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Tommy Emmanuel at Bluesfest 2019 by Jason Rosewarne

As any true guitar fan will know, the real-time exuberance Tommy Emmanuel brings to every note of every song he plays is palpable and infectious. His fans are in love with his unbound talent as a guitarist of multitudes, his ability to play three parts at once, always with pure heart and real soul. He is a true virtuoso. But he seems as delighted always with the magic of the music as the audience, if not more, and his joy illuminates everything. 

Often described as the world’s greatest living acoustic guitarist, Tommy is also one of the hardest working musicians on the planet and is always moving forward in his career. This year he delivered a new album Accomplice Two, a follow up to the hugely successful Accomplice One album of collaborations. It shares the same exuberance, diversity, and sense of adventure as the first album, with a great range of artists.  This album features rock legends Michael McDonald, Jorma Kaukonen, and Little Feat; bluegrass superstars such as Billy Strings, The Del McCoury Band, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull, and David Grisman; country icons such as Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jamey Johnson, and Raul Malo; and guitar heavyweights like Yasmin Williams, Larry Campbell, and Richard Smith.

In 2024 Tommy Emmanuel will bring his guitar joy to Bluesfest Byron Bay, armed with a new batch of terrific tunes from his latest album Accomplice Two and enthused by a third career Grammy Nomination, hopefully even a Grammy win by then! 

Ahead of Tommy Emmanuel’s 2024 Bluesfest appearance, Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips recently had the pleasure of connecting with Tommy once again over a zoom call.  With the guitar great on tour and calling from a hotel in El Paso and Greg under steamy conditions on a hot Melbourne day, the internet gods weren’t kind to us. Consequently, a written version of the interview rather than video seemed like the best presentation of the interview. Pics by Jason Rosewarne.

Australian Musician: Tommy, we are looking forward to seeing you back in Australia next year. You’re coming out for your guitar retreat and you’re playing Bluesfest in Byron Bay. Do you enjoy the big festivals like Bluesfest, meeting artists backstage, that sort of thing?

Tommy: I love playing those festivals and I do them all over the world. America has countless amounts of bluegrass festivals and blues festivals and things like that… Americana fests. I get booked to play on all kinds of festivals, blues, jazz, country, it doesn’t matter. My music tends to cross all boundaries. And also, for me, it’s a great challenge to be on such a big stage with such a big crowd just playing one guitar, just being on your own. That to me is a big challenge and it’s one that I love. And I remember Bluesfest (Byron Bay) a few years ago when I played there, holy smoke, the crowd were amazing and I just wanted to give them blood and bone.

At what point of the day do you decide what you’re going to play at a concert?
Well, it depends on the show. If it’s a normal concert, I just have to decide what I’m going to start with. I never use a set list unless I’m working with an orchestra or a band. Everyone else needs to know what’s coming next but when I’m playing on my own, I never use a set list ever. I like to decide what I want to start with and I want to have the right kind of start. I don’t want it to be too crazy and it doesn’t need to be slow. It needs to be just like a medium pace and I come out there and then I just floor it and away I go. I go from first gear to fifth immediately!

These days you’re an internationally recognised artist, often called the world’s greatest acoustic guitarist, but do you remember the first time you played outside of Australia?
Yeah, it was in New Zealand. I remember it well. And yeah, it was fun. I did a whole bunch of workshops for people and then when I got signed with Sony, they got behind everything and I got on TV and I went from playing 200 seater clubs to a thousand seater halls in less than a year really   and it was amazing. So I’ve tried to build my audience all around the world over the last 40 years of travelling and playing and all that. It’s taken a while to get the right team around me and to really hand-make an audience. I’m very fortunate. The internet is very kind to me and there’s a lot of people tuned in now, and I just got the figures from Spotify yesterday and I have something like 10.8 million streams. I have about 3 million followers just on Spotify, so it’s pretty amazing. I mean, they’re pretty low numbers compared to Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen or someone but for a solo guitar player, it’s not bad.

It’s pretty damn good. Yeah. Tommy, you use every piece of the guitar in performance from plucking the strings to tapping the body and everything in between. Is there an element of the guitar that you’re still exploring more than others?
I am always looking for the best sound I can get. It really comes from trying new things and new guitars from Maton. I play a lot of their new guitars recently and I can sense how much they’re lifting their game. And everywhere I go, I’m signing Maton guitars. It’s unbelievable all around the world, from China, Russia to Germany to here. Last night I was in San Antonio and I signed three Maton guitars at a meet and greet before the show. So yeah, it’s a great success story and I’m really proud of them.

And Andy Allen, the great Maton Custom shop luthier retired this year. Tell me about your creative relationship with Andy over the years.
Well, Andy, I’ve known Andy since he was sweeping the floor out there. Andy got given the job of making me an 808 one time and they made it in a hurry and he did a great job on it and they presented it to me and I played it and I instantly loved it. That doesn’t always happen, but when I played that guitar within five minutes, it’s like, this is my guitar. And because of that, they created the custom shop and then Andy went to town designing guitars. And I have four of Andy’s guitars on the road with me right now. I have my fairly new TE personal, I have a cutaway called an Australian, that was an experiment of Andy’s. I love that guitar. And I have two jumbos. One I put baritone strings on and the other one I have big medium strings and I tune it down a whole step down to like a drop D tuning but it’d down to C. They are producing some beautiful guitars. And they’ve got a new team. Andy’s retired, so there’s a new team of builders in the custom shop now, and I already have one of their new guitars and it’s exactly the same as Andy’s. It’s brilliant.

That’s good to hear. Tell me about the Udo Roesner Da Capo 75 acoustic reference amp that you’ve been promoting. What does that do for your sound?
Well, I got involved with AER back in the late nineties and I basically said to them, your amps sound amazing, but there’s too much compression. You need to get rid of it and there’s too many overtones and the high end doesn’t sound real. Then I said to him, you don’t need all those effects. I want a long reverb and a short reverb, that’s all. And he’s like, no chorus? No delay? No blah? I said no, get rid of all that. Make this amp with a bass, middle and treble controls and no kind of fake sounding…. you push the button and it sounds like the Eagles, all the mid-range taken out of your acoustic guitar. A guitar is mid range, and so you got to get the right frequencies. So anyway, so they came out with the Compact 60 because I harassed them enough about it, and everybody loved that amp, and it’s the amp that I used all those years.

And then Udo was designing a new amp and about five years ago, maybe a bit more, I can’t quite remember. He came to my show in Frankfurt, Germany, and he came to soundcheck and I was playing through the AER Compact 60, and we’ve just put his new amp beside it, and we just unplugged the AER and plugged in the Udo De Capo amp. The sound was so much better. It was like the a AER sounded a little kind of, I don’t know, tubular, that’s how I would say it. And then when I plugged in the De Capo, it’s like the sound just widened out and got big and just wide open and frequencies that my ear really loved. That’s what I heard. And I can get a big sound out of that amp and I don’t have to play it loud. Basically I take a direct line into the PA out of that amp. And that’s what you are hearing when you watch a video of me playing live from anywhere in the last five years, you are hearing that amp.

You received your third career Grammy nomination this year. You were nominated in 1998 and 2006. This time with The String Revolution. Will you attend this year?
Yeah, I’m hoping to. It’ll be February 4th. My last show is February the second in Dublin, and then I’m going to hightail it straight to New York from there. And yeah, I mean, I had no idea that this was going to happen. I just got a call from the String Revolution people and Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, and he said, I want you to come out to the Cash cabin and do Folsom Prison Blues. So I went out there just with acoustic guitar and they played me the track and there’s a lot going on in it. It’s an unusual arrangement. And they’d already done all their parts, but they wanted me to kind of take the melody. So of course I know the song. I grew up with it. So I did two passes from start to finish. I played a lot and I said, use what you want. I played a lot. So you got two passes to choose from. When you mix it, put whatever you want in it. So they basically took my part and put it in the track and mixed it and made it work. And next thing I know, we get a Grammy nomination. I was so surprised I was only there for half an hour.

Yeah, that’s great. Congratulations on that.
Thank you. I appreciate it. Well, I put up a lot of my recordings for Grammy nominations and also for Americana Music awards and stuff like that. And it’s just really hard to get even into the top 10 of those genres. So to be a part of something that’s made it to the final four is a great honour. So I’m really, really thrilled. And I had no idea it was going to work out like that. But anyway, I’ve since become good friends with the Cash Family, so that’s been nice getting to know them all.

Yeah, great. The other thing that’s happened this year is you released Accomplice Two, the second album of collaborations, some great great people, Michael McDonald and Little Feat Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle. Might this now be an ongoing project that you revisit every now and then?
Well, I’ve done two albums like that. I’ve done Accomplice One and Two. My next album will be a completely solo album. I have Jerry Douglas on tour with me right now. Him and his bass player, Daniel Kimbro, they’re opening as a duo. And then the three of us play together at the end of the show. And it’s just wild. People love it. And so there’s a lot of artists that I’d like to collaborate with more, but my manager Brian, is always like, come on, you’ve got to get a new solo album. That’s what people are waiting for. They want to hear some more original songs. So I’m in the process of trying to write and do all that, but in the meantime, I’m touring more than ever, so it’s not always easy.

You play so much acoustic guitar. Do you feel an urge to plug in an electric guitar at home much?
Always. If you walked into my kitchen, you’d see beside where I sit and eat breakfast, there’s a Fender Deluxe amp sitting there and three Telecasters on stands right there. So I play electric guitar home all the time. And when I’m home in Nashville, I’ll go down Monday night, I’ll go and sit in with a band called The Time Jumpers and play Western Swing music and love it.

When was the last time you broke an acoustic guitar string in performance?
Probably 10 years ago maybe. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t break strings very often at all. I’ve broken several strings stretching them in. Every now and again, you’ll get a third string and you’ll be stretching it. It’ll just go bang. But I use good strings and I change strings when my guitar’s need it. I don’t change it every day. I don’t want that sound. I like the sound of the string about two days to three days old. It’s a good sound. But for my main guitar, I change the string about every two to three shows. And then I have four guitars, four Andy Allen guitars with me on the road, and they’re different tunings and stuff like that.

What are your interests outside of music? Do you find it hard to switch off?
I’m a professional napper (laughs). During the day, if I feel a little tired or whatever, I get a wave of tiredness hit me, I’ll just go put my head down, I’ll be asleep and one minute and I’ll wake up 10 minutes later, bright as a button ready to go. So when I’m home in Nashville, I’m usually doing working things on my house or  visiting all my neighbours or going visiting other guitar players in Nashville who are dear friends of mine. And I get together with Stuey French sometimes and his wife and kids and I go out to their place in Goodlettsville and we sit and play tunes and sing songs and all that sort of stuff. But I don’t have a lot of other hobbies. A lot of people have hobbies like they’re fishermen or they’re bicycle riders or long distance runners. I walk a lot and I’m reasonably fit for a guy who doesn’t live in the gym and I eat well, and I take care of myself and I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’m happiest when I’m on stage.

So what’s on between now and your Australian trip?
Okay, well, I finish this tour on the 14th of this month in California, and then I’m having some days with my daughter Rachel in San Jose. I’m having a few days with her, and then I’m going to England for Christmas to be granddad and hang out with my daughters and my granddaughters. And then I start a long tour of England and Molly Tuttle is flying in to come and be the opening artist. And so Molly and I will do the whole English tour. It’s about 18 dates in January, and then she’ll fly home and I’ll go and play in Paris and then I’ll fly back into Ireland and Mike Dawes will join me and we’ll do three shows in Ireland. And then I’ll go to the Grammys. And then I’ve got a February tour here in America. And then I fly into Australia for my camp and then Bluesfest, and then on to New Zealand for six shows.

You’re a busy man.
I’m a busy guy. That’s how I like it.

Well Tommy, it’s been great to catch up again. I’m sorry about our internet gremlins.
Oh, thank you Greg. That’s all good. It’s great to see your smiling face, young man. And keep doing what you’re doing mate. And thanks for writing about an old fart like me. I love it. Thank you.

Alright, look forward to seeing you up at Bluesfest
See you brother.

Bluesfest Byron Bay
Thu, 28 Mar 2024 – Mon, 1 Apr 2024

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