Guitarist Tommy Emmanuel might not have the same brand-name recognition of an Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix, but the sold-out status of his show Thursday at the Crystal Palace shows he’s far from being unknown.
The 62-year-old native Australian, who currently calls Nashville home, has held Bakersfield in high regard since childhood. His return to the Buck Owens’ stage isn’t just one of performance, but of reverence.
“Even in Australia, Buck was huge,” Emmanuel said in a phone interview. “I remember when he came to Australia and played shows. We went to see him at the (Sydney) Opera House, and later on it was bittersweet because it was (guitarist) Don Rich’s last show.” (Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1974.)
“Those guys were just as important and a lighthouse, a beacon, to all of us in music and really showed us the way. So Bakersfield to me is just as important as Nashville in my musical life in what was influencing (me) and learning from and listening to.”
Emmanuel had a very early start. He started playing at age 4 and two years later was playing professionally with his family touring Australia out of two station wagons. After decades of playing in bands and sessions, Emmanuel found his true calling as a solo performer.
Or as he half-jokingly told me, “I don’t need no stinking band. I am the band.”
Emmanuel employs an intricate fingerpicking style mixed with a powerful, classical technical facility. His playing is muscular, dynamic, elegant and wickedly layered. He's like a cross between Chet Atkins and Paco de Lucía.
When playing extremely fast, most guitarists have a tendency to “slide” through notes, sometimes giving the effect of turning the volume down as they go. Emmanuel plays every note with equal finesse and power, even when the tempos and rhythms take off into the danger zone.
Every guitar sweep is executed with crystal clear precision and fluidity. When he goes on of his solos, they’re the musical equivalent of going on a roller coaster: You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you end up breathless. This isn’t an exaggeration, his playing elicits excitement and leaves listeners in awe. The guy’s got style, inside and out. Even Atkins himself called him “fearless.”
If you’ll ever need a clear-cut example of a “guitarist's guitarist,” look no further.
His latest release, “Live at the Ryman,” was recorded at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, which served as home of the Grand Ole Opry until 1974.
The release runs the fierce gamut from uptempo bluegrass (the blistering opening track "Tall Fiddler") to The Beatles, but it’s his cover of Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” that provides the album’s most soulful performance.
“(The Bakersfield Sound) means so much (to me),” Emmanuel said. “It takes me back to the 1960s, listening to Don Rich and Roy Nichols and Buck Owens and Lefty Frizzle — people like that — and of course, Merle Haggard.”
“When Merle Haggard came out in the '60s, I’d never heard such a good singer — I mean, since Marty Robbins, really. Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves in the early days were some of the best singers I’d ever heard, particularly in country music, (but) I never kind of had a label on it. I just thought it was beautiful music when I was a kid and couldn’t believe how good their records sounded. And then, when Merle came around, I realized that he was writing these great songs as well as singing them. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Are there any guitarists, new and old, that move him?
“As far as guitar players go, I don’t really spend a lot of time listening to other guitar players. I’m more interested in how to write a good song; all the guitar technique stuff I can work out and work on. But, of course, I do listen to other guys; Joe Satriani is one of my favorites and always has been. Steve Lukather from Toto has been one of my favorites as well. He plays beautifully constructed solos, and has intelligence behind his playing, as well as feeling.”
“As far as young players go, there’s a mountain of them out there. There are so many good young players. There are guys out there who do stuff I’ll never be able to do, but I have to find my place and make it all work, and listen and learn from everybody.”
At Thursday's show, fellow guitarists Richard Smith, Pat Bergeson and Brooks Robertson will sit in with Emmanuel throughout his set.
“First of all, I’m going to pay tribute to Bakersfield and the people who put it on the map. I’m going to play a lot of new songs that I’ve written and I always leave it open for total, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do next’ kind of things. I’m going to play some Buck Owens polkas and stuff like that. I’m just going to give people the best I possibly can and cram as much music into that night as I can.”