Tommy Emmanuel knew from an early age where his career was headed. The guitarist was born into a musical family, got his first guitar at 4 and by the age of 6 was working as a professional musician in his family’s band touring around Australia.
“It was fun. Actually my whole life has been fun,” the guitarist says with a laugh. “But there’s nothing quite like starting out by playing with your family.”
Alison Krauss, Tommy Emmanuel When: 7:30 p.m. June 16 Where: Ravinia, 418 Sheridan, Highland Park Tickets: $38-$100 Info: ravinia.org
As youngsters, Emmanuel and his older brother Phil, who passed away in May, were considered child prodigies on the guitar. Emmanuel, the youngest in the family band, admits he was able to get away with a lot on stage.
“The others were very serious but I was the one who ran around and had fun on stage,” Emmanuel recalls, via email from Australia. “So I became the focal point in the band.”
Emmanuel and his siblings grew up listening to and being influenced by their parents’ musical tastes, which included American country music (Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves), instrumentals (The Ventures, The Shadows) and Hawaiian music.
A big moment in his guitar-playing education came in 1962 when for the first time he heard the music of Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins. This is the moment he points to when asked what put him on the course of a professional career that would span more than four decades and find him playing with musicians around the world.
He says he was riveted by the complexity of Atkins’ solo sound.
“Chet’s music had an incredible sound, plus it was something completely different,” Emmanuel, 63, says. “I had never heard anything like that, and it inspired me. I wanted to try and play like that and figure out what he was doing.”
Emmanuel wrote to Atkins in 1965 and to his surprise Atkins wrote back. It wasn’t until 1980 when he went to Nashville that the two met and Atkins became his mentor. Years later Atkins awarded Emmanuel the coveted Certified Guitar Player title, an honor he bestowed on only four other musicians before his death in 2001.
The Grammy-nominated Emmanuel is known for his complex acoustic finger-style and flat-picking technique which is at the same time dynamic and elegant. He’s an accomplished session player but has carved out his brand as a solo artist, amassing nearly 30 albums of his own.
The most recent of these is “Accomplice One,” which finds Emmanuel collaborating on 16 songs with an all-star cast who play and assist with vocals. The list includes Jason Isbell, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, resonator guitar great Jerry Douglas, Amanda Shires, Jorma Kaukonen, ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro, David Grisman and Mark Knopfler.
All of these artists are people he admires and wanted to work with. And because of many busy careers, it was also a master class in scheduling, he says with a laugh.
“I basically had an open canvas and was just looking for the right songs and the right people to perform them with me,” he says. “I think it all came together beautifully.”
The list of songs ranges from originals to covers by the likes of Doc Watson (“Deep River Blues”), Bill Monroe (“Watson Blues”), Duke Ellington (“C-Jam Blues”), Merle Travis (“Saturday Night Shuffle”) and Knopfler (You Don’t Want to Get You One of Those”).
While the songs came together in planned recording session, there was one song, a rock classic, which was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Jerry Douglas was in the studio assisting on another song when Emmanuel asked if he wanted to have a shot at an instrumental take on Jimi Hendrix’s fiery classic “Purple Haze.”
“We just went in the studio and did it live, a one-take situation,” Emmanuel says. “With a player as good as Jerry Douglas, you can throw anything at him and he’ll hit it right back to you.”
While he grew up with certain musical tastes, it’s evident that Emmanuel likes a vast array of music and artists.
“I grew up with country and then discovered jazz, classical, blues and everything in between. But I approach my style of playing like a singer-songwriter. I play it as an instrumental but I think like a singer when I play. I like to tell stories without words.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.