febrero 8, 2023
Legendary Guitarist Tommy Emmanuel on Songwriting and Storytelling

Legendary Guitarist Tommy Emmanuel on Songwriting and Storytelling

If there’s one guitar player that everyone must see in concert at least once in their lifetime, it’s Tommy Emmanuel. He’s a guitar player’s guitar player who captivates audiences for hours as a one-man show. Just him and his guitar. While he does bring along other incredibly talented and entertaining players with him to the stage, everyone knows that Tommy is one of those rare enchanters who can effortlessly fill the room with the most incredibly dynamic range of sounds without any help, and he’s done it all over the world, virtually every night for decades. And he always brings down the house. I recently had the honor to sit down with him backstage for Newsweek at the Rogue Theater in the town of Grants Pass, Oregon.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of an interview with guitarist Tommy Emmanuel during an episode of Newsweek Radio. You can listen to the podcast here:

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I’d like to start at the beginning and just get your life story.

As they say in The Sound of Music, a very good place to start!

Let’s start with the story of your father, who sold the family house so you and your entire family could tour Australia as a traveling band. Can you take us back to that time in the early 1950s and 1960s?

Well, I was very young. I was 5 and we’d been playing together as a unit. My two brothers and my sister and I had been playing as a unit for about a year, and we started to really enjoy it. We started to get a name for ourselves in the little town we were in, and then we went in a couple of band competitions. In the early days, the local radio stations used to run band competitions and if you won, you had a chance to go on the radio and maybe record something—or even better, if you can get yourself on TV. And that’s kind of what happened.

We got on a radio show, then we won this contest, and then we got a TV appearance. It was during that TV appearance that an American TV producer came to Australia, watched us play and was amazed. He said to my dad, «These kids have talent and the public need to see them. What are you going to tour? Are you going to take them on the road?» Dad had never thought about that, so we drove home, and mom and dad had a powwow in their teepee, and came out and said, «We’re going to sell the house and we’re going to buy a tent and a trailer. We’re going to get an agent and hit the road.»

That’s really how it all started. It was a complete failure actually because instead of really trying to go that market of getting on TV and getting to the masses, we decided that we would just go from town to town and play in the little holes, which is the slowest method known in show business, but that’s what we did, and it lasted three years straight traveling around Australia.

And then my dad had a pretty bad heart attack, and we had about a three-month break.

Then he got well so we decided to go back to it. And then they decided his health was deteriorating so quickly, he had a heart disease which there was no cure for. We moved to a town where he could get a job, and he lasted about another year. Then in 1966, he had a massive heart attack and died instantly. I was 10, it was just before my 11th birthday. My mom, after the funeral and after four or five days of not coming out of her bedroom, she appeared and called all of us in and said, «We can stay here and you can have a normal life, and they go to school, and you can play on the weekends if you want. Or we can try to get a job with another show that’s already traveling and successful.» And that’s exactly what we did.

There was a guy named Buddy Williams who was like the Tex Ritter of Australia, and he offered us a job and provided us with a little caravan. So it was a little four-berth caravan with six kids and mum in there. We all slept on the floor and on the table, and we did that up until the Australian government forced us off the road. It was called a child welfare organization and they only looked at it as slave labor, like child labor, because we were the ones performing and earning the money. We were the breadwinners, but they didn’t really consider that’s what we wanted to do, no one made us do it.

Tommy Emmanuel performs onstage on November 6, 2018, in Rome. Emmanuel recently took part in a Newsweek interview.
Getty Images/Roberto Panucci/Corbis

How did your family move on after losing your father?

It was a blow to the family, but in hindsight we just got on with things. We didn’t say, «We can’t go on without dad.» We didn’t say that and neither did mom. She had six kids under her wing, two that were much younger than me. I just turned 11, so my sister was 8 and my little brother was 6.

That’s one heck of a big choice to make, at such a young age, to choose to go on the road.

Yeah. Especially with no money, and really nothing guaranteed, but that’s what we wanted to do. We didn’t know any, any difference. We would come into a town where we were going to play, and we’d find the radio station, and dad would go in there and say, «Put my kids on the radio, we’ll play live for you, and you can advertise the show.» Then when they discovered that we had personality, and could talk, and were funny, they did.

I remember reading the weather report when I was 6 years old on the radio and feeling like Bob Hope. Because as a kid, I didn’t just study other musicians and look and learn, I looked and learned at comedians and compères, people who were good at communicating with the audience. I studied them closely to the best of my young abilities. When you do that, it’s a great joy when you go into a radio station and people discover that you actually have personality and that you’re not just a closed book, a guy who bleeds for his art.

I remember maybe 15 years ago when The Bob & Tom Show was the biggest thing on radio in that time. I was lucky that I was able to get on, but I could tell straight away that they didn’t expect me to have anything to say, and that they were all going to be funny, and I just jumped in and started bantering with them, and we had a blast. They invited me back twice, because I love comedy and I love the timing of that stuff.

Speaking of radio, you had a monumental moment as a child when you first heard Chet Atkins on the radio. Can you tell me about that moment and how it influenced you?

I remember it because when I heard him play, I could tell he was doing everything at once. And I knew without question that that’s what I had to do. There were no ifs, or buts, or doubts or whatever. As soon as I heard it, I heard my destiny, and I knew it. And how can you explain that to someone? How does a 7-year-old kid hear something and say, «He’s playing everything at once»—how does that happen? I don’t know. I still have no training. I don’t read music. I play everything by ear. I’ve just evolved, and begged, stolen, and borrowed like everybody else, and found a place for myself in this wonderful life here on earth.

That’s incredible.

Yeah. Well, you know, the funny thing is, Jesse, is that when I got to meet my hero, Chet Atkins, in 1980, he told me the same story. He was living on a farm in Columbus, Georgia, with his dad. And he tuned in the radio, and he heard Merle Travis playing, and he just said, «That’s what I have to do.» That right there, that’s a defining moment. You know, I don’t do it like him, and he didn’t do it like Travis, but you can tell where we came from.

I’ve read somewhere recently that some of Chet Atkin’s style you picked up and figured out in a dream one time. Is that true?

That’s true. Yeah. Well, it’s a particular technique and Chet made this sound with harmonics and none of us could figure it out. Every guitar player I came across, I said, «Have you heard Chen Atkins play? What the hell is he doing?»

Anyway, I remember I was about 17 and I really wanted to make that sound here. I wanted to know how he was doing it. I was trying everything I knew to find it and I couldn’t figure it out. And what happened was, one night I had this dream, and it was a really vivid dream. And I remember it still to this day because there was red velvet curtains and spotlights. Chet came out in a tuxedo with his Gretsch guitar, and he just sat there and did this technique that I was dreaming about. And that was the end of the dream.

And this is true as God is my witness. When I woke up in the morning, I understood it and I picked up my guitar and I made that sound, and I was so excited. I just couldn’t believe it. But the only way I can explain that is somehow, well, this is my theory: I think my subconscious figured it out, and I think it had to show my conscious part of the brain. And, and so it played a little movie for it—that’s the only explanation I can offer.

That’s pretty wild.

A guy named Lenny Breau, who’s no longer with us, who I met in 1980 as well—Lenny really perfected that cascading harmonic technique. It was Lenny who really helped Chet refine that whole thing. And he did so much more with it. And then, because I could make that sound, there were no other guitar players around that I heard who could do that, or who were doing that. And so, I had to come up with some songs that were defined by my style. One of the first tunes I played in that style was Michelle by The Beatles. I worked out how to play it all, and wow. And then I did Somewhere Over the Rainbow. You can play a lot of songs in that style, but if it’s going to be something on a scale of excellence, and art, and emotion, it takes time to put a complicated arrangement together, and practice it, and make it a seamless kind of thing.

What was it like to meet your idol and play with him for the first time? I know you flew from Australia all the way to Nashville for that experience.

It was beautiful. I wrote Chet a letter when I was about 11 after Dad passed away and told him I was a big fan and that I had some of his records and blah, blah, blah. And he wrote back to me. And then years later, I get a letter just out of the blue—it was one of those quickly written notes, and on the top of the page it said «from the desk of Chet Atkins.» And he said, «I just heard you on tape and you’re really doing great. Here’s my office number. Call me when you come to town.» I was about 18, and I can’t tell you what that did for me, you know, to get a note from my hero. Someone in Australia had sent this tape of me playing to him and not told me. I had no idea. I wouldn’t have thought of recording myself and sending it to Chet. I would never think of that. And, uh, someone just recorded me playing in their lounge room. When we played together the very first time, the first song we played together was Me and Bobby McGee. And I played it typically in his style, from a version of his. He recognized it straight away, as in he knew where I got that from and he just jumped into beautiful harmonies and little things, and he made me sound really good. It was a joy, and it was a dream come true. It was like my life came full circle. And then 15 years later he calls me, and we ended up recording together.

Through the ’70s and ’80s, you played for some rock bands, before deciding to go solo. What inspired you to make that leap?

Well, I didn’t just suddenly decide to go solo, let’s just say that because what was going on was during the ’70s and ’80s, I was writing songs and I was developing my solo style. So, I was making a living, teaching guitar, playing on people’s records, playing on commercials, being a songwriter, all that stuff. And then I was playing in bands. And then every now and again, I’d book myself in, like, a jazz club and do a solo thing. And it started to build in a way, like I did a band thing and in the middle of the band show, I’d send the band off and play solo. And so many people kept saying to me, «The best part of the show was when you played on your own.» And I thought, there’s something in this. I was doing it because it was fun and it was challenging, and I loved it, but I always thought you have to have a band. But the more I did it, the more I realized it set me free. I didn’t have to work to a list. I could just go out and make music.

Is it true that you don’t use a set list?

Never. I never use a set list unless I’m playing with a band or an orchestra because everyone else needs to know what’s coming next. When I go out there onstage tonight, all I have to really decide on is what do I want to start with and, and how it’s going to go. And I have a plethora of music to choose from and put it together.

Can you describe your approach as to how you tell a story with only the guitar?

That’s a good question. I don’t know how it works. It’s all about instinct, really. I couldn’t tell you exactly the method, the right method to use to tell me a story about something. When I wrote Lewis and Clark, that was one of the monumental challenges of my life because how do I tell the story of the great unknown? How do I tell the story of the rivers, the prairies, the valleys, the native people, the American West, the rivers. How do I do that?

You did that though—that’s what I get from that song every time I hear it.

Well, all my instincts were is that this song had to be simple. It had to create space. So the first part of it, because I was very inspired—the inspiration to me is 90 percent of the deal. That you had to have to really be inspired to get something out, and it comes to you. I learned a great lesson writing that song because I learned that there were two songwriters inside me. One’s up here in my head, and he’s got a million ideas and he’s throwing them at me. And the other one is down here in my heart and soul. And he must be satisfied. He’s the one that I have to satisfy. I had read the journals of Lewis and Clark and I was so inspired; how can I tell this story in music?

So, the theme came really quickly, and so I got the main theme going, and each time it came around to the chorus, my old guy in my head was giving me so many ideas and no nothing was working. And I kept at it, and kept at it, and kept at it for hours until I eventually surrendered and said, «I’m going to have to go to sleep and, and the music’s going to have to come to me. Somehow the message is going to come.» So I put my guitar down and went to bed. I woke up early and I was staying at a little hotel in Lake Oswego near Portland, Oregon. And I walked down on the balcony and looked across the lake and I heard this voice in my head. And it said, «If you bring your love with you, if you bring your love with you.» That’s what it said. And with that phrase came the melody. And the melody came to me, and I realized I was trying to force music and it doesn’t work. As soon as I stopped forcing it and let it come to me, that’s when it happened. So it was a great lesson to learn.

Do you ever get time alone just to sit and play guitar by yourself anymore?

All the time.

Do you still get that thrill? Do you ever laugh out loud and get the goosebumps at your own playing?

That happens onstage a lot. If I tap into something wonderful. Yeah. You know, there are other times when I shout at myself to get my adrenaline up. I’ll just yell «ha» really loudly, and your body releases chemicals, which are an adrenaline-type thing.

Sure. I’ve heard of the same method used in martial arts.

Exactly. Yeah. I use it onstage. See, when, when I need a little kick, I just shout in the middle of a song.

It’s a famous quote of yours that, «One day you pick up the guitar and you feel like a great master, and the next day you feel like a fool.» Can you expand on that a little bit?

It’s still the same. I do as much preparation as anybody I know. I’m changing my strings, I’m tuning, I’m practicing, I’m playing, I’m sound checking. I’m jamming. I’m in the zone. And there are some nights where it’s just like unstoppable. The ideas flow and you’re just there, but it’s the same preparation as the next night. And you go out there and you can hardly string s*** together because you can’t stop the s****y committee between your ears, or something like that. You know, we all have that, we all have those voices in our head and as much as you can say, «Don’t listen to that stuff,» it’s always there. It’s just also different things.

Like for instance, if the sound is bothering me. Like last night about halfway through my show there was a distortion, and I think it might’ve just been in my hearing aids, but there was a sort of distortion, and it was making the bass onstage sound funny. Nothing I could do to get rid of it, if I moved over a little further, the sound changed too much. In general, if the sound is really good and I’m really in tune and all that sort of stuff, there’s no stopping it.

There was a transformation when you went from being a famous guitar player among guitar players, and then you became like a household name. Did that happen sometime in the 2000s because of YouTube, or am I just imagining this?

I think YouTube did so much for me, yeah. In 2005, I was over in England, and I had a new agent who said to me, «Can we do two shows in the one night in Stockholm in Sweden?» I asked why. And he said, «Because the first show sold out so quickly.» And I thought, how’s that possible? I’ve never played in Stockholm, so how does anyone know me? He said, «I don’t know, but there’s a big demand and the promoter there wants to put a second show on, can you do a six o’clock and a nine o’clock?» and I agreed. So, I flew in and did these two shows, and I said to the audience, how do you know me? And they all yelled out, «YouTube!» And I said, «What’s YouTube?» I didn’t know. I didn’t even own a computer. I didn’t have a phone. I was a caveman. A friend of mine showed me on his laptop, and there’s my version of Guitar Boogie from a show in England a long time ago, and it’s got like 2 million views. My tours in Europe started out in smaller places, like 300-600 seats. But it wasn’t long before I was into the thousands. And it’s because of that.

The other thing is that YouTube wants people to comment all the time, so it’s a free-for-all, and there’s this whole generation of people now who think that their opinion really matters. I always say to people, «This is just my opinion, which means nothing.» I always preempt it with that. Why should I walk around thinking my opinion really matters a lot? I don’t walk around giving my opinion to people. If you ask me about something, I’ll give you the honest answer from my perspective, and that’s it. But until then, I’m not going to push my opinions on you. I think that’s wrong.

The other thing is that because of things like Instagram and TikTok, there are people all over the world who are recording themselves in their bedrooms for 60 seconds and they think that they’re going to have a career. I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. You’ve got to get out and build. It doesn’t matter. You can have all the social media in the world—it does not equal concert tickets sold. You have to create a demand. It still comes back to, what can I do to give you the feeling like you really want to run out and buy a ticket and come and see me. That’s my job as an artist. I have to create that. And the only way I can create that is give you everything I got and hit you over the head with it and give you such a good time that you’ve got to have it again. And I’ll be back in a year. I’ll see you in a year, and you buy a ticket. That’s kind of how it works.

You have a grueling tour schedule some 20-year-olds would probably have a hard time with. How do have so much energy?

I’m a world champion napper. When we arrived here at 10 past two today, after driving slowly down the mountains and through all the snow, I got into my hotel room, and I was literally asleep 40 seconds later. I slept for 15 minutes, got up, got ready, came down here, started tuning and stringing, and it’s those little power naps that really helped me. I’m not a late-night, party-every-night-after-the-show kind of guy, I’m not like that at all. If I did that, I wouldn’t last a week, you’ve got to look after yourself.

Do you ever look back at decades of being on the road and night after night after night of shows and wonder how the audience still sustains you after all these years?

Yeah. Well, it’s because you are doing something good for the audience. The great thing is I get to use my gift, whatever it is, but it’s only for the good of everyone else. And that’s what keeps me going. And then as soon as I have a great night and everybody’s had a wonderful time, and I’m exhausted, my first thought is, «Ah, I’ve got to do it again tomorrow, how can I beat tonight?» But I know tonight I can beat last night.

It’s not every day that I get the opportunity to talk with someone who is responsible for writing the soundtrack to major portions of my life, so I was incredibly nervous before this interview. But Tommy Emmanuel is a world-class act in person just like he is onstage, and was incredibly friendly, open, honest, and warm. He also treats his fans and followers like family. I can’t thank him enough for talking with us and entertaining us with absolutely everything that he’s got over the years. Put his name on your bucket list if it’s not there already—visit him online and buy his incredible music at TommyEmmanuel.com.

Jesse Edwards is the director of radio and podcasts at Newsweek, and the host of Newsweek Radio.

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