On one hand, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel is certifiably one-of-a-kind. On the other, he’s so prolific and busy and simultaneously everywhere that he seems to have been duplicated a time or two in some Australian genomic experiment. He’s been zipping around Canada lately. Before that he played Knoxville, a town he loves for its ties to his hero and late colleague Chet Atkins. Tommy picked on Duane Allman’s Les Paul gold top down in Macon, Georgia, and he was at the Ryman last month playing the big Bob Dylan Birthday Fest. Zooming out a bit, he’s released seven albums since 2010, many of them packed with original instrumentals.
When Tommy writes an instrumental, it’s no tossed-off thing. His melodies have sturdy integrity, up there with Earl Scruggs. And the comparison with the banjo legend is apt because Tommy’s intricate finger-style approach involves a lot of the same digital dexterity and innovative thinking. He rolls, grabs, strokes, skitters and spanks the strings, drawing out whatever timbre he needs in the moment. He has total control over the neck and the guitar’s silvery harmonics (made by gently touching the strings just so) and he can force more rock and roll power through the wood and wire of his acoustic than anybody alive.
This world-traveling, widely-loved instrumentalist is now based in Nashville and we’ve been dying to have him play Roots for ages. This week it finally happens in a must-see closing set. As a guitar player myself, I can say there are few if any alive more mesmerizing or more worthy of up close study than Tommy. He can do anything anybody’s ever done on acoustic and added new approaches of his own. And such an unlikely story. He was raised as part of an itinerant family band in New South Wales, Australia. He played in rock bands as a young guy as one does, but all along he was guided by his singular epiphany – hearing Chet Atkins on the radio when he was very young.
Eventually he got to America and got to know and work with Chet, who knighted him as a CGP (Certified Guitar Player), a rarely bestowed honor. Besides his dexterity and multi-layered musical mind, the thing to prepare for and appreciate in a Tommy Emmanuel show is his overwhelming joy and infectious passion. He moves kinetically and constructs his sets on the fly, and every ounce of his improvisatory brilliance is conveyed in his eyes and his body language. He makes you feel younger because that’s how he feels. He told a Knoxville paper recently: “It won’t be long before I’ll be doing the elder statesmen kind of thing. Although the truth is, inside my skin, I’m still a kid. I still feel that way.”
It’s only my personal guitar-centric bias and the novelty of Tommy’s appearance that led me to start with him, because another of our guests has a seriously newsworthy hook for their MCR set this week. Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out are celebrating 25 years in the business this year, and since bluegrass is at the very core of the Americana music canon, so is this legendary band. Russell is one of the greatest singers in the music’s modern history with many awards and accolades, and his leadership proved decisive in keeping the group’s momentum going even through rough patches and reorganizations. The current project assembles a couple of new guys with band veterans Wayne Benson (mandolin) and Justen Haynes (fiddle). In a recent making-of video, the band reports that after a year on the road developing their rapport they were ready to take over Southern Ground studio in Nashville and record 2015’s It’s About Tyme album. It is, like everything they touch, consistently excellent bluegrass with enough surprises to keep one hooked. They can run from the Carter Family standard “Are You Tired Of Me” to Sam Cooke’s swaying “You Send Me” while knocking out smoking original instrumentals along the way. Listen for the stunning vocals above all though. Russell Moore’s been honing his band’s feel for a quarter century.
More bluegrass is on tap in a local vein as we welcome Blue Hollow to the stage for the first time. I don’t know these guys but they seem to have all done time in bands supporting stars of country and bluegrass and they’re familiar figures at Puckett’s and other Williamson County hangs. And rounding out the night we’ve got the bracing humor and bluntness of Darrin Bradbury, a self-proclaimed satirist and “left-of-center folk singer” who admires the legacy of Steve Goodman and Shel Silverstein. The world, cocked up as it is, needs a lot more of that ladies and gentlemen. So this East Nashville troubadour with a trucker cap should bring a refreshing dose of truth.
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