Brothers, Tommy and Phil Emmanuel.THESE days, in cities throughout the world, people queue for hours to shake Tommy Emmanuel’s hand and have him sign an autograph.
He’s probably the world’s best guitar picker today – certainly the awards and honours that have come his way point to that.
In America, his magic hands have seen him dubbed the Wizard of Oz.
It wasn’t always like that for the Muswellbrook-born, Gunnedah-raised guitar maestro.
He “vividly remembers” the days in outback NSW towns when he had to “hit the streets with the guitar and give it hell” in a desperate bid to raise enough pennies to eat and buy fuel for his family to move on.
But rather than shy away from talking of those days in the way many big stars want to hide their past,
56-year-old Tommy Emmanuel, said it was in fact country Australia that provided him the solid foundation on which he had built his career.
“From those people in the bush, I learnt two lessons that have served me well through the years: how to work hard and how to treat other people the right way,” he said.
“I’m very grateful for where and when I was born.”
The days he spent as a kid touring rural Australia playing the guitar, with his family band and then later with country music star, Buddy Williams, also instilled in him the importance of having a willing attitude, he said.
“I have etched in my mind times we were stranded and broke in places like Nyngan and Bourke and Phil and I would go out onto the streets and play like hell,” he said.
Tommy and his brother, Phil Emmanuel, were inducted into the Australian Country Music Roll of Renown at the Tamworth Country Music Festival this year.
They have just wrapped up an Australian tour celebrating 50 years in the industry but that doesn’t mean they’ll be slowing down.
In typical Tommy humour, the legendary guitarist told one 2011 Tamworth audience the two “had to keep going until we get it right”.
The brothers, who performed together at the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony to an estimated 2.85 billion viewers, said they had a kind of mental telepathy, that when they played together it “makes a third player that is better than the both of us”.
Their performances together at times involve sharing the one guitar, with each having one hand free.
They are simply incredible.
Tamworth, Tommy said, holds a special place in their heart.
While he was playing guitar by the age of four – self-taught with some instruction from his mother – and had played his way across Australia by the age of 10, Tommy says ”it all started for me here in Tamworth really”.
“We busked on Peel Street and made our first recording here in 1960. That, of course, was back when we had teeth and hair,” he laughs.
Seriously, he said, he had never wanted to do anything other than entertain people with his guitar playing and get better and better at it – and even after 50 years he hadn’t stopped learning.
“I’m a better player today than I was yesterday,” he said.
“Music is a language of its own; we can go to a foreign country where we don’t speak a word of the language and we still relate through music.”
The NSW Department of Education eventually put a stop to the Emmanuel family’s touring, insisting Phil and Tommy go to school regularly.
Through the years, Tommy has referred to himself as “an uneducated country kid from Down Under” which has fascinated international audiences who can’t believe he had no formal tuition and has never read music.
His humble background, and outlook, makes all the more impressive the long list of prestigious awards he has, from Guitar Player Magazine’s Legend Award to Grammy nominations, Nashville Music Awards’ best country instrumental, the only non-American ever inducted into the National Thumbpickers’ Hall of Fame in the United States and the Chet Atkins’ Certified Guitar Player title – a rare distinction shared by only three other people in the world.
That’s only naming a few.
While Tommy Emmanuel’s stardom is largely linked with his pop associations – he was with ’70s rock band, Dragon, toured with Tina Turner and played with the likes of Eric Clapton, Air Supply and was a member of the John Farnham Band – country music is his love.
“When I was a kid, country music was not so known and somewhat looked down on. Now it’s the coolest thing on the planet,” he said.
“It’s always been that way to me.”
He described the latest Tamworth country music honour as very rewarding and said it “inspires us to keep reaching higher, to set standards for the next guitar players the way they were set for us right here all those years ago”.
Now based in Nashville, Tommy firmly believes “if you are lucky enough to have a God-given talent, you should consider it a gift”.
“Always try to play with conviction,” he says, in the way of advice to the next generation of pickers.
“Never listen to critics. You know what they say, there are those who can do and then there are those who criticise.
“You must be dedicated and you must have the willingness to risk everything.”
In Tamworth, Tommy Emmanuel is royalty but the paparazzi-like attention doesn’t phase him.
As the tiny digital cameras edged closer and closer to his lightening-fast fingers while he performed in Peel Street, he didn’t show an ounce of frustration.
“Hey, get a photo of this,” he simply grinned.
“I’ll play two tunes at once.”
And he did.
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