Interview with Tommy Emmanuel by Adrian Hextall
With Accomplice One’, now out, Tommy Emmanuel returns with a 16-track collaborative album features guest artists such as Jason Isbell, Rodney Crowell, Amanda Shires, Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, J.D. Simo amongst others.
The album, full of standouts, delivers a jaw-dropping rendition of “Purple Haze” with Dobro master Jerry Douglas. “You Don’t Want to Get You One of Those,” showcases a sly vocal and acoustic duet with Dire Straits’ legend Mark Knopfler. “Djangology” is a gypsy jazz treat cut live in Havana, Cuba with Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo.
We spoke to Tommy as he did some promo work in London in advance of a new tour in May and a European Guitar Workshop that takes place in Scotland.
AH: Your new album contains what I would call classic artists that fit your style of playing and the genre of music that you are certainly attuned to but you’ve also got some very modern artists sitting on there as well. You’ve got JD [Simo] playing with you on a couple of tracks and how nice to see him sort of branching out into new areas.
How did you manage to pull everybody together?
TE: Well first of all I wanted to be working with people who could do it with me live in the studio and I wanted people who had a, you know, a real broad style who could be comfortable in several genres. JD Simo is is definitely one of those, you know, I could have had Albert Lee or Brent Mason or James Burton play on that track wheeling and dealing but because JD is not known for that style, I particularly wanted him to come and play on the track that he played an amazing solo and we were all just like gobsmacked when when he went into that and believe me he cut that solo really really quickly. So and then of course when I heard him sing, that’s when I got the idea of doing Dock of the Bay and it was the right choice and he was the right singer for it, the same thing with Jason Isbell. Jason came in and played on an instrumental track for me because I loved his slide playing and everything but I think he’s got the right voice for a song like Deep River Blues and so I gave him the lyric sheet and he knew the song anyway. The moment he started to sing it, it was like it was meant to be, you know, so you know they they’re the right people for that for that if those songs. The song with Ricky Skaggs was the same thing soon as I saying the song to him, he immediately owned it you know as soon as he started to sing, so yeah you know and and the tracks with David Grisman and Bryan Sutton. They were all one take, is one time through and everybody just rose to it and brought it in.
AH: You’ve got some artists on there that I’ve not come across before. The first time I heard them was quite a revelation. When you’ve got people like Ricky and David playing, you’ve got the mandolins which give the songs an extra layer it really comes to another level, doesn’t it?
TE: I think so, yeah and a guy like Ricky has had so much experience since early childhood but you know he’ll hear a song and make it his just by the way he approaches it but he never ever over plays or over sings anything. He does what seems to be always exactly the right thing, you know, first time around and that’s a real musician who’s really tuned in to the music and and puts the song first.
AH: You must have a huge amount of reliance and confidence of these artists that you can deal with and work with, you know it’s not going to be wasted time in the studio as well.
TE: Well, exactly I mean, I spent no time at all telling people what I was after. I just played the songs to them and I said this is what I’m going to do and this is what– this is I think what you should do and they just did it. The track with Amanda Shires, the Madonna track, we cut that track with her singing and me playing acoustic rhythm. That’s all. I put the drums and the bass and everything on later.
That’s me doing the band, but she sang it straight down like just like it was live. We put her fiddle on later because we couldn’t do the both at the same time because if you move away from the mic to play the fiddle it is a much louder voice than the vocal so that had to be done separately.
When Amanda and I do it live, she just plain– walks up to the mic and plays a fiddle and but that you know, that was live and that’s how everything went down.
AH: And that particular track with Amanda as well, it also proves how something like a track can be stripped right back and it’s just as powerful as it would be with a full band behind it.
TE: Exactly and I’ve always liked that song and I felt that that the song had a chance to breathe and get you know, go into us as as we listened to it rather than being you know sugar-coated with with so many keyboards and stuff like that. It just needed rhythm, a nice acoustic rhythm around it, and then bass and drums and then her fiddle bits worked really well. She’s got a great sensibility with the fiddle and I just put my vocal part on later you know. I just sang all the backing vocals like a group.
AH: Yeah, it’s impressive that you really can take it back to its roots and do such a good job with it.
TE: Well I just wanted it to be soulful and real, you know.
AH: Yeah, definitely, definitely and presumably some other artists that you’ve got on there, I mean having Mark [Knopfler] on there, that’s going to open to a wider audience presumably. It keeps going to give it a commercial opportunity to reach out things like you know not those fans and Dire Straits fans as well?
TE: Right. Well Mark said to me “There are people in the world who will buy anything I’m involved with. It doesn’t matter what it is because they’re fans for life”and he said, “That’s going to benefit you.” [laughter] but he wasn’t being arrogant about it. He was being truthful you know. And because there’s not a part of him that has any arrogance. He’s a sweet, sweet guy and very, very honest and very open.
AH: I’m not surprised. I mean, having him there, it raises people’s awareness. It sort of catches your eye. “So oh, I’ll give this a listen,” and then of course it opens me up to a wealth of artists that I’ve not come across before. I’ve never heard Amanda before, now and listening to her play and her material I say, “Oh, okay. Oh, there’s a world here that I need to investigate further.
TE: Right, exactly and in that– the whole idea of doing this album was to bring something unusual and different out and the funny thing is the album when when we released it, it debuted on the Americana chart straight away at number six. It came in at number six. It was number one on the Bluegrass chart and number one on iTunes jazz chart, so it covered– already covered three different genres and but that’s how I’ve always been. That you can’t just kind of pigeon hole what I do which is another reason why big record companies didn’t know how to market me because they couldn’t put me in one thing because I’m a little bit jazz, I’m a little bit bluegrass , I’m a bit country, I’m a bit blues you know and I I’m happy in all genres of music.
But, you know, I’m a concert player so I I bring everything to my live performance anyway and if people haven’t heard some of these songs before, then it’ll be a nice surprise for them.
AH: And talking about that, you know, what you bring to a live show and whatever I was reading with interest the way that you play with your left hand around the top of the neck of the guitar? You’re placing your thumb so you’re covering some of the notes on the strings as opposed to using your fingers I mean, quite common as I understand it for a country and blues players but not like common for everybody else.
TE: Well I’ve always played that way. I’ve never had lessons so you know, I’m really making it up as I go along. There’s probably a lot of bad habits in the way I play but I turn them into useful things for me and it creates problems for people who have been taught a certain way of playing it’s like ‘I can’t reach that note because my thumb isn’t big enough’. Well keep trying and make your thumb do what what you wanted to do, that’s what I did.
AH: It was quite amusing to hear you say you’re making it up as you going along. I mean surely after all of this time, you’re not really making it up anymore. Is there still something you think you can learn from what’s coming along these days and working with other people?
TE: Oh, of course. Oh yeah. well I’m I mean I’m more interested in learning from singers and songwriters and you know, the challenge before me is how to get bigger and better and and how can I expand my repertoire, my knowledge. It’s a constant source of searching and trying and trying to learn beg, steal and borrow. Music is like a language that gets handed on and you know I steal something from Chester and Lester [Chet Atkins and Les Paul] and then somebody in Sweden hears me play it and then they don’t know where it comes from but they totally flip over it and then they work out in their own arrangement and all of a sudden you’ve got, you know, somebody in another country being influenced and it’s just part of the chain of events. A chain reaction kind of thing.
AH: Well I can well believe that and you know looking at your influences, of course Chet Atkins makes perfect sense to me. But I’m really interested in your love of Hank Marvin as well. Hank’s not known for the type of music that you necessarily play all the time.
TE: No but Hank’s melodic and bluesy kind of approach and the way that he nails the melody in and all that you know, and the Shadows were not just a great example of how to be a good band but a bigger example to us all of playing songs, right. Look for the great melodies and you know, when you’re writing music that no one’s going to sing that it’s just instrumental, the melody really has to be strong and in such a way that you just can’t hear it enough. You want to hear it again you want to hear it again you know. And so that taught me a lot when I was young and between The Shadows and Chet Atkins I heard good quality instrumental music that was memorable and I heard interesting arrangements but never got boring.
AH: I still pick up music by The Shadows from time to time and you can fall in love with it time and time again. Totally absorbing.
TE: Yeah, totally it is. and those guys set the bar really high early on. I remember learning all the early stuff like The Savage and Foot Tapper and Wonderful Land and all those in there. Jerry Lordan was writing a lot of that stuff and but it was just a great lesson in you know, if you want to move people and if you want to get the attention of the masses, you gotta give them something that is unforgettable.
TE: Jeff Beck is another great example of somebody who has a high standard and that has always been different and always had good good songs, you know. Look at the album Blow by Blow.
AH: In terms of, you know, people that you look up to, what about the letters that you’ve received. The amount of time that you spend working with different artists and playing in so many different areas as well in the same way that you know you wrote with Chet and Hank for example and look to them for inspiration. Who’s written to you and said you know what? I really love what you’re doing. Can you guide me here or there or you know, give me some point or two.
TE: I’d say literally thousands of people. I mean it’s what you could hope for and you know I had no idea the impact that it was going to have on people just by being yourself, you know, and people experience the joy that you feel in playing and and serving others through your music. That joy is infectious and people want that you know and it’s like you inspired me to fly my kite. I’m hoping that when people see me play that they’re struck by the love and the freedom that I play with because I’m not out there to say, “I’m the greatest edition. I have to carry that burden on my shoulders.” I could– I would hate to be in that mindset. My mindset is, “I’m going to have a lot of fun and I’m going to really play my heart out and enjoy this and whatever happens when I’m playing, I know it’s going to be good for you. Something happens when you play music. People become a lot happier. They forget about their troubles and they get caught up in the whole experience and that’s a good thing.
AH: You’re absolutely right. It’s so easy to get lost in there but it did really just make the difference. Your troubles just disappear.
TE: Exactly, yeah when when people ask me about the music business, I always say, “Well, hang on. I’m not in the music business. I’m in the happiness business. I play music and people get happy and I don’t know what happens. I know it’s not me. So I don’t have to carry the burden but I have to show up and do my best and when I do that, everybody wins.
AH: In terms of the happiness business and how you take it around the world, you’re back touring in Europe in May?
TE: It’s, I think there are six shows and Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo will be are on the road with me and so they’ll play as a duo first and then I’ll come out and do my solo stuff and then I’ll get Frank and Vinny up. We’ll be a trio at the end of the show.
We’ve got some really good arrangements for tunes for three guitars, have a lot of great moving harmonies and the interesting ideas.
AH: How do you manage to balance studio work, live work, and also just simply enjoying what you’re doing so that you can experience these new musical areas and new artists to work with. I mean that’s quite a lot to put into a working day.
TE: I don’t have a home studio otherwise, I’d never leave it. I write on the road and I plan for recording time but when I’m home, you know, I’m a hundred percent for my family and when I’m in Nashville, off the road, I do the Music City Roots program and some TV shows and stuff like that. So I’m always doing things so it’s always interesting. It’s always a little different, I just try to enjoy every facet of it. I mean, I enjoy recording as much as I do playing live. It’s all the same to me.
AH: I hope to visit Nashville one day definitely. It’s on my bucket list.
TE: Well it’s changing so quickly, so you better hurry up lad!
Following the release of his brand new album ‘Accomplice One’, esteemed Grammy-nominated guitarist, composer and performer TOMMY EMMANUEL will embark on a May 2018 UK Tour and has announced his first ever European Guitar Camp.
His UK Tour dates will be calling through Buxton, Warrington, Whitley Bay, Birmingham, Bristol, London and features special guests, jazz guitarists Frank Vignola & Vinny Raniolo. The Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Camp Scotland is a 4-day event for players and music-lovers of all ages, levels, interests, and tastes, whether you are a master player, a beginner, or just an enthusiastic fan, the four-day programs offer activities and workshops and features Guest Instructors Richard Smith, Frank Vignola & John Knowles CGP. For more info visit www.tommyemmanuelguitarcampscotland.com
11 May – Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Camp w/Instructors Richard Smith, Frank Vignola & John Knowles CGP, Pitlochry, SCOTLAND, UK
12 May – Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Camp w/Instructors Richard Smith, Frank Vignola & John Knowles CGP, Pitlochry, SCOTLAND, UK
13 May – Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Camp w/Instructors Richard Smith, Frank Vignola & John Knowles CGP, Pitlochry, SCOTLAND, UK
14 May – Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Camp w/Instructors Richard Smith, Frank Vignola & John Knowles CGP, Pitlochry, SCOTLAND, UK
15 May – Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Camp w/Instructors Richard Smith, Frank Vignola & John Knowles CGP, Pitlochry, SCOTLAND, UK
17 May – Buxton Opera House w/Special Guests Frank Rignola & Vinny Raniolo, Buxton, UK
18 May – Warrington Parr Hall w/Special Guests Frank Rignola & Vinny Raniolo, Warrington, UK
19 May – Whitley Bay Playhoiuse w/Special Guests Frank Rignola & Vinny Raniolo,, Whitley Bay, UK
21 May – Birmingham Town Hall w/Special Guests Frank Rignola & Vinny Raniolo, Birmingham, UK
22 May – St George’s w/Special Guests Frank Rignola & Vinny Raniolo, Bristol, UK
24 May – Union Chapel w/Special Guests Frank Rignola & Vinny Raniolo, London, UK
13 Nov – Casino de Paris w/Special Guest Clive Carroll, Paris, FRANCE
14 Nov – La Traverse w/Special Guest Clive Carroll, Celon, FRANCE
16 Nov – ED&N w/Special Guest Clive Carroll, Sausheim, FRANCE
17 Nov – Espace Tonkin w/Special Guest Clive Carroll, Villeubanne, FRANCE
18 Nov – Le Silo w/Special Guest Clive Carroll, Marseille, FRANCE