FOR Tommy Emmanuel it all began with a call out of the blue from Eric Clapton. The rock legend was shortly to tour Australia and word had reached his camp of a Sydney guitarist whose virtuosity rivalled Clapton’s own. Soon they had hitched their wagons together and blazed a trail across the Antipodes. Emmanuel has never looked back.
“The tour we did together in 1990 elevated me to another level immediately,” Emmanuel recalls. “A lot of people discovered my music — immediately afterwards, I noticed a difference. Clapton was fantastic to be around as well — one of those quiet achievers who keeps on getting better and better.”
Emmanuel has shared a stage with many of the greats: Jeff Lynne, George Martin and others. In spring 2016 he was due to play across America with country icon Merle Haggard, only for Haggard to pass away several weeks beforehand.
“I saw him last year and I thought ‘He’s not going to make those dates,” says Emmanuel.
”He had one lung, which wasn’t functioning very well. He was struggling for every word he was singing. I thought, he should quit now and get as much out of his life as he could. But he had a band to pay. He kept working to the end — instead of dying in his house, he asked them to bring his bus up… and that’s where he died, on the tour bus.”
Aged 61, Emmanuel has many years performing ahead. He visits Ireland this week and next for a string of dates including Monday’s stop-off at Cork Opera House that will hold special meaning.
“I’m a big admirer of Rory Gallagher,” he says of the Cork guitar legend.
“When I was in my 20s, he was someone I discovered and was very much a fan of. He left a great mark.”
Emmanuel has lived in Nashville for the past 14 years though, with a touring schedule that sees him routinely clock up 300 gigs a year, he doesn’t spend as much time there as he might wish.
“It’s called Music City for a reason,” he says. “And it’s not just the country genre — there is classical jazz, blues… you can see just about anything you could imagine in Nashville. It’s a great place to base yourself — very affordable, with lots of world class studios.”
Nashville is certainly quite a distance from the Sydney suburbs where Emmanuel learned guitar by playing along to greats such as Chet Atkins (later to become a friend and mentor).
“I’d stick my finger on the record to slow it down,” he recalls. “There were things Atkins was doing nobody else was — I remember thinking ‘What in heavens is he at?’. What I’ve learned over the years is that you’ve got to keep at it. Really, it’s as simple as that.”
Emmanuel received his first guitar as a four-year-old and would play along with his mother, a musician who had given the business up to raise a family.
He was touring even as a child, spending so long on the circuit that the local education board had to step in to insist he went to school regularly. Through his life, music has been the one constant.
He is one of those rare artists who can compose while on the road. Indeed, it is clear that for Emmanuel touring isn’t merely a means of paying the bills. It is a way of living. “I need to play a lot,” he nods. “I don’t like having time off. Holidays aren’t something I enjoy. I have a lot of music going on.”