Tommy Emmanuel has garnered more awards and honors than we can list on this page, but a recently-earned commendation has the Australian guitarist bowled over. Emmanuel is a 2010 recipient of the prestigious Order of Australia, a commendation that recognizes his offstage endeavors as much as his musical accomplishments.
“It’s a great honor—I certainly didn’t expect it,” Emmanuel says in an amazed tone, speaking by phone from Washington D.C. “The ceremony is on Monday at the Australian ambassadors’ residence here in Washington D.C.
To be nominated is a wonderful thing—it’s one percent of about ten percent of people who are nominated that end up winning it. It’s not just to do with my work in music, it’s to do with a lot of things I’ve been involved in with my charity work. It’s the highest honor you can be given by your country that is non-military.”
In a recording career spanning more than 30 years, Emmanuel has captivated listeners with a Chet Atkins-influenced style that employs the use of bass and melody lines at the same time. In fact, Emmanuel wrote to Atkins as a young man and received an encouraging response and an open invitation for a personal visit. The two guitarists would later form a close friendship while collaborating musically as well.
On Thursday, July 29, Emmanuel will perform in the Workplay Sound Stage. The all-ages, seated show begins at 8 p.m.
Though his native country holds a special place in his heart, Emmanuel has called Nashville home for a number of years. Like his musical career, Emmanuel’s adopted home can be traced to his association with Atkins.
“I actually didn’t move to Nashville for the music, so to speak,” Emmanuel recalls. “I could live anywhere. Chet Atkins invited me there years ago and I just found it to be the most affordable place. My daughters and my ex-wife live in England and I’ve got daughters going to school there. I wanted to move the family to America, but they didn’t want to—they wanted to stay in England so that’s the way it went. I moved and bought a house in Nashville eight years ago. Three years ago I found a bigger place out of town—it’s just real quiet and I really, really like it. I can drive to Atlanta and Memphis and I can be in New York in two hours and Chicago in an hour by plane. It’s easy.”
In addition to creating a catalog of original material, Emmanuel has interpreted a number of timeless songs throughout his career. In his live shows, it’s not uncommon to find “Lady Madonna,” “Classical Gas” or “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” alongside the theme song from the movie Borsalino. Emmanuel enjoys the challenge of personalizing and breathing life into these well-worn melodies.
“I don’t think you can do anything else but put your stamp on it because your personality and your musical way of doing things is automatically in there,” he says. “I’m a stickler for the melody—I want the melody to be right. I always go back and listen to the original version of something and I try to interpret it in a way that has my own slant on it, but I try to stay true to the melody. I’m always injecting something into an arrangement. When I play ‘Classical Gas’—I’ve been playing that song since the late ‘60s—I change it around a lot. Sometimes in the middle of ‘Classical Gas’ I’ll go into [The Ventures’] ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ as just a little entertaining thing. It’s exciting when you go into a song and you play the first chord and the audience goes crazy—you know that that’s what they’re waiting to hear.”
When he’s not in the recording studio or performing on stage, Emmanuel can be found teaching at guitar camps. When we spoke, he had just returned from a camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Emmanuel participates in the camps to share his craft, connect with fans and sharpen his own skills.
“I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” he offers. “I don’t think I’m a particularly gifted teacher, but I think I can help people in a real way. I look at it as a situation for me to get close to other players and to help them. Nine times out of ten when I leave a camp, I’m a better player because I’ve played a lot and I’ve been playing things over and over. It’s fun to dissect things sometimes and it boosts me and charges me with new energy for what I’m doing.”
Though technology has impacted the way music is played, recorded and heard, Emmanuel remains loyal to the equipment and methods that have served him well in his lengthy career.
“I’m a pretty old-fashioned guy. I’ve got guitars that look like they’re on death’s bed but they still sound great. I’m ‘Kid Compact’ on the road—I keep it real simple. I just carry a little tiny acoustic amp, a reverb unit and three guitars. I carry my own soundman and that’s it. I don’t need a lot of stuff—all I need is one good sound. As far as recording, I still prefer to go to a good studio with my engineer, producer and great microphones and concentrate to make the best quality I can. I don’t want to be joining the ranks of people who spit out their albums off their laptops. I want things to be done on a world-class, quality level and to be marketed by a proper record company. Others have their own way of doing things, but I want things to be the best I can get them,” he says.
Unlike many “guitarist’s guitarists” that use their talents as vehicles for self-indulgence, Emmanuel hasn’t lost sight of his listeners and his role to serve them.
“I’ve never had any visions of grandeur about what I do,” he says. “I’m very humbled to get as far as I’ve come. I’ve worked hard for what I own, but at the same time I’m not looking for any glory. What fulfills me is to do a good job and that’s all I need to do. I’m out there for the people. I’m not a person who’s out to impress musicians—I could care less. I’m out there to entertain people—that’s my job and that’s my calling. When I play, people have a good time and that’s my reason for being there.”
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.