Tommy Emmanuel, Chapter Two: Inside the Joy

On the joy inside of music, the unbound promise of songwriting, the hollow reed, becoming a channel for love, his hero Chet Atkins, writing stories without words, and more

This is the second part of a two-part story.
See Part One here:

Tommy Emmanuel: Inside The Joy.

Videos by American Songwriter

Playing music is a respite into heaven from traveling. A thousand decisions are made every day and my songs are my go-to place to forget everything and just float. To have some magical moments, and  truly feel how the songs you’ve sculptured and spent time on  now thrill you to play. Somehow they soothe your heart and everyone else’s hearts and minds. I can observe and feel it, be in it, but also separate too. I can relax, play, take my time and make those times last, until it’s  time for me to let go of the weave and finish todays’ quilt.”

-Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy at Jerry’s Deli, Los Angeles, January, 2020. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.

When his fans talk about why they love Tommy, there’s invariably two key aspects they always mention. The first, predictably, is his miraculous virtuoso guitar playing. The other is the joy that always emanates from him when playing. 

“The joy is there always,” he said, “ because I’m chasing it through music. Seeing the surprise in peoples’ eyes is worth living and working for. As the days go by on long tours, I feel the freedom to fly my kite as I get better every day. The excitement that is building up all day to when you walk out on stage, and then it yells, whistles and unbridled enthusiasm. You can’t help but play to the people with all your heart, which is overflowing with the joy of being in that moment that you’ve worked all your life for. And here it is!

It comes down to ancient elemental forces, for that’s what’s at play here.  Of those none is more essential than melody. Whether playing one of his own songs, or a rendition of a famous song, always the mission is to make that melody shine. A musician completely immersed in the real-time narrative of every song, he inhabits the song, his lighting-fast hands doing their magic while his soul beams with pure bliss. Like a great vocalist, he brings out the soul of every note, the nuanced shading of phrasing and delivery closer to Ella or Sinatra, than an instrumentalist. 

It’s one of the many reasons that musicians express true reverence for him. It’s a fusion of both respect and awe: Respect for his profuse talent, passion and diligence to reach this level. And also awe, the intrinsic human response to that which is so beyond the norm that it’s hard to believe. 

More than one musician admitted that what Tommy does is “scary.” Asked why, they say it’s because what he does isn’t possible! It should take at least two musicians, if not three, often, to do what he does. And he does it all as if he’s just jamming with friends at the pub, smiling the smile of the ages, as delighted by the music as an onlooker, while simultaneously playing ridiculously complex, dimensional guitar arrangements – bass, melody, rhythm and more all at once. He does it flawlessly, smiling.

It’s all about being real, and true to yourself. And nowadays, the need for his truth – any truth –  is greater and more important than ever.  So overwhelming is the daily digital barrage that humans by the millions no longer can discern truth. Yet they still recognize it when they see it. And they appreciate it, as any light offered in seasons of darkness makes a real impact.

Reflected in every song, show, record and interview, is his essential purity and passion. He loves this music, and he’s invested the fullness of his soul into it. Unlike so many, he easily balances the selfless need to get his own ego out of the way so as to connect with the source, even while being an internationally beloved artist of great acclaim. It isn’t hard for him at all. The music sustains him. It’s the essence of the musician’s prayer, about becoming not the player, but the instrument, which he quotes:  

“Make me a hollow reed from which the pith of self may be blown, so that I may be a channel for your love.” 

That’s what it is about. Not to be a star, but a channel. It’s that understanding which also distinguishes him as a seriously gifted songwriter. His passion for the potency of classic melody, and inner knowledge of the technicalities which create great melodies, has led him to evolve into a deeply expressive and inventive melodist.

His songs are born in the tuneful spirit and sway of his favorite songwriters. , names he mentions much more than those of any guitarist (except Chet Atkins). Always Tommy points to James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and Lennon & McCartney.  All left their inspired melodic imprint on his artistic soul. 

“If you’re real,” he says, “people will get it. You don’t have to be a showman and be false. Just be yourself. Because then you don’t have to do anything but be yourself. If there’s anything false involved, you have to remember all of it so you don’t expose it. But if you’re real, it’s easy. That’s the key. The truth sets you free.”

He’s a humble virtuoso. Not falsely humble; he knows well the years of work and touring and passion and sorrow which brought him to this summit. Yet he also knows, as he’s expressed, that music is a force which comes through one, and for which one must be grateful. He doesn’t think of himself as a star who has already done all there is to do.  He thinks of himself as an instrument, through which the music comes. And as any instrument knows, if the music isn’t there, you got nothing.

So when Tommy talks of his heroes and gods, he rarely mentions other guitarists, with the undeniable exception of his mentor and dear friend Chet Atkins. But besides Chet, the heroes whose praises he frequently sings are the songwriters – the melodists – those magical musical ones like Paul Simon, Paul McCartney and James Taylor, who gave his fingers a purpose which is profound. 

Tommy Emmanuel, January 2020. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

Because for Tommy, who long ago mastered all flourish, flash and pyrotechnical showbiz spectacle one can summon, what matters much more is the song. The melody. Because when he plays a song, he does it with respect. It’s not about razzle or dazzle. It’s much more about reverence for the timeless beauty of a great melody. One of those delicate spirits a songwriter happened to capture like a firefly in a jar, imbued with real heart and deep soul, and ushered into this world. Like Ella or Sinatra or any of the great vocalists, Tommy’s always been drawn to the glory of a great melody. And rather than reinvent it, or transform it into something new, he comes with real joy to deliver it whole, and to revel in its glories. 

His love and reverence for songs and the songwriters who write them led him to write his own. something he started doing when he was still a kid. The reaction to it was different than that he received from his playing. It was more personal, because the song came from him.

“Ever since I was a little boy,” he said, “I  was fascinated by songwriting. I wanted to try and figure out why certain notes over certain chords sounded so emotional. I thought it was a magical formula that only certain people possessed or understood.”

In fact, he was right. But he came to possess that formula in a way few ever do. But it was never easy. 

He wrote his first song when he was ten.  Though he didn’t even have a title for it, his mother did, and it became “Tommy’s Song.” And though he dismissed it as something immature and unformed, “the childish ramblings of a dreamer,” in fact, it was a well-constructed song, and he was a child, after all. But he was also something new. A songwriter. 

Nobody else dismissed his song. And that forever impacted him. His sister surprised and honored him when she sang that tune to him years later; he had no idea she remembered it. He didn’t. 

Other family members, cognizant already of his prowess on guitar, simply could not fathom that he could write a real song. So fully realized was it, bearing Tommy’s great gift as a melodist even then, they all were stunned. It simply didn’t make sense. How could something this developed, this potent, come out of our little brother?

In fact, it’s not an uncommon response in the families of genius songwriters. Both John Prine and Tom Petty said the same thing. That their families simply couldn’t believe that they could write a song. But it makes sense. Suddenly out of nowhere this kid who has never done much of anything is writing miracle songs. It isn’t normal. So their reaction is entirely understandable. How could they not think – wait a second – where did this come from? 

Tommy & his daughter Amanda, who is holding the phone with Chet Atkins on it. As Tommy wrote, “When Chet Atkins called me about recording an album with him, I immediately got to work and wrote the song,`Mr Guitar’ as a dedication to him. This photo was taken as I played it to him over the phone from my Melbourne home to Chet in Nashville. My daughter Amanda is holding the phone up to my guitar as I played to him… I gave him this photo, and it was on his fridge until he died in 2001…we miss you Chet and you are still `Mr Guitar!'”

Tommy, however, wasn’t astounded by his songwriting abilities. As mentioned, he was underwhelmed. He felt he could be way better than that. Which is exactly the instinct that drives a good songwriter to become great. 

Tommy was already dedicated by then to the life of a musician, knowing  it was his undeniable destiny. Now this dream expanded to include songwriting, and became devotional. Suddenly he became a player and writer both,  and one who always recognized the boundless power of song. The response to his first effort, this tender but powerful melodic outpouring of his young soul, was something which forever impacted him.

“I remember that I wrote that song,” he said, “and I played it in the show, and there was such a sense of pride that I actually wrote my own song. Obviously, I was only little then, so I didn’t know much about anything. But I put this song together, and my mother liked it, and my father liked it, and so I thought it was all right.

Though his father could be strict and serious a lot, he started showing an aspect of his spirit Tommy hadn’t known before. Great pride. Sometimes too much for this shy, self-conscious little kid. 

“When I wrote that song, “ Tommy said, “everyone told me I should play it in the show,  and my dad made a big deal of it. He was nauseatingly proud of me. It was good, but also embarrassing for me. He’d say, ‘My son wrote this song.’ Obviously, that was  feeding my young ego, and so I would puff up with pride when I played it.” 

Though he’s beloved around the world now , having won all the awards one can win, and the acclaim of the greats, establishing him as one of this planet’s most miraculous musicians, few things still seem to have impacted him as much as this reaction to his own songs, the melodies of his heart and soul. It set him on a songwriting path forever connected and informed by his genius on guitar, but also separate.

Now for the first time in the many decades since the start, he is honoring his songwriting soul by releasing Tommysongs, a big collection of the songs he wrote himself. 

“Little did I know that I would spend the next 25 years wandering in the songwriting desert, dying of thirst,” Tommy said. “But listening to great songwriters and great songs helped me to progress and grow. Sometimes I would spend a week on one song, sometimes it would all come together in five minutes. But I always knew if I was on to something good or not.”

The Best of Tommysongs. “Little did I know that I would spend the next 25 years wandering in the songwriting desert, dying of thirst. But listening to great songwriters and great songs helped me to progress and grow.”

Like many great songwriters, he was a tough critic of his own work, and never felt it was good enough. He was excited by it. But felt he had a way to go.

“How well I remember that wonderful day back in the mid-seventies when I wrote two songs, one after the other,  ‘Dixie McGuire’ and ‘Amy.’ I played them a million times for myself and my musician friends, but deep down in my soul I wondered if they really were any good. 

“I seized the opportunity to play ‘Dixie McGuire’ for a very successful songwriter that I admired, a man who had so many number one records you couldn’t count them. He listened to the song, then told me, “It’s good, and a good song will find a good home.’ I was deeply encouraged by that thought and, of course, he was right. When I played the song for my hero Chet Atkins, he instantly loved it and agreed we should record it together.”
Songwriting, as most know, is an elusive art. Because to write a great song – one of those essential ones – is never easy. It’s harder to write a o write a complex one, as Tommy knows well. But to get to the heart of the thing, that is the challenge. 

“It’s easy to write something with a lot of notes and changes,” he says. “I could write that all day. But to write something meaningful, and that touches people, that is not easy. Because, the thing is, you cannot force a song. You have to let it come to you. And that takes trust. Trust that the universe knows better.”

When the universe brought him to the place where his beautifully elegiac “Lewis and Clark” emerged, he knew it was special. This one he didn’t dismiss, and its reaction, like that to his first song, made a lasting impact. 

But just like he approaches guitar – which is to say unlike all the other humans – he comes to songwriting from a place essential and singular. As he explains it, “I write stories without words.” He writes instrumentals that he sings through the strings of his guitars. But though he sings no words, he always composes these songs to words only he knows. He’s a secret lyricist. It’s the key to imbuing his own instrumentals with lyrical grace. He hears the words in his head as he sings them through the guitar. but he’s got no need at all to have anyone else hear them. 

He doesn’t? Okay. To a normal songwriter that seems a little crazy. Why write words that nobody will ever hear? It’s a fair question. But considering the source, it makes sense. Knowing the words himself – such as that his beautiful ode to his daughter “Angelina,” which begins,  “Angelina, come to your daddy’s arms”  – is enough subtext for him to bring that message of love into the world in a much bigger way. A way beyond words. That is the essence of Tommy, lifting us with his playing and songwriting to this realm of pure, essential music. 

There’s no better example of his evocative wordless narratives than “Lewis and Clark,” which tells a detailed story of the historic explorers from that place beyond words. Yet it’s so lyrical and emotionally focused, that Tommy was stunned by it when it came through. Still, he needed to know if others heard it that way. And when he let his brother Phil hear it, the circle became complete  

“I played it for him,” remembered Tommy, “and he said, ‘My God, you’ve never written anything like that before. That’s amazing.” He then insisted Tommy play it over and over, as if to prove it was real, and not a dream. 

That reaction from Phil meant more to Tommy than decades of acclaim and awards. 

But in this mission of creating songs without words is the essence of the man. Always his music has been about the human journey, this shared experience of forever facing forces which limit us and those which set us free. His guitar playing, as his fans around the world know, is nothing short of miraculous.  He was always the kind of kid who needed to figure things out for himself. Growing up one of six kids in Australia,he felt a powerful yearning always to know more, never hesitating to hurl himself directly into the heart of any mystery until it could be conquered. When first presented with the sight and sound of a guitar, for example, he was hooked, and needed to know:. How does someone work one of those?

His brother Phil shared this same drive. Never did they want to wait for anyone else to figure it out. They both were instigators, knowing if they didn’t do it, it might never be done. Their father, an engineer, was also similarly driven by the need to know more. But his focus was on mechanics mostly, so that when he saw a guitar, he didn’t want to learn how to play it, he wanted to know how it was built. 

But how machines and instruments were built was interesting to Tommy, but not in comparison to its bigger mystery: where does the music in it come from? And how do you get it out to sound like that? 

It’s the same reaction he had to songs. Where do those come from? And how does someone get to that place?

It’s that very drive that transformed that little kid into Tommy Emmanuel, who, in this second decade of the 21st century, is known around the globe as an absolute master of this instrument. Presently he’s considered by many who matter to not simply be great, but the greatest of all. It’s an estimation which isn’t random as his playing is simply miraculous. While millions have mastered guitar playing over these decades, precious few ever carry it to this level. 

Sure, his hero, mentor and friend Chet Atkins did it first, and showed the world that there was an entire unheard and untouched universe on acoustic guitar just waiting for the right musicians to come along and bring us there. First time he heard Tommy, who made a pilgrimage around the world to meet his idol as Dylan did to meet Woody Guthrie, Chet knew he was the real deal. It was an understanding beyond words. Instead of telling Tommy, he did something way better. He picked up his guitar and started playing. They played for three hours straight. And then played more.

Chet championed Tommy and his bold spirit to try and do anything on this instrument, officially welcomed him to walk that same starry path by bestowing on him the greatest acclaim any guitarist could receive, the CGP designation – which stands for Certified Guitar Player. It was Chet’s serious though whimsical way of alerting the world to genuine greatness. There were only four guitarists in all his years he felt worthy. And Tommy was one of them.

Chet recognized then, and never questioned, that Tommy had everything and more required to be a true artist of this instrument. Whereas others saw mostly the limitations of the thing – six strings, ten fingers – and assume there is little room for newness there, Tommy saw the very opposite. Never did he see limitations; he saw boundless potential. It was the same reaction he had to the songs themselves. Not only did he need to discover how a human can make one of those, he saw from the start that songs, though a very short form, three minutes or so at most,. were not limited at all, but – with the right spirit – boundless. 

He still feels that way. That in this little space, what can be done is magical. Because songs – when written by those who know how to do it right – can contain power that never diminishes, and remain impervious to time. Listen to a classic song for decades and it never wears out. To this day that obsessive fascination with songs – both his own and those magic ones written by others – is as strong as ever, if not stronger. Even having schooled himself seriously on every aspect of song craft, and delving intensively into the hidden architecture of classic songs, and the elusive art of melody. Always he knows there’s always more to know. 

Tommy & Chet Atkins. On Chet’s 92nd birthday, June 20, 2016, Tommy posted a photo of them together, and wrote this: “June 20th….the birthday of Chet Atkins. My hero, my idol when I was a kid, one of the greatest guitar players to come from nowhere and astound the world with his style, his tone, his arrangements, his production and his big heart for humanity! I hear him in my own music every day,,,I try to honour his legacy every show, and tell the next generation where I, and he, got so much from. The Giants like him, who came before us,, found all the good songs, wrote all the strong melodies and laid it all out for us to take and spread around! What a lucky generation we are! Happy 92nd Birthday Daddio… we love you more than ever! xT 

This is Part Two of a two part story.
See Part One here:
Tommy Emmanuel: Inside The Joy

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