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Hamptons Life

Sep 12, 2017 3:50 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Guitar Master Tommy Emmanuel To Play Westhampton Beach August 6

Tommy Emmanuel will play at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday, August 6.SIMONE CECCHETTI SIMONE CECCHETTI
Sep 12, 2017 3:59 PM

On a Thursday afternoon late last month, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel was in good spirits, but playfully frustrated.

Between a hectic touring schedule and the very nature of his newest album—a collection of his favorite concert duets—it’s rare he finds the time to sit down at the recording studio in Nashville and pore over each track, deciding which will make the cut.

“Normally, when I do my solo albums, I make them in two afternoons and they’re finished. But this has been,” he laughed, “a year of my life. I don’t have a studio at home, there’s too much children noise going on. I don’t have a quiet space at home, except in my bedroom. Cuz the rest of the time, our house is full of kids. But it’s all good fun.”

His wife, Jane, and their three daughters—Angelina, Amanda and Rachel—keep him busy, humble and down-to-earth, a sentiment felt on stage when Mr. Emmanuel picks up one of his three Maton guitars and performs his signature “fingerstyle” method, akin to the way a pianist plays piano, using all 10 fingers.

It was a sound the Australian-born musician first heard from Chet Atkins on the radio, one he tried to replicate at age 7 without lessons or training—only with the love and support from his family, which toured the country as a band for much of his childhood.

Famously disparaging when it comes to his own vocal abilities, Mr. Emmanuel will open his Sunday, August 6, performance at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center with Rick Price—“He sings like an angel,” the guitarist said—before taking the stage himself for a night of intrinsic rhythm, sheer talent and raw honesty.

The Press: Are you staying true to form and not coming in with a set list?

Tommy Emmanuel: I never work to a set list unless I’m working with an orchestra or people who need to know what’s going on. When I play on my own, no one needs to know what’s going on. I just start playing and take it from there, you know? And sometimes I do opposite to what people expect. I’ll come out and play a slow song to start instead of hammering the hell out of everybody for half an hour, which was my way for many years. I wanted to get the audience’s attention, so I hosed them good for the first half hour, and then people were like, “Enough already! Enough!” But it got their attention, and got me booked back.

I’m gonna play a lot of stuff from my last album, called “It’s Never Too Late.” I’ll be playing a lot of new songs, and I’ll play a couple brand new pieces from the next album.

Will you be singing at all?

Emmanuel: I do sing, normally when I want to clear the room. [He deadpanned, and then burst out laughing.]

Good one. Despite your greatest efforts, you’ve experienced this surge in popularity. What has that been like for you?

It’s been great. And I appreciate the fact that more people are discovering me all the time. You have to remind yourself every night that half the audience haven’t seen you before—and that’s what you’re hoping for, you gotta build a crowd.

I mean, I don’t have the luxury of a hit record or a song in a movie or a song that caught on like a craze. I don’t have any of that stuff. So I’ve had to build my audience almost by hand. It’s not a matter of having a crowd, it’s actually a relationship with the public out there. What I’m dealing with is pretty personal. Every time I play, I open myself up completely to my audience. I’m totally vulnerable, emotionally, when I go out to play. It’s all or nothing for me, and I don’t hold anything back.

If I have something to say to the audience, I’ll say it. There are times when it’s therapeutic for me to tell the audience what I’ve been through or what I’m going through. There are nights you feel kind of chirpy and talkative, and you start telling stories and make a few jokes and have some fun, and there are other nights where you might have to be just really honest with the audience and say, “Look, I’m not real talkative tonight, I think I’m just gonna play for a while and see what happens,” and tell them the truth and tell them how you’re feeling.

Take me back to little Tommy. What was it like growing up in such a musical home?

It was an adventure and it was a way of life. I didn’t know anything else—traveling, doing shows, doing schoolwork during the day by correspondence and having shows at night. To me, it was great. I enjoyed it. I didn’t miss a normal life at all, I didn’t really know much about it. In fact, I’m no good at normal life. [He laughed.]

No, I’m only kidding. I had to learn. I had to learn to change when I got married and made a nest and got a house. There’s a lot of things I have to change about myself and I’m still going through that. I’m one of those people, I get up out of bed full of gratitude, full of sunshine on the inside, and sometimes when you’ve gotta take care of a lot of stuff that’s not easy, it can knock the wind out of your sails and it’s like, “What happened to my happiness? What happened to my peace? I’ve got all this rubbish to deal with.” And then you realize, “Well, it’s just normal life, boy. You’ve just got to get through it.” I had to learn all that stuff.

The young little guy that I used to be did have an adventurous life. I’m grateful to my parents because they never stifled my creativity. They encouraged me. My father pushed me a lot and at the time, it was hard, it was annoying and I was a bit afraid of him. But I’m glad he did now, because he made me a better musician and he made me a better listener and a better person because of it.

Do you remember the early years? I’m talking age 4, when you picked up a guitar for the first time?

I remember a couple things. I can remember what the house was like, I can remember music in the house and playing music. I remember gathering around the record player and what music we were listening to. But a lot of the detail, I don’t. I was too young.

But you do remember when you were 7 and heard Chet on the radio for the first time.

Oh yeah, I’ll never forget that. Word was out about Chet Atkins by that time. That was the name on everyone’s lips. Some people were like, “It’s a recording trick, don’t take any notice to it.” I remember I heard him on the radio and it just stuck out. No one sounded like that. No one made an instrumental record that sounded that good. And what was he doing?

It just lit a fire under me and I wanted to work out what he was doing. I had so many people trying to steer me in another direction. I’m one of those people where determination is in my blood and I just wasn’t gonna quit on it because I knew I was onto something.

What was it like when you did it on stage?

You should have seen the look on people’s faces, when I played some Chet Atkins tunes when I was a kid. People were not just amazed. They were stunned. They were looking with their mouths open. It was a revelation to them. And it became normal life to me, I was on the Atkins diet—only playing Chet Atkins music.

It’s a funny thing to talk about, but at the same time, it’s sort of like your destiny. You found your destiny. It struck a chord with me. When I heard Chet, it was like I heard my future. I heard my destiny and my purpose. That’s all I heard. I knew I had to do that.

When I met Chet, finally, and talked with him about his young life, he said the same thing. He said, “When I heard Merle Travis, I just said, ‘Whatever that is, that’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m gonna take that and do something with it.’” We both had the same revelation in our lives.

After meeting in 1980, what was the nature of your friendship with Chet?

It was one of the greatest things for me. I still miss him cuz we really became like father and son. We had so much fun together. Chet had a lot of friends and he was loved, obviously, by everybody here in Nashville, but he never had a close relationship with a son-like figure—and I lost my dad before I was 11. So we really clung to each other toward the end of his life.

I had some surreal, precious days with him where I was staying at his house in a little granny flat beside the house, and he would come in at 6 o’clock in the morning in his pajamas and we’d make coffee and he’d sit down and tell me stories about his early life and how difficult it was making ends meet and what kind of touring they did and where they played and the radio shows. He would talk about his young life and he remembered everything. It was surreal to me, to be sitting there with him and no one around. But he knew where I came from, he knew my background and he knew my love for what I do and my dedication. He knew all that, and that’s why when he gave me the Certified Guitar Player award, it said “for lifetime contribution,” and I thought that was a beautiful thing.

How do you think you’ve grown since your relationship with him?

I’m a lot more relaxed and a lot less pressured. I don’t feel like I have to prove myself. I just have to do the best I can. I have to please me first and I’m really hard to please. I try to set a high standard for myself and go beyond it. But if I go out there and it just doesn’t flow for some reason, you have to remind yourself, “Look, I’m just a guy. I’m not a robot, I’m just a guy.” I had to learn that kind of thing so that I wouldn’t get depressed and get into drugs or whatever. I know people who fight that stuff all the time and are riddled with doubt about themselves, and I’m smart enough not to get into that sort of thing.

But I’ve been doing this a long time and you never get complacent, it’s a bad move to rest on your laurels. I’ve got to deliver the goods every time and raise the bar all the time, otherwise someone’s gonna come along and do it better.

At the end of any given show, how do your hands feel?

I could walk right out and go do it all again. My guitars are beautiful to play, and I play a lot. I’m physically in good shape to play. I could run you ’round the block. In fact, if you get too close, I may chase you.

I believe you.

You know, people who have trouble with their hands are trying way too hard. It should be a pleasure to play. But my focus is on the audience, not on my hands. My hands are just part of the toolbox. It’s what flows through you that comes out.

Tommy Emmanuel will perform on Sunday, August 6, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $36 to $66. For more information, call 631-288-1500 or visit

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