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Tommy Emmanuel: Guitar hero from Down Under. (Courtesy photo)
Aussie virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel can't get a day off

Tommy Emmanuel recently moved to Nashville, but that doesn't mean he will be doing session work in the recording mecca of country music.

Emmanuel, a supreme guitar virtuoso once praised by Chet Atkins as "probably the greatest finger-picker in the world," plays an astonishing 320 shows a year, so when he gets home for a brief respite, all he wants to do is rest.

A first-tier star in his native Australia, Emmanuel has emerged in recent years as the thinking-man's guitar hero: an ax wielder who stresses philosophy above technique, and songcraft above soloing.

Emmanuel started playing guitar at age 4, and had barely graduated to long trousers before he began performing publicly.

"My mother gave me my first guitar, and got me started," Emmanuel says during a tour stop in New Mexico. "She could play a few chords and sing a song. So she showed me how to play chords and I just kind of ran with it.

"Then my brothers took up instruments as well and we ended up forming a band in 1960. We were the local band in this small Australian town and we played at church and different charity functions and talent quests."

Even as a child, Emmanuel possessed catholic tastes and a boundless musical curiosity, but he was particularly inspired by the Shadows, a British band beloved in Australia.

"They were like the Ventures, sort of surfy instrumental music. Good melodic stuff," he explains. "That was the kind of thing we played. We sort of ended up getting on TV in Australia. A lot of producers saw us and recommended to my parents that we go on the road and play for the public and make a career of it. So my dad quit his job, sold the house, bought a couple of cars and a tent, and away we went."

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It is a story eerily similar to that of another notable musical export from Down Under: the Bee Gees. Like the Brothers Gibb, Tommy and his siblings - known as the Midget Surfaries - became the family business, and learned to adapt to an irregular childhood spent performing and traveling.

"We did correspondence school, from the age of 6," he says. "It was a really good life. My dad passed away when I was 11, and by the time I was 12, we settled down into a town on the east side of Australia. At that point, we went to a regular school, and we all found that we were pretty much ahead of the others at school. I think that the experience of being on the road and meeting people gave us a good perspective on things."

Shortly after the death of Emmanuel's father, the adolescent guitarist wrote a fan letter to Nashville legend Chet Atkins - the man whose intricate picking style had amazed him for years. Atkins responded, and the two guitarists stayed in touch. Finally, in 1980, Emmanuel made a pilgrimage to Nashville to meet his hero.

"I'd been awake for maybe three days, 'cause I was so excited," Emmanuel says. "I'd been practicing and getting ready. The morning of the big day came and I rang his secretary to make the appointment and he answered the phone. He said, 'Hey, Tommy, come on down. I'll see you.'

"When I got there, he came downstairs with his guitar, put his arm around me and said, 'You wanna pick a little?' We played a few tunes and got on great. He took me upstairs and the great `jazz guitarist` Lenny Breau was there, and the three of us played all day. We didn't even have lunch."

Emmanuel's alliance with Atkins signaled a turning point in the young Aussie's career. Throughout the '70s and early '80s, Emmanuel carved out a solid niche for himself as a session musician, turning up on an eclectic mix of records, most notably Air Supply's series of dreamy, wimp classics. Emmanuel, who taught both of Air Supply's guitarists, played rhythm and lead guitar on such international hits as "Lost in Love," "All Out of Love," and "Every Woman in the World."

"The producer booked me to do those dates knowing that I could cut it pretty quickly," Emmanuel says. "But at that time, they were trying to be a band and they were a little bit funny about having an outsider coming in to do what was supposed to be their job. But time was of the essence and I was able to come in and cut the parts straight down."

By the early '80s, however, Emmanuel, who always saw himself as a songwriter more than an instrumental wizard, shifted his focus to a career as a solo artist. His wildly eclectic albums - ranging across everything from the swing standard "Stompin' at the Savoy" to an AC/DC medley to bluegrass reveries - became unlikely best-sellers in Australia, with four attaining platinum status and three going gold.

In 2000, Emmanuel played to the largest audience of his career, closing out the Sydney Olympic Games by duetting with his brother Phil on the tune "(Back on the) Terra Firma." By this point, he had extended his fame to England, by guesting on Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings records and opening for Wyman on a British tour. He had also collaborated with Atkins on the 1997 CD, The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World.

Atkins was admired in the Nashville community as much for his humility and courtesy as for his musicianship, and Emmanuel clearly models himself after his childhood idol. Emmanuel performs guitar workshops at every tour stop, and he emphasizes a Zen-like sense of discipline. Rather than emphasizing technical prowess, he concentrates on basics like properly stringing the instrument and maintaining a spiritual dedication to playing.

"I like all kinds of playing, but I don't have a big collection of guitar-playing records," Emmanuel says. "I don't particularly sit around studying other players. I'm a songwriter. That's my passion, so I tend to listen to good songwriters. And I listen to a lot of different stuff across the board, right back to Mozart and Vivaldi. I try to learn from everybody: beg, steal, and borrow." •

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