I recall a moment from a Tommy Emmanuel show a few years ago. The legendary Aussie guitar master was introducing one of his best-known songs.
“I’ve played this song in front of the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh… and many other pubs”. (Insert your own rimshot here).
Tommy Emmanuel is an entertainer. While many songwriters and performers make music purely for their own gratification, Tommy has always made music to connect with an audience, using the songs he writes or loves as ways to communicate with the thousands who come to each show. But while music is the most important element of a Tommy Emmanuel show, it’s not the only weapon in his arsenal.
“Surprising people is a very big part of what it means to entertain people. You think you’re coming to a serious guitar show, the guy comes out and says ‘Hey folks, great to be here. I got pulled up by the police. I didn’t know they were allowed to drive that fast’.
All of a sudden, this person is making you laugh and having a laugh at himself. ‘If I make any mistakes tonight, they’re probably on purpose’.”
In the liner notes to his latest album ‘Live at the Ryman’, he writes “This is genuine ‘had to be there’…no fix ups…no frills recording” – an acknowledgement of potential imperfection that is undetectable in the actual recordings within. Tommy steps on stage armed purely with two or three Melbourne-made acoustic guitars, his astonishing musical memory and no set list. An hour and a half later, you look around the floor to find where your jaw dropped so you can put your face back together and go home. While Tommy is sometimes left unsatisfied with a performance, it’s because he’s holding himself to an ideal that would be hard for anyone else to imagine. Asked what his goals are moving forward, he says simply “I want to play better”.
The new live album is the document of Tommy’s dream gig – performing at the historic ‘mother church of country music’ in his adopted home town of Nashville, and selling it out. For the most part, it’s a pretty typical TE gig – raucous and tender in equal measure, drawing from his own dense songbook and some of his best known arrangements (Classical Gas, his Beatles Medley, Guitar Boogie) and as much a classic pop concert as a masterclass in fingerstyle dexterity.
What made the show truly unique was that Tommy was joined on a few numbers by Steve Wariner and John Knowles, the other two living Certified Guitar Players. The CGP title was bestowed on a select few guitar geniuses by Tommy’s idol, mentor and surrogate father Chet Atkins. This show was the first time the three remaining CGPs had performed live together.
Wariner will join Tommy down under this month, a special guest on all the shows of the Australian tour – the first time two CGPs have appeared on the same show in Oz.
“You’d better be up on your game, because they’re watching,” Tommy says of touring Australia. “In every city, there’s always the real hardcore fans.”
If you mention Tommy’s name to any random Aussie, you’ll get an interesting variety of reactions. Any guitarist will either salivate at the memory of Tommy’s mastery, or curse his name as the unattainable ideal. Some people know Tommy best from his frequent appearances on variety television at the start of his solo career, or from his stint in Dragon, his performance with his brother Phil at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 or even as the little kid who toured the breadth of the country before he was old enough to shave.
Tommy started his professional career during his formative years (he initially retired from touring at the age of eleven) and he developed a skill and love for performance that bordered on compulsive. One of my favourite (and most revealing) Tommy stories starts with him getting snowed in in Allentown (yes, the city from the Billy Joel song) on his way to a show. The airport is closed and… well, I’ll let Tommy pick up the story…
“We weren’t going anywhere. The only place we could get was the shuttle to the Sheraton hotel and there happened to be two rooms left. Everything shut down. The hotel is full and no one is coming in or out. So we’re stuck there for at least three days.
So we were there for three days and all I could do was just practice my playing. I get antsy if I’m on tour and there’s too much time off. I don’t like that. I started looking around the kind of bar/disco area where there was a PA in the ceiling and there was a DJ desk and everything with a microphone and everything.
So I talked to the hotel manager I said ‘How about we put on a show for all the people. No one can go in and out. Why don’t we put on a show?’ and he said ‘Okay’ just like that. ‘After dinner we’ll move all the tables and chairs and moves the chairs concert style. We’ll open the bar and people can drink for free’.
We made the announcement, everybody had dinner and we all sat down. The place was jamming with people and I came out and played about 45 minutes, everybody loved it.”
To me, that story sums up what is special about Tommy and a lot of what separates him from other incredibly skilled musicians. It’s also what comes out when you talk to him, and hear the well-crafted anecdotes he’s developed to explain himself and his life. Nothing frustrates Tommy more than a missed opportunity to entertain, to bring happiness to other people.
“When I come off the road at the end of a long tour, there was a time where I’d get very teary and weepy several times a day and I couldn’t figure it out and my ex-wife she said to me ‘It’s end of tour blues. You’re putting out all these emotions every night and now they’re waiting to come out and there’s no outlet. You’re just hanging around the house drinking coffee and reading books and whatever’. It’s like your emotions are wanting to come out.”
There are great musicians who have mastered a craft. There are inspired songwriters who can weave beautiful songs out of the ether. There are journeymen who tour relentlessly like it’s a day job. But Tommy Emmanuel is more than the sum of those qualities. He’s the quintessential entertainer.
“When I was a kid,” he often says. “I wanted to be in show-business. Now I just want to be in the happiness business. I make music, you get happy.”