Tommy Emmanuel, CGP with very special guest The Gibson Brothers
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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.”
The Gibson Brothers—siblings Eric and Leigh Gibson—have already made over a dozen albums, but none quite like the new Dan Auerbach–produced Mockingbird. Their newest venture is an effortless blend of classic '70s-infused rock and timeless country, a modern twist on their traditional sound, and harmonies that will keep you wishing for more. The celebrated duo — named back-to-back Entertainers of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2012 and 2013 — played the Nashville game two decades ago, while in their early 20s, and were offered a major label deal, only to be told at the last minute that they were too "retro" for modern country music. Today, such characterizations, along with their authenticity, set them apart and describes the marvelous Mockingbird.
Included in Americana Music Association's Top 100 Americana Albums of 2019, Mockingbird further cements the sibling duo as musical trailblazers. As players and vocalists, they are superb, harmonizing as only siblings can; as songwriters they stand without peer, having long been a band awarded for their songs and songwriting. The 11 tracks on their 14th album, draw on much of the brothers' experiences being raised on the family farm in Northern New York. As Northerners growing up in a Southern business, they had to work twice as hard as the bands from the South to achieve the success they had, and were the first from that far north to carve a path to IBMA Entertainers of the Year.
"The songs on this album are the sounds we heard growing up, riding around with our dad, who was a farmer, in his pickup, or with our mom in her station wagon. This sound was on the radio," says Leigh, citing the Eagles, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, and the warm country sounds of Don Williams, Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings as influences for Mockingbird, produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach with Fergie Ferguson (Johnny Cash, Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers).
Songs like "Cool Drink of Water" and "Love the Land" exemplify that late-Sixties and early-Seventies vibe. The former sounds like something Elvis, at the height of his '68 Comeback cool, would have recorded, while "Love the Land" is inspired by the simple desire to spend more time in nature. "I love the land that loves this man / and sets his soul at ease," goes the centerpiece lyric. The song also provides the album with its title, as Leigh sings about the "song so sweet" of the mockingbird. "They're an interpreter of different sounds and that's what we're doing here," says Leigh. "We're known for one sound, but we're interpreting another part of our musicality."
Coloring outside the lines is not unfamiliar to the Gibson Brothers, whose innate talent as writers and vocalists allows them to float seamlessly between genres. In that way, they're outsiders — refusing to be confined to just one sound – which is why they chose to work with a rock producer and a band of legendary session players like drummer Gene Chrisman and guitarist Billy Sanford for Mockingbird.
Listen to "Come Down," which evokes the 70’s sound of radio rock kings America or the passionate Exile on Main Street style R&B of "Lay Your Body Down." Both dispel any notion that the Gibsons are solely a bluegrass act and prove Eric and Leigh's gift for penning boundary-pushing songs. Likewise, "Sweet Lucinda," with its shuffling rhythm, taps into country-rock, and "I'm a Better Man" slinks along with Bobby Wood's Wurlitzer electric piano.
Mockingbird's most left-field track, however, is a cover of R.E.M.'s 1993 weeper "Everybody Hurts." Suggested by Ferguson, the ballad became the ideal duet for Leigh and Eric, with the brothers making the song their own via their yearning delivery and the house band's lush arrangement. "I think it's a beautiful song, but I couldn't picture us doing it," says Eric. "It surprised me with how it turned out. It was too good to not put on the record."
The members of R.E.M. certainly agree. "It's incredible! They did a great job," says vocalist Michael Stipe. "It really re-focuses the song and lyric in a great way." Bassist Mike Mills offers, "Wow. I really didn't see that one coming. I love it," with guitarist Peter Buck echoing those remarks: "Wow. Incredible." Even Bill Berry, R.E.M.'s former drummer, and one of the original writers of the song, chimes in, saying, "It's the best cover of it I've heard."
However, it's "Travelin' Day," the countriest song on Mockingbird, that packs a poignant punch. The first tune they wrote with Ferguson for the session, it was born of grief: Ferguson's stepfather had just died. The Gibsons lost their dad six years earlier and together the writers bonded over their loss. "We were talking about how Ferg's stepfather faced death and how impressive it was," says Leigh, "and it really inspired us."
Looking back on the brisk week and a half of writing and recording Mockingbird in Nashville, the Gibson Brothers are confident in what they've accomplished. This is an album that exemplifies the sibling bond and is poised to introduce them to an entirely new audience.
"We'll be able to reach more people than we have in the past," says Eric. "I don't want to downplay what we accomplished in bluegrass, but I didn't know our voices would suit this variety of music so well."
His brother agrees. "If you thought you knew the Gibson Brothers and had them figured out," Leigh says, "well, maybe you didn't."
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