By the time he was six years old, Tommy Emmanuel had several national tours of Australia under his belt and a handful of television performances to boot. His musical family nurtured their young prodigy, who astutely studied the older guitarists he often performed with, absorbing bits of their playing and performance styles.
“I was the world’s youngest professional guitar player for years,” says Emmanuel, speaking from a tour stop in Baton Rouge. “There are people out there today who I still keep up with what they’re doing to find out what I can learn from them.”
Musicians the world over learn from Emmanuel these days, who at 55 years old was voted Guitar Player magazine’s best guitarist in the world this year for the second time. That’s added to decades of Australian, American, and international awards.
“It’s just words on a piece of paper,” says Emmanuel. “The truth is, words don’t put food on your table. Hard work does. As many awards and accolades that I’ve received, it’s all very nice and I appreciate it, but I’m still going to continue to work on this as long as I’m able. I never look in the mirror and say, ‘Boy, you’re really something.'”
But as the standing ovations that conclude each of his concerts attest to, Emmanuel really is something. Using a no-pick, all-10-fingers style honed from an early idol, Chet Atkins, Emmanuel plays bass, rhythm, and melody simultaneously, stunning audiences with both his originals and jaw-dropping solo arrangements of songs like “Classical Gas.” He’s recently recorded a new album, following up 2008’s live release Center Stage.
Never utilizing a setlist, Emmanuel says he looks forward to playing his new originals, but he’ll dig out tracks from his full catalog, dating all the way back to 1979’s From Out of Nowhere.
“The principle of ‘show up and do your best’ is what drives me,” says the songwriter. “If I do a good job, it fulfills me. I don’t need any glory, and I don’t need fame and fortune. If I do a good job, then I’m happy, and the bottom line — what matters to me — is that I’m here on this earth, and I want to be happy.”
With a tour schedule that includes everywhere from Bratislava to Malaysia this year, Emmanuel keeps busy. Playing in Louisiana last week, he heard from fans worried that they’d be out of work due to the oil spill, including rig workers fearful that drilling would be curtailed.
“I always see it as my role to take people away from their troubles, give them a good time, and totally distract them, so for at least two hours of their night they haven’t thought about worries and a lot of their walls come down and their heart is open,” explains Emmanuel. “I’m more of an entertainer than anything.”
Unlike many solo performers who utilize loop pedals and heavy effects to create a full sound, Emmanuel’s setup is simple. His sound man works reverbs and delays for him, but on stage, it’s just him and his guitar.
“It’s a little guitar, but it has a big voice,” he says of the instrument, crafted by Maton. “It’s a mouse that roars. You look at it and it’s a mouse, but out comes the voice of a lion.”
Just as his guitar heroes took the young Emmanuel under their wing, he’s recruited a kindred phenom to join him on tour: 18-year-old Chase Foster. Emmanuel first met him at a bluegrass festival in Kansas, inviting the then 14 year old to join him on fiddle and vocals for a rendition of Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” Duly impressed, the pair hit it off, clowning around about their shared love of Broadway musicals.
“He’s a cross between John Mayer’s vocal and guitar style and swing-style bee-bop. And if I want to throw a Django [Reinhardt] tune at him, he can pick up the fiddle and just tear it up. He’s a real natural talent,” says Emmanuel, before spontaneously breaking into a nasally a capella rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” over the phone.
“That was Ethel Merman with a bad throat,” he laughs.
Don’t count on any show tunes at the Music Hall. Instead, expect a mind-numbing exhibition of guitar wizardry. And fellow guitarists, prepare to be (humbly) humbled.