Tommy Emmanuel first came to Virginia by way of Nashville and longtime harp guitar player, Stephen Bennett who lived in Gloucester County for years.
The two met at a Chet Atkins convention in Nashville in 1996 and immediately hit it off, two virtuoso guitar players with distinctive styles.
“We became brothers,” Emmanuel says by phone from Australia where he’s playing his last show on the continent in Brisbane later this day. “We still are. We see each other from time to time.”
Bennett lives in Connecticut now. Emmanuel, who joins David Grisman for a CGP and Dawg show at the Sandler Center on Nov. 16, lives in Nashville, but back then he looked for a place in Virginia.
“It’s one of the first places I played in America,” says the 62-year-old Australian. “I wanted to live in Virginia, looked around for a house and I just couldn’t afford it at that time.”
The tour with Grisman, longtime collaborator with everybody from Jerry Garcia to Peter Rowan to Tony Rice, formed out of a similar friendship in 2014.
Grisman, who answered questions by email, says he was invited to sit in at a show at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts with his friend, Martin Taylor, the Scottish guitarist, and Emmanuel.
“I had him up to play and we just hit if off like crazy,” Emmanuel says. “I was a fan of his since way back in the ’70s when Dawg music first came out. That was a unique style.”
Emmanuel’s manager suggested they see if recording together might work. So when Emmanuel was playing in California, he set aside a few days and went to Grisman’s home in Washington.
“I flew my engineer “dB” Dave Dennison and his wife (who’s Australian) to record us in our living room which sounds great,” Grisman says. “Tommy brought his family as well (both Dave and Tommy have two-year olds) so it was a session for all ages.
“Tommy surprised me by wanting to record my compositions and I had a fresh batch so out of ten originals, five were new and never recorded. We also recorded “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Tommy’s beautiful arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda”.”
Emmanuel learned the new songs on the spot and they recorded ten tracks in just a couple of days. “I enjoyed it because I had to be Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Django Reinhardt, and Frank Vignola all rolled into one,” he says. “It’s fun and challenging for me as a guitar player and his collaborator. I like the way he writes. It’s not predictable, yet you can follow it and I can memorize it pretty quickly.”
Emmanuel says the two will sit on stage, playing just like they did in Grisman’s living room. “We played acoustic to each other, just like we were sitting in a room having a jam,” he says. “We miked everything up and recorded the whole album like that.”
That’s the way they’ll play in Virginia Beach. “This tour is going to be the first for me when I’ve gone on just with an acoustic guitar and a microphone. No plugging in. No electronics,” he explains. “It’s going to be great fun.”
Emmanuel first worked with Grisman and another strings hero, Bryan Sutton, in Nashville in 2016. That whet Emmanuel’s appetite for the sessions in Washington. It also cemented a friendship.
“Aside from his very exceptional musical abilities, Tommy is a very warm human being and a force of nature, “Grisman says. “His interest in my music was also very inspiring for me. I’m very fortunate to have found such a new friend.”
Emmanuel jokes that he needs to turn his guitar up when he plays with Grisman. “David’s mandolin, we call it the Crusher it’s so loud,” he says. “If you sit close to him, you can’t hear anything you’re playing. He will drown out anything,” he adds, laughing.
Grisman, 72, credits another Australian, a mandolin builder with giving the instrument, one of the first Gibson F-5 models built in 1922, its nickname.
He most famously played on The Grateful Dead’s classic, “American Beauty,” and joined Rowan, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn to form the bluegrass group, Old and in the Way. So his pairing with Emmanuel is another in a long line of them.
“Music is a wonderful team sport with great potential for give and take, especially in a duo setting such as this,” Grisman explains.
While Grisman’s heralded career dates to the Sixties, Emmanuel started playing guitar at four and toured Australia with his family living out of station wagons until he was 10. After his father died, his family abandoned the road. At 15, he left school and headed to the city to make his way, listening to everything from Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed to Neil Diamond and Carole King to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens before diving into the jazz of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Frank Sinatra.
Over time, Emmanuel became friends with his idol, Chet Atkins, the longtime country star whose musical lineage goes back to the Carter Family and forward to playing with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Emmanuel signs CGP after his name. In 1999, Atkins presented Emmanuel with a Certified Guitar Player Award, one he gave to only four guitarists.
“He was like a daddy to me,” Emmanuel says. “A great man.”
Emmanuel says an album released the year before Atkins died in 2001 is the one that turned his career around. Called “Only,” it was his first acoustic disc.
“I think that album was the watershed album,” he says. “That was the album that turned people on to me and my writing and playing. It’s all original songs, everything done in one take. It was an honest album and I think that’s what people liked.”
His forthcoming album features duets and some singing. He’s working with Jason Isbell, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell and Mark Knopfler, among others. He will tour with Crowell starting in February.
While Emmanuel’s songs have no words, he says he hears words when he’s writing them. “What I’m trying to say really is I don’t write as if I’m just writing something to play on the instrument. There’s a greater purpose,” Emmanuel says. “I’m trying to tell a story and write a song that gets inside your head that gets into your soul. I often hear words when I’m writing melody. But I’m telling a story without words. “
He will sacrifice perfection for feeling. “Being in the moment and playing what you really feel at the moment, that, to me, is being the real musician,” he adds. “Sometimes the best idea I get I can’t remember ten minutes later. It’s gone. “
That magic of the moment, here and then gone forever, is what he looks to unveil onstage. “When I’m playing a song where I improvise solos, I’m always waiting for the magic to appear. I’m digging for it, looking for that gold nugget. Sometimes I hit it with my spade and I know what it is. Other times, I’m digging around and all I find is dirt,” he says, laughing.