Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
If we know anything about Australian master finger-picking guitarist Tommy Emmanuel it is that, among other things, he loves collaborations and has an affinity for Nashville. His recent 2017 live release was recorded at the Ryman, the city’s most storied venue, and his partnership with mandolin maestro David Grisman the same year was another in a long lineage of pairings with other musicians throughout his nearly 40-year solo career.
So it’s little surprise that Accomplice One emphasizes both those aspects of his professional persona. Each of its 16 tracks features a different collaborating artist with the majority recorded in, or just outside of Nashville. But while there are plenty of instances of acoustic fret shredding on this hour long romp — strap in as Emmanuel goes toe to toe with J.D. Simo’s Telecaster and banjo man Charlie Cushman on a hot wired “Wheelin’ & Dealin’”— there are just as many that display his subtlety and taste.
The opening cover of Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues” is a sheer back porch delight as Jason Isbell trades vocals with Emmanuel. Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires lends her voice and fiddle to a surprisingly lovely and poignant re-arrangement of Madonna’s “Borderline” (as a waltz) that will make you hear the original dance song in an entirely different light. Rodney Crowell also steps in to sing his own folk/country composition “Looking Forward to the Past.”
Suzy Bogguss brings her always moving singing to an emotional and melancholy “The Duke’s Message” about persevering in hard times, and ukulele expert Jake Shimabukuro adds warmth to a lovely instrumental “Rachel’s Lullaby,” both original Emmanuel ballads. He digs back to his jazz roots with a sweet cover of Django Reinhardt’s “Djangology” (recorded, like much of this, live in the studio) and a peppy, caffeinated Duke Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues,” the latter featuring Grisman doing his dawg music thing.
The diversity of covers continues with Emmanuel and Dobro king Jerry Douglas ripping into a lively, vocal-free take on Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” (Douglas also covered Jimi’s version of “Hey Joe” on his recent release) and gets soulful singing and playing on a honeyed, folksy and playful rendition of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” While Emmanuel’s voice isn’t particularly distinctive, he delivers the few songs he takes lead vocals on with impressive modesty.
Jorma Kaukonen, Mark Knopfler and ex-Allman Brothers Band guitarist Jack Pearson and others are also along for the rootsy ride. All involved seem to be having a delightful time — some of the tunes are first takes, most are overdub free — and the musicianship is as superb as you’d expect. There’s nothing wrong with trying to expand your audience because Emmanuel remains true to his organic nature, exploring styles that have been a part of his oeuvre for decades. While serious stringed music students will devour every note here (he thoughtfully includes the make and model of the instruments used in the credits), Accomplice One will also appeal to roots music lovers who have never picked up a guitar.