Tommy Emmanuel Shines Spotlight on Two Legendary Songwriters


Considered by many to be the world’s greatest guitarist, with good reason, Tommy Emmanuel is a true song champion. Few artists ever have celebrated song with as much passion, both in the songs of others and his own. Luminous melody always shines in everything he touches. As does the universe of harmonies and changes which surround them. 

What he does is the result of years of seriously developed artistry on this instrument he’s been playing since he was four. That plus unlimited talent, and the wisdom to bring it all together with genuine joy. But what other human do you know who, when playing “Day Tripper,” for example, can play the riff, rhythm part and melody all at once? It’s classic Tommy. What seems and sounds impossible for most musicians is something he does with a big smile.

But words only bring you so close. Some things, as he knows well, are simply beyond words. So check this out, his medley of “Day Tripper” and “Lady Madonna.”

He’s a great lover of melody, and a wonderful melodist in his own songs, which he plays as instrumentals always acoustically, such as his beautiful ode of love to his daughter, “Angelina,” or his great “story without words, “Lewis & Clark.”

So the man’s a serious expert on melody – and on songwriting in general and the songwriters who write. He’s delved into the very  heart of every kind of song from every era and has recorded a vast range of them. His is an ecumenical  embrace of all songs from all times, and honors the modern standards by Lennon & McCartney, James Taylor, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder as much as those from the previous generation. “Without them,” he said, “I never could have written the songs I have written.” 

Brilliant always with the beautiful sophisticated changes and melodies of the old standards and new, he also loves to explore the essence of  three-chord folk and country classics such as “Nine Pound Hammer,” always discovering a rich universe of expression everywhere he goes.  

Tommy at Jerry’s Famous Deli. Photo by Paul Zollo

His passion and natural curiosity has led him to become somewhat of a scholar on the history of songwriting in modern times, with much more reverence and knowledge about some of our greatest American songwriters than most Americans are.

So when we had a chance to meet with him last time he was in Los Angeles, we met up at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City and asked him to name a few songwriters that matter the most. Here are two.

Jimmie Rodgers

What a great songwriter. His melodies were beautiful. I might still sing some of his songs because I really love him. And I was having this conversation with a guy last year who said to me, “Have you ever heard of Jimmy Rogers?” Like that and I said, “Of course I have.” And he said, “Well, he was his own-” and I said, “Stop.” I picked up my guitar and I sang like five Jimmy Rogers songs.

I worked with every one of the countries guys who were like the founding fathers of country music in Australia, they all copied Jimmy. All the original guys. And I can tell you that all of them based their style on Jimmie Rodgers. Every single one of them. 

There’s no two people more important than Jimmie and Hank Williams. But Jimmie was first. They’re the two people that are the most important American singer- songwriters in the history of country music.. Hank led the way to rock and roll, but Jimmie started it.

What a great songwriter he was. His melodies were beautiful. I might still sing some of his songs because I really love him.

If you listen to a lot of Jimmie’s early stuff, it was the beginning of rock & roll. It’s how blues and rock & roll fused. And then if you listened to Hank Williams, that’s rock & roll. I can see a definitive line that goes straight from Jimmie to Hank on to Elvis and then on to the rest of us.

I used to sing every Jimmie Rodgers song I knew. Jimmie and Hank taught me how to write a song. Hank Williams laid down the foundation of great melody against chords, all that sort of stuff.

2. Merle Haggard.

merle haggard 2011
Merle Haggard

Oh my God! What a voice. And his songs are just so beautifully written. I could listen to him all day because his songs are so true, what he’s saying sounds like the truth. 

Also, those melodies are great. Like “If We Make It Through December.” It’s C into F, “If we make it through December, everything’s going to be all…”  Then to the inor, “But I know…” The chord progression is beautiful. If Buddy Holly would write a country song, he’d write If We Make It Through December. The chord structure is like something he’d write. 

Then the second verse, “I got laid off down at the factory, and their timing wasn’t the greatest in the world, heaven knows I’ve been working hard, wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl, I don’t mean to hate December, it’s meant to be the happy time of year, but my little girl doesn’t understand why we can’t have no Christmas here.” 

Man! It’s written from a daddy’s point of view, and it’s just so real, you know?

But then you hear him sing, and you can hear the line back to Lefty Frizzell, and those guys, and you know exactly where Merle got it. But he reinvented everything. It’s all real.And then that beautiful voice.

Then you hear him doing the tribute to Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, and he sings that, “Lord my brain is cloudy, my soul is upside down.” You know? Kills you with that opening phrase.

The sound of his voice was amazing. And just everything about him was the real deal.

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