“If you like guitar playing, it simply doesn’t get any better than Tommy.” – Jason Isbell
Tommy Emmanuel has achieved enough musical milestones to satisfy several lifetimes. Or at least they would if he was the kind of artist who was ever satisfied. At the age of six, he was touring regional Australia with his family band. By 30, he was a rock n’ roll lead guitarist burning up stadiums in Europe. At 44, he became one of five people ever named a Certified Guitar Player by his idol, music icon Chet Atkins. Today, he plays hundreds of sold-out shows every year from Nashville to Sydney to London. All the while, Tommy has hungered for what’s next. When you’re widely acknowledged as the international master of the solo acoustic guitar, what’s next is an album of collaborations with some of the finest singers, songwriters and, yes, guitarists alive today.
“For me, music has always been about collaboration–the push and pull you get from another human being’s energy,” explains Tommy. “Even when I play solo, it feels like I’m playing to the emotions I’m getting from the crowd. To feel the love or the joy or the hope coming through these other pickers and singers was electric–I played in ways I never would on my own.”
Accomplice One is a testament to Tommy’s musical diversity, the range of expression that stretches from authentic country-blues to face-melting rock shredding, by way of tender and devastating pure song playing. The songs are a mix of new takes on indelible classics and brand new originals from Tommy and his collaborators.
The artists who stepped forward to join Tommy in the studio are an impressive list of some of today’s most respected performers, from across the musical spectrum–a lineup including Jason Isbell, Mark Knopfler, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, Amanda Shires, Ricky Skaggs, J.D. Simo, David Grisman, Bryan Sutton, Suzy Bogguss and many more.
This is an album for all types of Tommy Emmanuel fan–from longtime guitar aficionados who’ve followed his career for decades, to lovers of great songs and melodies who flock to Tommy’s shows for the emotional authenticity driving every performance.
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Isbell conjures up the sweaty atmosphere of his Muscle Shoals roots on opener “Deep River Blues,” a classic fingerpicked blues which has been a longtime staple of Tommy’s live shows. Country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs lends his mandolin and unmistakable voice to “Song and Dance Man,” a chronicle of a life lived for the next show. Tommy’s subtlety and tastefulness blends with Amanda Shires’ gorgeous vocal and fiddle playing to transform Madonna’s “Borderline” and Rodney Crowell’s “Looking Forward to the Past” could’ve topped the country charts in another era, with Tommy’s propulsive rhythm supporting Crowell’s sly lyrics while his tasty lead playing weave in and out.
For those hankering for virtuosic hot picking, the rave-up “Wheelin’ and Dealin’” sees him trading licks with J.D. Simo and Charlie Cushman, while a jaw-dropping rendition of “Purple Haze” with Dobro master Jerry Douglas captures all the fire and energy of the Hendrix original as the two modern masters push each other to new heights with each raunchy slide and bend.
On “You Don’t Want to Get You One of Those,” a sly vocal and acoustic duet with Dire Straits’ legend Mark Knopfler, there was a third, invisible presence in the studio– the late Chet Atkins.
“Mark and I both learned so much from Chet–he was a hero and a mentor to each of us, and we’ve tried to bring his spirit forward into the future in our own playing,” says Tommy. “This song that Mark wrote captured Chet’s sense of humor so well and I had the time of my life in the studio with him conjuring the master as we laid it down.”
While this was the first time he and Knopfler had collaborated, the album also featured some of Tommy’s longtime fellow road warriors, who have covered the miles in buses and planes around the world on tour over many years. “Djangology” is a gypsy jazz treat cut live in Havana, Cuba with Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo and “Rachel’s Lullaby” reunites Tommy with Hawaiian ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro. The song, written for Tommy’s youngest daughter, shows him continuing to find inspiration from an evergreen source–his love of his family.
Since he and his brother Phil taught themselves to play as toddlers, the guitar has been Tommy’s real first language–and he’s more articulate on his signature Melbourne-made Maton acoustics than most people are with words. His unerring sense of groove marked him as Australia’s youngest rhythm guitarist as The Emmanuel Quartet crisscrossed the country. By the time he made it to the big city in his late teens, Tommy was a rock star, slinging a Fender Telecaster alongside the biggest stars of the day. It was a good life, but deep down Tommy knew there was more to his musical destiny.
A shy country kid with little confidence, it took an encouraging meeting turned jam session with his guitar hero Chet Atkins to build his self-belief. By the late 80s he was ready to go it alone, to make instrumental guitar records made for an audience broader than just guitar fans–a move with zero precedence in Australian music. Despite the odds, Tommy released a string of hit albums, racking up awards wins and nominations, and becoming a huge celebrity in his home country, culminating in an incendiary performance with his brother Phil at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Influenced by the Merle Travis/Chet Atkins fingerstyle of guitar picking, Tommy developed a style of solo guitar playing that encompasses the range of a whole band– covering drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitar and a vocal melody simultaneously. No loop pedals, no overdubs, just one man and ten fingers. While some artists take ten-piece bands on the road and still fill out the sound with backing tracks, Tommy builds a complete sonic world entirely on his own.
For many players, the technical mastery of the technique would overwhelm the emotion of the music, but not for Tommy. His idols are not just the great players, but also the great pop songwriters and singers–Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, The Beatles and their ilk. While thousands of fans have spent years trying to unpack and imitate Tommy’s technique, for him it’s just the delivery system. His approach is always song and emotion first, his music the embodiment of his soulful spirit, sense of hope and his love for entertaining.
Which is not to say he dismisses the CGP, the Guitar Player awards, the Grammy nominations, the numerous magazine polls naming him the greatest acoustic guitarist alive. He’s grateful for it all, and the incredible journey that’s led him to the most invigorating period of his career–six decades into it. For Tommy though, the greatest reward is always the same–to make the next great record, and to see the beaming audience at the next great show.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be in show business. Now I just want to be in the happiness business–I make music, you get happy. That’s a good job.”
Tommy isn’t the kind of man who looks to nostalgia–it’s more that he treats his history in the same way he treats the history of music overall: There’s magic threaded in through all the eras that’s worth celebrating and revisiting. Now in his sixties –although on stage he can seem 25–life and music are about improvisation, variety and happiness.
“Making Accomplice One has been this great journey through so many of the worlds I’ve inhabited through the years,” concludes Tommy. “Playing with old friends, new friends, heroes, people I’ve been like an older brother to… and musically to jump around from bluegrass to jazz to blues to just pure songs, it’s like going to the world’s greatest buffet and picking out all my favorite meals. People try to categorize what I do, to put me in a genre or put a label on me. I always go back to that old Duke Ellington line, about there being two types of music, good and bad.” Well I try and play the good kind, and on this record I got to play it with the best people.”
In a career that has already spanned a half-century, Jorma Kaukonen has been one of the most highly respected interpreters of American roots music, blues, and Americana, and at the forefront of popular rock-and-roll. A member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy nominee, he is a founding member of two legendary bands, Jefferson Airplane and the still-touring Hot Tuna. Jorma Kaukonen’s repertoire goes far beyond his involvement creating psychedelic rock; he is a music legend and one of the finest singer-songwriters in music. In 2016, Jorma, Jack Casady and the other members of Jefferson Airplane were awarded The GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to American music.
The son of a State Department official, Jorma Kaukonen, Jr. was born and raised in the Washington D.C. area, with occasional extended trips outside the United States. He was a devotee of rock-and-roll in the Buddy Holly era but soon developed a love for the blues and bluegrass that were profuse in the clubs and concerts in the nation’s capitol. He wanted to take up guitar and make that kind of music himself. Soon he met Jack Casady, the younger brother of a friend and a guitar player in his own right. Though they could not have known it, they were beginning a musical partnership that has continued for over 50 years. Jorma graduated from high school and headed off for Antioch College in Ohio, where he met Ian Buchanan, who introduced him to the elaborate fingerstyle fretwork of the Rev. Gary Davis. A work-study program in New York introduced the increasingly skilled guitarist to that city’s burgeoning folk-blues-bluegrass scene and many of its players. After a break from college and travel overseas, Jorma moved to California, where he returned to classes at Santa Clara University and earned money by teaching guitar. It was at this time, that he met Paul Kantner and was asked to join a new band. Although Jorma’s true passion was roots music, he decided to join. That band was the Jefferson Airplane. Jorma invited his old musical partner Jack Casady to come out to San Francisco and play electric bass for Jefferson Airplane, and together they created much of Jefferson Airplane’s signature sound.
A pioneer of counterculture-era psychedelic rock, the group was the first band from the San Francisco scene to achieve international mainstream success. They performed at the three most famous American rock festivals of the 1960s—Monterey (1967), Woodstock(1969) and Altamont (1969)— as well as headlining the first Isle of Wight Festival (1968). Their 1967 record Surrealistic Pillow is regarded as one of the key recordings of the "Summer of Love". Two hits from that album, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", are listed in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time".
Jorma and Jack would jam whenever they could and would sometimes perform sets within sets at Airplane concerts. The two would often play clubs following Airplane performances. Making a name for themselves as a duo, they struck a record deal, and Hot Tuna was born. Jorma left Jefferson Airplane after the band’s most productive five years, pursuing his full-time job with Hot Tuna. Over the next three and a half decades Hot Tuna would perform thousands of concerts and release more than two-dozen records. The musicians who performed with them were many and widely varied, as were their styles—from acoustic to long and loud electric jams but never straying far from their musical roots. What is remarkable is that they have never coasted. Hot Tuna today sounds better than ever.
In addition to his work with Hot Tuna, Jorma has recorded more than a dozen solo albums on major labels beginning with 1974’s Quah and continuing with his recent acoustic releases on Red House Records — Stars in My Crown (2007) produced by Byron House, River of Time (2009) produced by Larry Campbell and featuring Levon Helm and Jorma’s latest solo album, Ain’t in No Hurry (2015) also produced by Larry Campbell and featuring Jack Casady. Jorma currently, as he has for many years, tours the world bringing his unique styling to old blues tunes while presenting new songs of weight and dimension.
But performance and recording are only part of the story. As the leading practitioner and teacher of fingerstyle guitar, Jorma and his wife Vanessa Lillian operate one of the world’s most unique centers for the study of guitar and other instruments. Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp is located on 125 acres of fields, woods, hills, and streams in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Ohio. Since it opened in 1998, thousands of musicians whose skills range from basic to highly accomplished gather for weekends of master instruction offered by Jorma and other instructors who are leaders in their musical fields.
A multitude of renowned performers make the trek to Ohio to teach at Fur Peace Ranch and play at the performance hall, Fur Peace Station. It has become an important stop on the touring circuit for artists who do not normally play intimate 200-seat venues, bringing such artists as David Bromberg, Roger McGuinn, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Alvin, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Warren Haynes, Lee Roy Parnell, Chris Hillman and more. Students, instructors, and visiting artists alike welcome the peace and tranquility -- as well as the great music and great instruction -- that Fur Peace Ranch offers. There they have opened the Psylodelic Gallery, a museum in a silo, which celebrates the music, art, culture, and literature of the 1960's, tracing important events and movements of the psychedelic era.
Jorma Kaukonen is constantly looking to take his musical horizons further still, always moving forward and he is quick to say that teaching is among the most rewarding aspects of his career. “You just can’t go backward. The arrow of time only goes in one direction.”