Finger pickin’ good guitar

Tommy Emmanuel, a finger-style guitarist inspired by the legendary Chet Atkins (who became one of his biggest fans), will perform at Pepperdine University this Friday.

This will be the last stop on his current U.S. tour, coinciding with the release of his CD “The Mystery” and DVD “Live at Her Majesty’s Theatre,” filmed during his concert last year in Ballarat, Australia.

Atkins called him “one of the greatest players on the planet” and gave him the title c.g.p. (certified guitar player). They recorded together on the 1997 Grammy-nominated album, “The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World.” Using a technique reminiscent of renowned banjo player Bela Fleck, who is equally at home with bluegrass and classical, Emmanuel simultaneously plays multiple parts, organically blending folk, country, jazz and pop.

He spoke with us by cell phone two weeks ago while driving through the Tennessee countryside. A native of Australia, he now calls Nashville home.

“The market in Australia isn’t that big,’ he said. “I did as much as I could do: accompanying singers, TV game shows, sessions, solos; there was nothing more to do there. I really wanted to take my music to a world stage. That’s building now.”

Though touring now takes him all over the world, he does much of his writing on the road. “When you travel, you meet people and see things that motivate you and inspire you,” he says. “It gives you a sense of intrigue and you’re excited. It’s not like being at home. You’ve got your antennas up.”


“If you grow up listening to good songs, it’s got to rub off on you,” Emmanuel said about songwriting. “You’ll always write something from pure inspiration. I never say I’ve got to sit down and write something.”

While in Italy, he wrote “Antonella’s Birthday” out of such sudden inspiration.

“She’s one of my best friends and it was her birthday that day,” Emmanuel said. “She was making breakfast on a beautiful sunny morning, and I heard her downstairs. It took only 10 minutes to write.”

In a similar way, he wrote “Cantina Senese,” the CD’s rousing opener with its mandolin-like lines, about a restaurant in Livorno, Tuscany.

“You walk through the door into another dimension,” he said. “The smell of garlic, coffee and cigarettes, and the buzz of people talking combine to create a magical experience I tried to capture in the composition.”

With musical heroes as disparate as Django Reinhardt, an icon for many traditional jazz musicians, and Eric Clapton, Emmanuel has developed a style of playing and writing that accommodates all. On “The Mystery” CD, he slips seamlessly from country to ragtime.

“Cowboy’s Dream” is based on Atkins’ beautiful melody “Kentucky,” recorded by dozens of artists.

“I didn’t want to play Kentucky; I had to write something that’s mine that has the same feel,” Emmanuel said. “Then I had a dream about cowboys sitting out under the stars dreaming of girls in Hawaii. It’s about a cowboy lying on a beach with a pretty girl.”

“Game show Rag/Cannonball Rag” is Emmanuel’s take on Merle Travis’s much recorded song.

“It’s a classic. I didn’t want to record just my version,” he said. “I wanted to write something of the same intensity but humorous, based on the music they use on TV game shows when they say ‘Come On Down.’ It’s tongue in cheek with lots of chord changes, but structured specifically so it could flow with Cannonball Rag.”

His Australian roots inform “Diggers Waltz,” a tribute to the Australian soldiers who dug all the trenches in World War I.

“It’s also a term of endearment,” he said. “Like, ‘He’s a good old digger.’ Well, I had a dream about an old digger who was getting ready to go out on parade with his medals on, checking himself out in the mirror. His wife, who was long gone, appeared to him in the mirror and they danced.”

Emmanuel has won two ARIA Awards (Australia’s version of the Grammys) for “Best Adult Contemporary Album,” and has earned four Platinum and Gold albums in his homeland. A reader’s poll in Acoustic Guitar magazine called him one of the “Top 3 Guitarists of All Time.” In 2005, he received the “Album of the Year” and “Thumb Picker of the Year” awards as well as an induction into the Thumb Pickers Hall Of Fame in Kentucky.

One of his favorite projects is the TommyFest annual guitar camp with master classes and performances with guest artists.

“It’s usually three to four days. I have a different person play with me every night, and we have workshops during the days.

“A lot come because they want to play and learn. I enjoy hearing other people’s interpretations of songs,” he said. “It’s designed to give them encouragement and give them something good to focus on.”

The Pepperdine concert will also feature Emmanuel’s fiancé, Elizabeth Watkins, singing a few solos and their duet “Walls,” the only vocal on “The Mystery” CD. The title track is his meditative composition about love.

“It’s about human lives and how we all fit together,” he said. “It’s about the things we see and the things we don’t.”

Emmanuel’s performance takes place Friday, 8 p.m. at the Smothers Theatre. More information can be obtained by calling 310.506.4522.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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