decide to work together, we're always looking for something new, you know? And it's not always easy because Phil's idea of what is good may not necessarily agree with me, and my idea might not necessarily agree with him. Musically, we sometimes reach a stand off, and I say, "Well, I don't want to do that," and he'll say, "Well, I'll do this, and you do that."
We're trying to find a common ground to work together. I have just totally different aspirations and ways of viewing things as he does, and vice versa. Because we love each other and respect each other, we just let that kind of be. When we get together, we try to make music that's fun and that's good for the people, but anything deeper than that we need to have time to work out.
CP: What keeps you on tour and willing to continue putting so many miles on your odometer after so many years? Touring can be a really taxing experience. What drives you and keeps you interested?
TE: Oh, it's hard all right, but every day above ground is a blessing to me. I want to see what can happen today and how I can do something good for people. Tonight, when I play in Fresno, first of all, I've never played in Fresno before, so I'll have a new audience. I'm excited about tonight. I don't know what's going to happen, and I want to see where I can take it.
Every night, you meet people with such an interesting story. You just never know why people are drawn to you, and all that stuff. It's interesting. I have an obligation; I do something that really makes people feel good, so I have an obligation to use that and use it for the good of others. That's pretty much the bottom line of why I'm here. It's pretty straight ahead.
CP: Straight ahead, but it still sounds like a lofty goal to set for yourself.
TE: I'm sure. You just have to get through the gray days. You have to get through the nights where things don't go how you want, when you give it all you can, and it doesn't go as good as you know it can. You just have to say, "Well, I'm not going to worry about this. I'll have another go tomorrow." I think a great champion in any field is the one who gets up and has another go, no the one who said, "I've been knocked down. I better stay down." That's not me, for sure.
CP: With a discography as big as yours, you clearly have a lot of material to pull from for your shows. What are some songs you feel compelled to play every night or risk inciting the ire of your fans?
TE: There are lots of those, and I'm really grateful for that, and I never get tired of playing them. If I don't play "Classical Gas" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," then for sure, I'll get a letter or an email from someone saying, "I drove 500 miles and bragged about you all the way, and you didn't do what I told people you would do. Would you do it next time?" [Laughs.] That stuff happens all the time. If I didn't bother to listen to people's suggestions and feelings, then I wouldn't consider myself an artist.
But at the same time, I'm always trying to do new things and not get caught in a rut. When I go to the stage, I never work with a song list; I just get up and start playing. My greatest decision every night is "What do I start with?" That kind of gets the night off to the right kind of start.
CP: How do you decide that? Is it a matter of peeking around the curtain to feel out the vibe of the crowd as they wait for you?
TE: It's a bit of that, absolutely. It's a bit of how I'm playing and how the sound is and how adventurous I'm feeling. Sometimes, if you're feeling lackluster, one of the best things for me is to play and sing at the sound check quite a bit.
One of the other things I do before a show is about an hour before the show, I meet the public. People write in and go on a list, and I do an official meet-and-greet. I meet the public and sign their photos, sign their guitars and CDs or whatever. People want to tell me stories and play for me or whatever, and it's usually the people I get the energy from that I carry to the stage.
Sometimes, people say, "How do you psych yourself up for a performance every night?" and I'm like, "I don't have to psych myself up. I'm already up. I have to psych myself down to calm myself down to play well." I can't play well if I'm too excited or get nervous or any of that stuff. I can't play for nuts. So I try to be real calm when I walk out there and deliberate in what I've chosen to play.
CP: Judging by how vigorously you play, however, that energy seems to be bubbling just below the surface, no matter how hard you try to keep it in check.
TE: Well, I think so. I would hope that it's always going to be there, that child-like fascination for flying my kite, musically.
CP: Some musicians treat their instruments like they're fragile works of art that will shatter if they sneeze on them. That's not the case with you. You slap the body, play very fast and worn a bare patch on the top from using your hands to add effects to your songs. Have you ever been afraid to use them that way?
TE: Never ever. I do have other instruments I have no reason to do that, too. I do that to the main guitar because I need it to do things other than just being a guitar. I don't purposefully do that to the other ones. I have two guitars that are marked up, and that's all. The other ones look perfect.
I'll sacrifice the instrument in the name of entertainment. I don't give a damn. What's important to me is that I can do what I do up there and give people a great time. It's all about that. It's all about the element of surprise. All of those things are part of, "Surprise me and take me somewhere else."
CP: Have you always had that kind of physical approach or did your style develop into that later in your career?
TE: I really don't know when that was. It was just something that's evolved in the last 20 years. It hasn't always been in my playing. You have to realize that my musical journey has been a slow progress. I've gained experience in knowledge in life and in music over time. I've done a lot of different things to grow and evolve into what I'm doing now. Who knows what's next? I don't.
I would have to say that, back in the '80s, I started being really drawn to playing solo. I was playing in some very successful bands in those days and making good money and having a good life, but I was really drawn to building something solo. I started doing that, and that created a demand for me to make my show complete and entertaining and full of surprises as possible. How many rabbits can you pull out of the hat during a show, you know what I mean?
That stuff is really important, especially when people have paid money and are coming to see you and be entertained. It's just you and guitar - what the hell are you going to do? First of all, I had to built my repertoire, my bag of things I can pull out - things like medleys of songs that have so many key changes and arrangements of songs that would normally be done by orchestra. I found ways of playing tunes where I played all the parts at the same time, moving the bass around, playing chords and playing the melody on top. That's a bit of a jaw-dropper, if you've never seen it before. Then, people come along and are like, "Oh, it's just him. Where are all those others sounds coming from?"
They're all part of the element of surprise. It takes a lot of time to build up a repertoire where you can constantly be pulling the rabbit out of a hat. That's all part of my goal to surprise people and entertain them, but I want to do it with musical ideas and musical integrity at the same time.
CP: Is that a tough balancing act, to walk the line between kitsch and musical integrity?
TE: Yeah. You need to find where you're comfortable doing it. At the same time, you need to approach it like a child. You need to just fly your kite and don't give a crap about what anyone else thinks, especially jazz aficionados or any of that stuff. You don't need to worry about that. You need to find out what's in your heart and what you need to do.
Last week, I did a show, and on the show was Bucky Pizzserelli, who is 86 years old. There he was, being a child on stage, loving playing so much and really tearing into it like it was his last gig. I thought, "Well, there it is. That's what I'm doing, but he's 30 years older than me and still doing it." The same thing happened when I was playing with Les Paul; I saw the naughty boy playing next door. That's where it is. That's part of the fun of it and the attraction of it but also the reality of it. It's us flying our kites. We're not trying to impress musicians; we're trying to give people a good time.
CP: What are you working on now, recording wise?
TE: I've got some projects in the works for this year. I'm doing a duo album with a great jazz guitar player from England named Martin Taylor. We're kind of making suggestions and sifting through songs to find a good direction to go. I'm recording an album with an Italian guitar player at the end of the year. I'm about to go touring next month with two other great guitar players. We are called The Kings of Strings. That will be the start of something great, I hope. This year is a bit of sowing seeds for the future.
CP: Out of curiosity, is the Italian guitar player Beppe Gambetta?
TE: No. It's Dodi Battiglia. But I love Beppe. He's a great guy, a great player ... and a great chef. [Laughs.]