In music, as in love, one plus one can add up to … not two but a new and greater one.
"Heart Songs," the new release from two of the world’s greatest guitarists, Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles, makes this clear. Both are masters of their instrument, honored by the iconic Chet Atkins with the rare designation of CGP (Certified Guitar Players). Emmanuel has twice been voted “Best Acoustic Guitarist” by readers of Guitar Player Magazine. Knowles is a Grammy winner and a member of the National Thumb Picker’s Hall of Fame.
Music fans of all ages will have a chance to hear selections from the new record, as well as a few of Emmanuel's concert favorites, in Guitar Masters Season 8 opening show this Wednesday at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.
Their early journeys were dissimilar. Emmanuel began his in Australia, grew up on the road with his family’s band, settled as a teenager in Sydney and left his rock band to launch a spectacular solo career. Knowles followed a more academic path, eventually earning a Ph.D. in physics from Texas Christian University but then electing to pursue his true love of music.
Inevitably, they would cross paths, become friends and perform on stages and clinics around the world. Their styles were distinctive but for that very reason they meshed seamlessly, with Knowles generally creating sophisticated but compelling foundations over which Emmanuel’s guitar would soar in astonishing yet always musical flights.
The more they got to know each other, the more they talked about someday recording together. Busy schedules made this difficult; still, the idea simmered on the front burner until, finally, the time was right.
First, they defined the album’s focus, reflected now in its title. “A ‘heart song’ is really a love song,” Emmanuel observed. “Love has many facets — love of family, romantic love. So we started there and then looked for melodies that could be played with heart.”
“And we tried to choose songs that people have heard,” Knowles added. “So that when they hear them, even though we’re not singing or they may not know all the words, they have a connection to these songs in their own hearts.”
Most importantly, they agreed from the start that "Heart Songs" would be about honoring the music rather than using it as a springboard for virtuoso display. From studying vocal interpretations of each song they covered, Emmanuel embraced a singer’s identity in how he would caress each melody. “It was a wakeup call to not overplay, to be respectful and serve the music properly,” he said.
“When you’re being respectful to the melody, you’re also respecting the listener’s previous experience with that song,” Knowles pointed out. “We play into their expectations while at the same time surprising them now and then.”
Working over Skype when far apart and over kitchen tables, in tour buses and Nashville cafes when they could, Emmanuel and Knowles assembled their list and developed arrangements. Eventually they rented a flat on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles where they polished and finessed each morning and then walked to the famed EastWest Studios to record.
Like artful colors harmonizing into a masterpiece on canvas, the variety of songs ultimately unifies the project. They uncover an often neglected thoughtfulness in a ballad treatment of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” take the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” on a carefree spin, playfully jam through “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” and tap the brilliant vocal lines and harmonic bedrock to unleash the power of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
"Heart Songs" celebrates the music that has moved listeners. And it reminds us too of a different kind of artistry, a magic more subtle than dexterity and flash can achieve alone.
“Really, the bottom line is that Johnny and I just love to play this kind of music together,” Emmanuel said. “We’re not trying to make a statement or set any trends. We’re just playing these songs because we love them. But we also hope that when people — young, old and in between — put this music on, it brings something to them that they haven’t felt in a long while.”
“There’s Tommy, there’s me and there’s us,” Knowles summed up. “This is an us project.”
So it’s true: One plus one equals one. And that one includes us all.
— Rick Kreiser is the founder of Guitar Masters concert series.