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“YOU have to be relaxed,” world-famous, fingerpicking guitarist Tommy Emmanuel advises “CityNews” when we speak to him by phone to Nashville, Tennessee.
Emmanuel has for many years divided his time between the capital of country music and the UK, where he lives with his two daughters, seeing London as a convenient jump-off point for his European commitments.
On a rare visit to his native Australia during early August he’ll perform only in Canberra and Nowra, saying: “I felt like getting outside the big cities this time”.
At 63 he’s still going strong, but news of the recent deaths of his sister Virginia and brother Phil, with whom he had performed at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, hit him “like a ton of lead” and he swears he’ll look after himself, saying, “at least I’ve never touched a cigarette in my life”.
A consummate guitarist known for his fingering and his percussive techniques, he is also totally at ease talking about his life‘s work, pausing to advise me never to go out drinking with José Feliciano, as if this were likely to happen.
Like Feliciano, he plays only by ear and learnt “Light my Fire” off by heart when he was a boy, later playing duo guitar with him at a Hilton hotel gig in Australia.
As a young man, Emmanuel also wrote to his greatest hero, Chet Atkins in Nashville, and was eventually rewarded with an invitation to “drop in”, which was the beginning of a long, working relationship.
Emmanuel has since become one of the world’s most celebrated guitarists.
Twice judged Best Acoustic Guitarist by US “Guitar Player Magazine”, he was named in 1999 by Atkins as “Certified Guitar Player, In Recognition of His Contributions to the Art of Fingerpicking”.
When “CityNews” spoke to Emmanuel he was heading to the Annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. Then it was off to North Carolina and a guitar retreat in Memphis where he and a few other guitarists would teach up-and-coming instrumentalists the art of stringing a guitar and songwriting, hear sound recordist Steve Cropper talk about working with Otis Redding and visit Graceland.
After that he’ll fly to Australia via Hawaii, where he has eight gigs, but swears he’ll spend time on the beach.
“I’m always relaxed. I’ve always been relaxed. I never strain or push too hard, I’ve always got to be in control and when I’m playing I’m also listening carefully to my sound – that comes with time and experience,” he says.
When Emmanuel comes to Canberra he’ll be bringing with him from Nashville former US National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion Richard Smith.
“He’s actually a Pom but amazing,” says Emmanuel.“
“He plays everything from Scott Joplin rags to Chet Atkins with such a sense of command.”
The pair will play rarely-heard Atkins numbers in duo; “unless you come to Nashville you’ll never hear them”.
The highlight of the Canberra and Nowra concerts will be a tribute to his late brother Phil and sister Virginia in the form of a song he’s written, called “Sail Away”.
It came to him after he found out about Phil’s death from his distraught young brother.
“I’d been performing and got the call in the wee, small hours,” he says.
Initially stunned, Emmanuel eventually got to sleep, but woke early and saw the whole thing from a different perspective.
“I had watched them struggle through life, so there was some sense of relief that the struggle was over and I thought, ‘Sail Away’.”
Tommy Emmanuel at Canberra Theatre, 7.30pm, Thursday, August 2, bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.