Interview: Certified Guitar Player Tommy Emmanuel talks Tommysongs and Jerry Douglas

Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

How Shadow Bruce Welch helped lay the foundations of a country and bluegrass career.

Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel is recognised as one of the best acoustic guitarists ever, and he is touring the UK in March with dobro legend Jerry Douglas in a show that will be a feast for guitar fanatics and lovers of just great music. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Tommy Emmanuel in his UK hotel over Zoom to discuss how an Australian can become a leading artist in such American genres as country, bluegrass, and americana.  Tommy Emmanuel cites his mother’s love of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, and the Shadows on Australian radio as the prime influences on his wanting to become a guitar player. However, even at a young age, he took a slightly different take by taking the Shadows’ rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch as his role model, rather than Hank Marvin. Chet Atkins is another lifelong influence on his guitar playing, and he shares the sense of pride he had when he was given the Certified Guitar Player Award by his hero. His latest record, ‘The Best Of Tommysongs’, includes the re-recording of the best songs of his long career and 6 new ones, and Tommy Emmanuel shines a light on how he achieved his best-recorded sound.

How are you?

I’m fine. I’ve just come over to the UK a bit early because I have a new granddaughter and I haven’t seen my family for two years because of COVID, it is nice to get some family time before the tour starts.

How tough was the pandemic for you with your American and Australian connections?

I was in San Jose in my apartment there for a while, and I worked on a whole bunch of things there because I was in lockdown. I was doing Facebook Live and Instagram Live twice a week, just to keep putting stuff out there, I worked on a movie and wrote the soundtrack, and I recorded it all on my iPhone, haha. I then moved back to Nashville and bought a place there, and that is where I live now and where I’ve been ever since, really. America is opening up and I’ve done three tours in America in the last six months, and it has been absolutely amazing.

Why is now the time to re-record some of your self-written greatest hits?

I wanted to do some albums with 24 songs on each, all original songs, and so I have another one coming. At the moment I’m halfway through recording a bluegrass album with other artists, including Jerry Douglas who is coming on this tour with me. I’ve done some tracks with Sierra Hull, some with Ricky Skaggs, Rob Ickes, and Trey Hensley. I’ve got a bunch of people who I will be working with over the next few months for my bluegrass projects.

What made you want to revisit your songs?

There are six brand new songs on ‘The Best of Tommysongs’ that I had never recorded before, and I have some other new stuff since. One of the brand new songs I play in the show now, but I just wanted to start recording what I considered was my best work. I recorded 24 songs and got all that done, and the album came out and people loved it, and they loved the idea and so I will do another one. I’ve got the songs, haha.

How easy was it to pick the best songs, are you necessarily the best judge of your own work?

I know what you mean, haha. I listen to what people say when they say this song tells me about this, or that song always moves me to tears, and I remember everything people say to me about what certain songs mean to them. I know that those songs have a special connection with people, and that is what is important to me, you know.

Did you change the arrangements radically for the older songs?

I was just trying to play them better and have a better sound. I just wanted everything to be as good as I can get it today.

How did you record them?

I went into a studio I know well in Nashville called OMNIsound and I worked with two engineers, and these are guys I worked with before and they know how to mic my guitar, which microphones to use, and all that stuff. We experimented until I got the sound I thought was the ultimate sound I could get, and then away I went. I recorded the 24 songs in two days, all finished. I then mixed and mastered with my friend Marc DeSisto in Los Angeles, who is just the best guy I know for acoustic music, and he did a wonderful job. It was really about making the best product, but also getting the best performances with the best feeling. For me when I’m wearing headphones and there is a little reverb in there, and I’m working with good mics, I’m in heaven, haha.

How modern was the studio technology you used to capture your acoustic sound?

We recorded the way most people do, we used Pro Tools the same as everybody else, and I believe the desk was English, and most people like English recording desks Neve, etc, and this was an English  Trident desk. It is really about who is running it though. I have never heard somebody’s recording that they have done at home with themselves to be as good as when you record with somebody who has a real studio, real good microphones, and records in a way that takes a lifetime to learn. That is the person I want to record me. My demos of my playing are all on my phone, and if I want to record a song I will do it on my phone and even that sounds alright. I don’t have an expensive studio at home, my phone is my recording when I’m writing and it has to stand up on that, the song has to stand on that. If it is good enough, and I feel it is good enough, then I will book a studio, and my engineer and I will go in and record it properly. In fifty years time I want to have somebody play that back and say, “Wow, I want to get a sound like that.”. It was the same thing with the Beatles, if you go back and listen to ‘Across The Universe’ by John Lennon, the guitar is beautiful on it and the vocals sound great, and we are still in awe of that because it was recorded well in the first place.

You are an Australian and in terms of your chosen music you are now recognised as probably one of the greatest acoustic guitarists in the world, and your nationality is no longer an issue. How did you get to where you are today?

Well, you have to remember my first influence was country music, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. My mother had those records at home, but the biggest influence that started me playing the guitar were the Shadows, Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch. I modelled my playing on Bruce Welch when I was a kid, because my brother Phil, who is no longer with us, modelled himself on Hank Marvin. He was the lead guitar player, and I was the rhythm guy, and I’m going along learning how to play rhythm and there was this kind of happy accident that happened with me. When I heard music I thought the rhythm player played all the bass lines as well, I didn’t know there was a bass guitar. So, I was working out all the tunes from the Shadows’ songs, and I worked out the bass part at the same time, and it was just an accident because I didn’t know any better. You have to remember this is 1960/61 so there were no guitar teachers, there were no videos, there was nothing. What you heard on the radio you had to listen to and sit there and try and work it out. Fast forward a couple of years and I hear Chet Atkins on the radio, and I don’t know how to explain to people but I could hear he was playing everything at once, and people were like, no that is a recording trick, you can’t do all that. I don’t know why, but I could hear it, and I’m listening and I’m saying he is playing the bass part like this, and I worked it out.

Nobody showed me, and it stunned and amazed people when a seven-year-old kid plays ‘Freight Train’ and ‘Windy and Warm’ with a pick and his fingers, haha. People are like, what is this kid doing, haha, and it was because of Chet Atkins that set me on a different path. I guess playing and songwriting slowly evolved over the years, and all my teen years I listened to singer-songwriters, James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Diamond, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Gordon Lightfoot, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, all those people. I listened to all that music, and I grew up on country music, and it was full of good writing, good singing, and good playing, and I think that’s what helped me evolve into whatever I am today. I’m a songs player, and I’m an entertainer, so I play songs that tell stories, and there are no words. It is just something I evolved slowly and surely over the years, through a lot of hard work.

When you are playing your music what do you see in your own head, what does it mean to you?

When I’m writing a song and I get it finished I can see the movies in my head of what the song is all about. When I’m playing it live, I’m closing my eyes and listening to every nuance, I’m listening to the tone I’m getting, the timing, the tuning, the subtleties,  I’m listening to all that all at once while putting it out there to the people. When I’m on stage I make a lot of contact with the public, and if people are high up I make sure I look up to them,  and I acknowledge them and I kind of imagine my sound going up there to them. The music to me is like the bridge between us.

How much does being a Certified Guitar Player mean to you?

Yeah, haha, well, it was a big surprise to me back in ’99. I was at the Chet Atkins Convention in Nashville, and Chet and I were playing together, and it was the last time he played. I went to go off the stage after we played, and he said, “Hey, get back here, we have an award for you.”, and I didn’t know what it was about, and then he held it up and said, “Certified Guitar Player.”, and he read it out and it said, “For a lifetime contribution to the art of finger-picking.”. For your hero to say that, to acknowledge that it was one of the greatest moments in my life, I will never ever forget that. My life came full circle that night, all those years of struggling and working and trying to find what I’m meant to do here. It has been a great time, and one of the wonderful things about England is that English people have a world view on music. People will hear me play, and someone will come up to me and say I see you’ve listened to Jerry Reed, they know, and the younger generation doesn’t know quite as much as the older guys and girls, but they will in time.

The same as you can’t underestimate the importance of the Beatles in the world today, you can’t underestimate the line of people from Jimmie Rodgers, to Hank Williams, to Lefty Frizzell, to Merle Haggard, and all that, you can’t underestimate how important that music is and go back. When you listen to Jimmie Rodgers you can hear the influence of New Orleans, jazz music, and then you’ve got the blues music which most people in America who are in music know and understand where that music comes from. They know about Robert Johnson, they know about Son House, and Louis Armstrong, and their importance in the line of music, and it is a beautiful thing. It is an ongoing story, and I play music that touches me and that I grew up with and I try and write in that way. In some of my compositions, I purposely will play something that will sound just like Merle Travis except it has the chords of Stevie Wonder, haha. What I’m doing is saying I listen to Merle, but I’m from this generation, that is what I try to do.

It could be said that you are a serial collaborator, what do you enjoy about playing with other musicians?

I love playing with talented people, I love hitting the ball to them and I love them hitting it back to me. There is something magical about collaboration and going for it, and I’ve just done a tour in America where a young man named Mike Dawes from Bristol was opening for me, and every night he just tore them up and I was so proud of him. We got to jam every night at the end of the show and play three songs together, and it was magical. People went crazy when we played together, so it is all about the magic that happens when people come together, as much as I like playing solo I love being an accompanist, I love really going one on one with another player and having that kind of fun, that freedom to just blaze away.

Is there anybody you haven’t played with that you really want to play with?

Haha, well I’ve been the luckiest guy on the planet because first of all I’m nearly 67 and I’ve lived long enough to have met just about all my heroes, Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Les Paul, Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, I’ve met so many great people, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and I couldn’t have asked for better. When I’m in Nashville I get to work with people like Ricky Skaggs, who I’ve loved since he was young, and hanging out with a guy like him is like being around an encyclopedia of bluegrass music. I mean, nobody knows more about it than Ricky Skaggs, and so hanging out with Ricky to me is like going to school, and I ask him to tell me about working with Bill Monroe, and he will tell you all the stories and show you how Bill played this, and this is where it came from, all that sort of stuff.

I can’t remember, did you ever get to play with Tony Rice?

I never did get to play with him, and I never even got to meet him and I really wish I had. By the time I was firmly entrenched in Nashville, he was a hermit by then and he wasn’t doing much. Thanks to Jerry Douglas I feel like I know a lot about him because Jerry knew him really well, probably better than most people, and every now and again I will play something and Jerry will look over and he will know I’ve just quoted Tony Rice, just to see if he is paying attention, haha.

What is it like having Jerry Douglas as your special guest on this tour?

Jerry is on the shows I’m about to do in England, he is going to be the opening act and then we will play together towards the end of the set. You will be amazed how many people have said to me years ago, you’ve got to get together with Jerry Douglas, you two together would be something else, and they were right.  Jerry and I met at a comedy show, would you believe, I went to this comedy show in Nashville and I was like the last person in the theatre just as the lights went down and the artists came out, I got to my seat and there I was sitting beside Jerry, haha. We hooked up that night and I ended up playing on some records that he was playing on, and then we ended up doing some shows on The Opry, and stuff like that, and that was great. I did the same thing with Brad Paisley and I’ve been so fortunate being in Nashville, it has been a beautiful time because it is the roots of my raisin’, haha, country music and bluegrass music, and now of course americana is the popular word. What americana is, is real country music, that is what it is. All the other stuff is anthem rock & roll music with a fiddle or a steel guitar. How do you write a better song than Hank Williams, nobody has.

When you are at home in Nashville, do you tend to stay home or do you play around town?

Usually, when I’m home I’m trying to keep fit, I do a three-mile walk every morning, I get together with friends of mine and we all walk together. I will go to guitar stores and sit and play away and hang out with guys and play with guys I really love and admire. People like Jack Pearson, who is the best guitar player in Nashville by a long way, he is amazing. I feel so fortunate to be where I am, I do miss being in Australia, but you can only do so much. I had to come here to England in ’98 to start my life and my career all over again and start from scratch. I came to a place where in ’98 nobody knew me, and I started all over again and it was the best thing for me. It made me work harder, try harder, write better. And I think it just made me a better artist all over. My second daughter was born here, so it is special to me, and now I have two grandchildren brought up here, and my daughter who was born in Sidney just became a British citizen.

By the sound of it, you have three homes, Nashville, Australia, and England.

Certainly, haha.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

We’ve talked about the tour and ‘The Best of Tommysongs’, and there is an EP coming out very soon which is me and my friend Mike Dawes, from Bristol, and it is a five-track EP.

Tommy Emmanuel’s ‘The Best of Tommysongs’ is out now on CGP Sounds.

About Martin Johnson 407 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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