Many youngsters get a guitar at an early age. (I got my first Roy Rogers guitar when I was five.) But few actually start playing anything on it until they’re in double digits age-wise---their hands are too small, attention span too short, fingers too tender, or it’s just too darn hard to make the thing sound like what it’s supposed to sound like.
Tommy Emmanuel was the exception.
“I was four,” he told me last week. “I got it for my birthday. But prior to that, my mother and my father had guitars in the house. My father didn’t play. He bought himself a guitar thinking that he would learn, but he didn’t have any talent at all in that area.
“My mother showed me chords, and my elder brother Phil took up guitar about the same time. He was interested in playing the lead part, so he’d work out songs and then we’d look at the chords and I’d be the rhythm player.”
That was 46 years ago. In the interim, the Australian native has built a reputation as one of the finest finger pickers on the planet. He’ll be in town this week for a four-day “Tommy Fest” at Yoder Barn Theatre in Newport News, including all-day guitar workshops on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and four nights of concerts from Thursday through Sunday.
“If you build it, they will come,” he laughed when I asked about the “Tommy Fest” concept. “I started out playing the Yoder Barn, doing a night there and filling it. Then we had a go at doing two nights, then three nights…
“If there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s about giving it everything you can when you’re up there and being consistent. We’ve really built it from the ground up. We’ve got a good fan base there. Thankfully they like what I do so they come back and they tell their friends and bring their friends.”
Emmanuel has spent his entire life giving his all to music.
“It was my mother who put the guitar in my hand and got me started,” he said as he talked on his cellphone, riding from the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention in Nashville to a Sunday night gig at the University of Alabama in Huntsville with his manager at the wheel.
“My mother was very musical---she could sing a bit and play guitar. During the war years, ’39 to ’45, my mother was helping her parents run a dairy farm and try to keep going and help the war effort as well from Australia, so on Saturday nights she would ride her horse in to the local hotel and sing cowboy songs and put her hat down for people to put money in it.”
By the time he was five, Tommy was playing professionally with his brothers and sister in the Emmanuel Quartet.
“I had to,” he explained. “That’s how we supported the family; we took the show on the road. That’s how we made ends meet so we had to get it together. It was our livelihood.”
When he was seven, he first heard Chet Atkins, the guitarist whose music still inspires him today:
“Like everybody, I heard him on the radio for the first time. It was 1962, and ‘Windy and Warm’ and ‘Trambone’ had come out and they were being played a lot on the radio in Australia. When I first heard him, the word was out about this guy who played all these parts at once and sounded amazing. We all wanted to work it out, of course.”
He’s worked it out and more, becoming a close friend and playing partner with his idol up until his death in 2001. Atkins even named him a “certified guitar player,” a title he bestowed on only two other guitarists besides himself. Emmanuel’s most recent CD, Endless Road, is a tribute to Atkins and a wide-ranging tour-de-force of guitar prowess. The title is also most appropriate---he literally lives out of a suitcase, criss-crossing the U.S., traveling to Europe, Asia and Australia, occasionally alighting at his current home in Nashville.
Though he’s best known now as an unaccompanied finger-picking acoustic guitarist, Emmanuel spent many years playing electric guitar in his family band and others.
“I played electric and acoustic all my life. I had a band for a long while and I was playing mostly electric music, and every now and again during the show, I’d do a spot where I’d play on my own, and people used to often say that was their favorite part of the show. So I decided I’d try a few solo things, and it worked really well. So I just decided to keep going at it, and stay solo. And it worked out just fine.
“It’s challenging, and your arrangements have to work, your presentation has to be together, and your groove and everything----all those things have to be really solid. It is challenging, but it sure is fun.”
Besides the solo gigs, he’s also worked with orchestras here and in Germany. This week he’ll be joined at the Yoder Barn by his old friend Stephen Bennett, a superb guitarist in his own right who makes his home in Gloucester County, and on Friday and Saturday night by singer/songwriter Pam Rose.
“I have a very open mind about music,” he said as he rolled south through the middle of Tennessee. “I like everything from classical to heavy metal to country, blues and rock’n’roll…as long as it’s got soul.”
copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.