Tommy Emmanuel has achieved enough musical milestones to satisfy several lifetimes. Or at least they would if he was the kind of artist who was ever satisfied. At the age of six, he was touring regional Australia with his family band. By 30, he was a rock n’ roll lead guitarist burning up stadiums in Europe. At 44, he became one of five people ever named a Certified Guitar Player by his idol, music icon Chet Atkins.
Today, he plays hundreds of sold-out shows every year from Nashville to Sydney to London. All the while, Tommy has hungered for what’s next. When you’re widely acknowledged as the international master of the solo acoustic guitar, what’s next is an album of collaborations with some of the finest singers, songwriters and, yes, guitarists alive today. “For me, music has always been about collaboration–the push and pull you get from another human being’s energy,” explains Tommy. “Even when I play solo, it feels like I’m playing to the emotions I’m getting from the crowd. To feel the love or the joy or the hope coming through these other pickers and singers was electric–I played in ways I never would on my own.”
Accomplice One is a testament to Tommy’s musical diversity, the range of expression that stretches from authentic country-blues to face-melting rock shredding, by way of tender and devastating pure song playing. The songs are a mix of new takes on indelible classics and brand new originals from Tommy and his collaborators.
The artists who stepped forward to join Tommy in the studio are an impressive list of some of today’s most respected performers, from across the musical spectrum–a lineup including Jason Isbell, Mark Knopfler, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, Amanda Shires, Ricky Skaggs, J.D. Simo, David Grisman, Bryan Sutton, Suzy Bogguss and many more.
This is an album for all types of Tommy Emmanuel fan–from longtime guitar aficionados who’ve followed his career for decades, to lovers of great songs and melodies who flock to Tommy’s shows for the emotional authenticity driving every performance.
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Isbell conjures up the sweaty atmosphere of his Muscle Shoals roots on opener “Deep River Blues,” a classic fingerpicked blues which has been a longtime staple of Tommy’s live shows. Country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs lends his mandolin and unmistakable voice to “Song and Dance Man,” a chronicle of a life lived for the next show. Tommy’s subtlety and tastefulness blends with Amanda Shires’ gorgeous vocal and fiddle playing to transform Madonna’s “Borderline” and Rodney Crowell’s “Looking Forward to the Past” could’ve topped the country charts in another era, with Tommy’s propulsive rhythm supporting Crowell’s sly lyrics while his tasty lead playing weave in and out.
For those hankering for virtuosic hot picking, the rave-up “Wheelin’ and Dealin’” sees him trading licks with J.D. Simo and Charlie Cushman, while a jaw-dropping rendition of “Purple Haze” with Dobro master Jerry Douglas captures all the fire and energy of the Hendrix original as the two modern masters push each other to new heights with each raunchy slide and bend.
On “You Don’t Want to Get You One of Those,” a sly vocal and acoustic duet with Dire Straits’ legend Mark Knopfler, there was a third, invisible presence in the studio– the late Chet Atkins.
“Mark and I both learned so much from Chet–he was a hero and a mentor to each of us, and we’ve tried to bring his spirit forward into the future in our own playing,” says Tommy. “This song that Mark wrote captured Chet’s sense of humor so well and I had the time of my life in the studio with him conjuring the master as we laid it down.”
While this was the first time he and Knopfler had collaborated, the album also featured some of Tommy’s longtime fellow road warriors, who have covered the miles in buses and planes around the world on tour over many years. “Djangology” is a gypsy jazz treat cut live in Havana, Cuba with Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo and “Rachel’s Lullaby” reunites Tommy with Hawaiian ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro. The song, written for Tommy’s youngest daughter, shows him continuing to find inspiration from an evergreen source–his love of his family.
Since he and his brother Phil taught themselves to play as toddlers, the guitar has been Tommy’s real first language–and he’s more articulate on his signature Melbourne-made Maton acoustics than most people are with words. His unerring sense of groove marked him as Australia’s youngest rhythm guitarist as The Emmanuel Quartet crisscrossed the country. By the time he made it to the big city in his late teens, Tommy was a rock star, slinging a Fender Telecaster alongside the biggest stars of the day. It was a good life, but deep down Tommy knew there was more to his musical destiny.
A shy country kid with little confidence, it took an encouraging meeting turned jam session with his guitar hero Chet Atkins to build his self-belief. By the late 80s he was ready to go it alone, to make instrumental guitar records made for an audience broader than just guitar fans–a move with zero precedence in Australian music. Despite the odds, Tommy released a string of hit albums, racking up awards wins and nominations, and becoming a huge celebrity in his home country, culminating in an incendiary performance with his brother Phil at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Influenced by the Merle Travis/Chet Atkins fingerstyle of guitar picking, Tommy developed a style of solo guitar playing that encompasses the range of a whole band– covering drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitar and a vocal melody simultaneously. No loop pedals, no overdubs, just one man and ten fingers. While some artists take ten-piece bands on the road and still fill out the sound with backing tracks, Tommy builds a complete sonic world entirely on his own.
For many players, the technical mastery of the technique would overwhelm the emotion of the music, but not for Tommy. His idols are not just the great players, but also the great pop songwriters and singers–Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, The Beatles and their ilk. While thousands of fans have spent years trying to unpack and imitate Tommy’s technique, for him it’s just the delivery system. His approach is always song and emotion first, his music the embodiment of his soulful spirit, sense of hope and his love for entertaining.
Which is not to say he dismisses the CGP, the Guitar Player awards, the Grammy nominations, the numerous magazine polls naming him the greatest acoustic guitarist alive. He’s grateful for it all, and the incredible journey that’s led him to the most invigorating period of his career–six decades into it. For Tommy though, the greatest reward is always the same–to make the next great record, and to see the beaming audience at the next great show.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be in show business. Now I just want to be in the happiness business–I make music, you get happy. That’s a good job.”
Tommy isn’t the kind of man who looks to nostalgia–it’s more that he treats his history in the same way he treats the history of music overall: There’s magic threaded in through all the eras that’s worth celebrating and revisiting. Now in his sixties –although on stage he can seem 25–life and music are about improvisation, variety and happiness.
“Making Accomplice One has been this great journey through so many of the worlds I’ve inhabited through the years,” concludes Tommy. “Playing with old friends, new friends, heroes, people I’ve been like an older brother to… and musically to jump around from bluegrass to jazz to blues to just pure songs, it’s like going to the world’s greatest buffet and picking out all my favorite meals. People try to categorize what I do, to put me in a genre or put a label on me. I always go back to that old Duke Ellington line, about there being two types of music, good and bad.” Well I try and play the good kind, and on this record I got to play it with the best people.”
Joe Robinson is a true force in the pantheon of exceptional artists in modern music, and he has joined an exclusive group of elite performers whose impact continues to shape our unique American musical culture.
On Robinson’s seminal new album, Undertones, the Australian native continues to awe and delight with soulful and utterly brilliant, finely crafted songs on both acoustic and electric guitar, and has come into his own as a lyricist. As The Washington Post recently observed, “It’s hard not to imagine him rivaling the popularity of say, John Mayer in coming years.” There is no doubt that Robinson is at the top of his game, boldly stepping up with mind-bending chord work, solos that literally redefine what can be milked from a guitar, and inspired, melodic singing in his signature tenor voice.
Creating Undertones was truly a labor of love for me,” Robinson reflects. “I elected to produce and mix this album myself. Having been quite busy as a session musician over the past few years, I felt I knew how to get the musical performances I wanted down on tape, so the whole process felt really natural.”
The project was recorded on the outskirts of Nashville, where Robinson is based, at The Castle Recording Studios. “It had the perfect laid-back atmosphere for us to lay down the sonic foundation for this record,” Robinson added. The historic studio looks true to its name and was purportedly built by gangster Al Capone between 1929-1932.
In addition to Robinson’s own skills on guitar and vocal, he solicited help from drummer Pete Abbott (Jaco Pastorius, Average White Band, Randy Brecker, Blood, Sweat & Tears) and bassist Anton Nesbitt (McCrary Sisters, Keb’ Mo’, CeCe Winans).
Robinson has been performing so much of his life that he’s had a lot of time to delve into the emotional process of recording, and takes an unusually philosophical approach to creating music. “Undertones represents the many shades of the human experience. There are songs about love, pain, faith, story songs, satirical moments, and archetypal representations of behavioral truth.”
“To me, music is comprised of the technical element, and the spiritual element,” he continues. “I am enamored with the Taoist worldview, as was Bruce Lee, a man I admire a lot. Through this lens, one is exposed to the polarizing elements of our world—the whole world views the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly. The whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad. Thus, something and nothing produce each other. The difficult and the easy complement each other—note and sound harmonize with one another. It seems everything in our world can be deconstructed in this way. Everything has an undertone.”
Born into a musical family in the bush country of Temagog, Australia, Robinson began playing guitar when he was just nine years old, eagerly exploring the Internet to expand and deepen his craft. At the age of 13 he won the Australian National Songwriting Competition, and at 15 released his first collection of original material. A monumental achievement followed when he won first place on the “Australia’s Got Talent” television show. It came with a $250,000 grand prize.
By his eighteenth birthday Robinson had played more than 1,000 shows, and by the time he celebrated his twenty-fourth he had played over 2,000, an incredible total number of performances logged in a comparatively brief professional career.
Robinson was invited to come to Nashville by his mentor and inspirational savant Tommy Emmanuel. In 2009, for his debut album Time Jumpin’, Robinson chose to work with Brad Paisley producer Frank Rogers. At that same time, he was awarded the Senior Grand Champion Performer of the World award at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Hollywood, where no less than 70,000 contestants vied for the top prize.
Such high praise and recognition hardly dampened Robinson’s creative energy. In 2011 he released Let Me Introduce You, produced again by Frank Rogers, where his deep excursions into acoustic and electric music only served to solidify his growing reputation as a creative genius.
Various EP projects followed, most significantly Gemini Vol. 2 on which Robinson played every instrument, and produced and mixed all songs. He also deftly expanded his craft as an accomplished vocalist and lyricist, continuing to compose songs that vividly reveal his varied influences, from bluesy shuffles to jazz-tinged solos and truly celestial musical musings that stir and awaken the soul.
Robinson’s popularity has rapidly grown as he continues to tour nationally and internationally, treating audiences to his rare virtuosity on guitar and his beautiful singing voice. His fluid and inimitable style has delighted audiences around the world, garnering high praise and prestigious awards from the international music community.
A significant and ground-breaking addendum to his touring schedule was Robinson’s participation in Guitar Army, an all-guitar tour de force initially featuring Robben Ford and Lee Roy Parnell, which now features John Jorgenson, along with Robinson and Parnell. This trio concept brought these supremely gifted guitarists together in a truly historic ensemble whose talent and tone are simply stunning.
Robinson’s essential influences cannot go unnoticed–he has been able to tour with many of his mentors who have inspired him to reach ever-higher as a singer, songwriter, musician, performer, and recording artist. He continues to tour and play dates with Emmanuel, whose prowess on the guitar is by now a matter of record, and Robinson joins Rodney Crowell as part of Crowell’s acoustic trio. Robinson’s pairing with Crowell is simply magical. Robinson has also performed with Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris together.
Robinson rhapsodizes about his mentors, “When I perform with Rodney, every night on stage I just sit there and listen to the lyrics. He weaves these amazing narratives into his songs. Through his music I have been exposed to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt as well as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Just being around the genius song craftsman that Rodney is has been a huge influence on me both as a writer and a singer. And the first time I heard Tommy I was so uncomfortable because I didn’t know how he was getting all those sounds. I knew that I just had to figure it out. I was just gobsmacked by the power with which he played, and I became determined and obsessed with how I could play like that. I still learn so much from him when we are on the road. I’ll be walking past his room in the hotel and I’ll hear him practicing. He just cares so much about putting on a good show. When I was sixteen, I got to play with Les Paul at the Iridium, and apparently, he was like Tommy in that he would drive home from the Iridium and listen to the board mix of the show to critique himself. Rodney’s the same way. He rewrites his songs – he can spend 25 years on the last verse of a song. This kind of attention to detail has been really inspiring to me. I credit everything that I’ve been able to do to these wonderful mentors who have so inspired and encouraged me.”
All this inspiration surrounds Robinson and informs his creativity. “The more I play music, the less I need to think about it. The less I need to think about it, the more I feel that I can dedicate myself to experiencing the undertones of harmony, rhythm, melody, rhyme and narrative.”