Tommy Emmanuel is known not only for his mastery of the acoustic guitar but also for his showmanship. Guitar aficionados will get their fix of cool runs and hot licks at one of his shows but he also connects with non-musicians in the audience in a rare fashion. This is a skill that was passed down to him he says from his early musical mentor Chet Atkins.
“He showed us all what good playing is," Emmanuel says. "He showed us what making great records is and great arrangements and all that kind of stuff, but one of the best things he showed us is that the love of this instrument brings us together.”
Emmanuel has had other mentors along the way, including one that might surprise some of his fans.
“When I toured with John Denver in 1988 he didn’t know me from Adam," he says. "I was just a nobody—to him. He was one of the biggest stars in the world in those days. The very first show, I came off stage from playing my set and John was in my dressing room. He was really impressed with what I did and said, ‘There’s a song in my show called “Sing Australia,” I want you to come out and pick up my guitar and play with me in that song.’ You know, he didn’t have to do that.”
Today, Emmanuel serves as mentor to other musicians, including Ansty McClain who’s opening for him on his current tour. McClain’s songwriting and storytelling set him apart from others but Emmanuel adds that McClain also possesses certain talents that can’t be learned. In fact Emmanuel recently offered this observation to his protégé:
“ ‘What you’ve got, in the way that you talk to people, your comedy, your stories…’ I said, ‘You’ve got what people need. People need to be entertained in such a nice way. What he reminds us of is to look for the good things in life. And that’s a great quality to have.”
McClain also has something in common with others who’ve shared the stage with Emmanuel, a respect for them and for the art of performance.
“I don’t want anybody on the show who isn’t going to bring something great to the night for the people," he says. "Because it’s all about the audience, that’s what we’re there for.”
The Australian-born musician says that his respect for the audience manifests itself in a variety of ways—down to what he wears on stage.
“I believe that you’ve gotta feel really comfortable," Emmanuel says. "You’ve gotta feel that you look right when you go out on stage. I personally don’t like it when people go out on stage and they’re wearing clothes that they would just wear to a barbecue. I think that’s some kind of lack of respect and a lack of self-respect. I want people to know that I’m trying to look my best for them and that I care about this whole experience. It makes me feel like I’m taking pride in my work.”
Tommy Emmanuel performs July 17 at the Orpheum Theatre.