Tommy Emmanuel’s name will forever be synonymous with acoustic guitar and high-stakes showmanship. The Australian-born musician is currently on the road with a series of Christmas-themed dates, including his Friday, Dec. 8, engagement at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre. His introduction of holiday classics and seasonal originals is but the latest endeavor for the musician.
He’s also prepping a new album, Accomplice One, for release on Jan. 19. The record features him in duets with Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Rodney Crowell, Mark Knopfler and Ricky Skaggs, among others.
Emmanuel spoke with KMUW via phone during a recent stopover in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Jedd Beaudoin: What was the genesis of this Christmas-themed show?
Tommy Emmanuel: Back in 2010, I decided I wanted to do a Christmas album. I had never done one before. Some people turn up their noses at that kind of thing but I love Christmas music and I know a lot of people who love Christmas music. I started working on it with the help of John Knowles, my fellow [certified guitar player]. John’s involvement was really to help with all the arrangements and make the songs interesting and have someone to bounce off of. The album came off really beautifully. People loved the Christmas songs. I wrote a couple of original Christmas pieces to put on there.
A few years later my manager said to me, ‘Why don’t we put a Christmas show together and play all this Christmas music and other stuff as well?’ Pat Bergeson and Annie Sellick, who I’ve worked with a lot, I brought them in. The four us just became a really good team. I thought, ‘The way that I can make this work is if I do a set of my own songs, and then the second part of the show is all the Christmas songs.’ That’s really how it came together. We just worked on songs and arrangements to make everything fun and exciting and interesting. It’s been working great. People love the show. People love the Christmas music and the variety in the show.
In addition to these Christmas shows, you’re also gearing up for the release of a new album, Accomplice One, in January. This is a record that sees you with a wide range of musicians. Was this something you’d had on the back burner for a while, thinking, ‘If I ever get the chance, I’m going to ring up Mark Knopfler and we’ll do a tune together,’ or was it something that appeared all at once?
With Mark, specifically, I’d always wanted to work with him. We had talked about it many times. We just never got the opportunity. When I started work on this album we wrote to him and said that I was going to be in London at a certain time and wondered if there was a chance that we could get together. He said yes but said, ‘I can’t play on someone else’s song. Does Tommy mind if I pitch one of my songs?’ I said, ‘What a great idea!’ I went to his studio and he sat and sang me the song and showed me the lyrics and then said, ‘I suggest you sing this part and then we sing that together.’ We were finished in an hour: mixed, mastered, everything.
I think it’s interesting that you’re two guys who aren’t American born and yet American music has made such an impact on your lives and, in turn, you’ve both made a mark on American music.
It just goes to show you the influence of American music on the rest of the world. I can sing hours of Jimmie Rodgers songs and Hank Williams songs and Hank Snow and Jim Reeves, etc. That’s the music I grew up on. It’s in my blood. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. That, as well as Australian music. I guess you just follow and perform what you love. This album, to me, has elements of bluegrass, has elements of jazz, has elements of rock ‘n’ roll, country. It has everything. That describes me perfectly. That’s the music I love to play. I wanted to make a record that was real people playing real instruments.
You collaborated with Rodney Crowell on the track “Looking Forward to the Past.”
I love that song. How that came about was that Rodney rang me after he saw me at a show in Franklin, Tennessee. He said that he thought I was the right guy to play on a new track he had for his album [Close Ties]. My manager, quick as a wink, said, ‘Why don’t you do a deal? How about Tommy comes and plays on your record? How about you sing on his album?’ Rodney said, ‘That sounds like a good deal.’
I came out to his place and played on a song called ‘East Houston Blues,’ which is the opening track from Close Ties. He sang me the song, ‘Looking Forward to the Past.’ I loved it and came back the next day to his house and we recorded it right then and there.
It must be a pretty special feeling to hear a Rodney Crowell song before the rest of the world does.
I was so honored that people like Rodney and Mark and Ricky Skaggs would treat me with such respect. It’s been wonderful. I feel so blessed with this album. Everybody’s brought something special to it which is what I envisaged in the first place. I didn’t want to make a record where you do all the work and then send the track to somebody who then overdubs their part in their lounge room on a computer. I wanted us to be working together, capturing the performance as it went down.
I think that people will like the fact that everything’s real. I already have people writing to me on Facebook who have heard some of the tracks already. They’ll ask, ‘Is there any Auto-Tuning on the vocal on this?’ ‘Is there a drop in points on this?’ I had to answers these people and say, ‘No, there’s no enhancement on that vocal. This is real people singing into real microphones.’
Do you have a dream list of collaborators?
A lot of it has been fulfilled already. I’ve recorded with Chet Atkins and Les Paul, it just doesn’t get any better than that. At the moment I’m talking with Duane Eddy about the right track for him and I to do because there’s going to be an Accomplice Two. He has a particular style and a particular sound and that’s what we love about him. We don’t him to sound like someone else. We want him to sound like him. You’ve gotta find the right song. I can morph into anyone but I want Duane to be him. I’m looking forward to working with Alison Krauss and James Taylor on the next one.
Many guitar players have been talking about the impact that Malcolm Young had on the instrument. Even though you were stylistically far apart did you feel a kinship with him and Angus and the other AC/DC guys, coming from Australia?
I’ve always been a fan of Angus and Malcolm. In fact, I knew Angus better than Malcolm in the early days. I fixed his guitar for him a few times in the mid-‘70s when they were first starting out. Those guys…that’s one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time and he sure did lay down a great foundation for other guys to see that you don’t have to be all flashy, you can be a good, powerful and steady rhythm player as well. And get the same respect. There are a lot of brothers out there. I played my whole life with my own brother, Phil, and he was a lead player and I was a rhythm player. So I, in my own way, was doing what Malcolm did.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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