What happens when your dreams start coming true at the tender age of 17? That’s exactly what happened to Australian guitarist Joe Robinson, who won “Australia’s Got Talent” — and a quarter of a million dollars.
“I’m still pinching myself sometimes, and that happened eight years ago. Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve always wanted to be a guitar player.”
Robinson made his way to Nashville at the urging of fellow Australian finger-style guitar master Tommy Emmanuel. Soon after arriving, he was invited onstage by the late, great Les Paul, then 93. The master guitarist wanted to get a couple of things straight right away.
“You won Australia’s Got Talent,” Paul asked. “And two hundred fifty thousand bucks?” Robinson answered somewhat timidly in the affirmative to both. “Then,” Paul wondered, “what the heck are you doing HERE!”
Robinson grew up in the tiny beach-side town of Temagog, New South Wales, where a passion for guitar grew from the hours he’d spend listening to his father’s old Eric Clapton records. When he was able to get his hands on his first guitar, he became obsessed, spending every waking hour perfecting his handle on the instrument.
“I used to take it on the school bus with me and I’d jam out while I was going to school. I just became known as ‘that kid who had the guitar,’” Robinson said in a recent conversation from his Nashville home. “I used to wake up at 4 a.m. every day to practice for four hours before catching the bus. That’s a little more difficult today with gigs that start at 9 or 10 at night. After school, I’d strap my guitar to my back and take a ‘bush walk’…like three miles into the bush and back. Then I’d check the refrigerator like all teenagers do.”
“My mom played the drums, so ‘Wipeout’ was the first song I learned so I could jam with her. But it was Clapton’s ‘Layla’ that really turned me on to the guitar.”
Robinson’s musical taste is anything but narrow.
“A lot of musicians learned to play a specific kind of music a very specific way. That’s not me,” he said. “I modeled what I was doing on musicians like James Taylor, who writes amazing songs, plays guitar in a signature way, and also has a great vocal style. Stevie Wonder was another major influence. The Beatles for melodies, and even some Michael Jackson comes through. I also like contemporary artists such as Jason Mraz and John Mayer. And, of course, I always try to incorporate techniques from heroes of mine like Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt.”
Robinson made a brief appearance on a local stage years ago, though he can’t remember the name of the place.
“Yeah, it was a few years ago, on one of my first trips to the States. It was at this funky club – I think it was a Mosrite guitar event. When I walked in, I saw this huge picture of Merle Haggard painted on the wall. It was really cool,” said Robinson, referring to artwork that had graced the walls of the legendary Trout’s for years. “I was on my way to Los Angeles to open for Lee Ritenour, and we stopped in to play a couple of tunes. I was too young to hang out in bar with everyone, so I had to stay in the green room until it was my turn to play.”
Lucky enough to be in attendance that night was local musician Michael Snyder, who recalled: “We thought, ‘OK, let the kid play,’ but let me just say that Joe Robinson proceeded to knock us all off our bar stools.”
Where does Robinson go from here?
“I remember when I was a kid there was a day when I didn’t feel like practicing, and I saw this 10-year-old in Taiwan playing Paganini on YouTube, which sent me straight to the practice room. I thought, ‘I can’t let this happen — I have to be the best!’ ”
— Rick Kreiser is founder of the Guitar Masters concert series