Chet Atkins was a major inspiration to Emmanuel’s contrapuntal fingerstyle technique. “When I watched him play, I saw all the experience and practice in his hands,” Emmanuel says of his mentor. “It was one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen—just watching his hands move around, like watching Fred Astaire dance.” Photo by Jamey Firnberg
Did you have any light-bulb moments in your musical development?
One time there was a young Australian guy who was a good reader. He had the book of Jerry Reed songs and he showed me the right fingering for a song called “Mister Lucky.” It was complex, and I just couldn’t figure out half the chords. It was one of those things where the bass went like this [plays the piece’s descending bass line] while the melody moved independently. [Plays the bass line and the melody simultaneously.] Those were the kind of moments I’ll never forget.
What was it like to encounter Chet Atkins, your hero, for the first time?
It was 1980 and I made the pilgrimage to Nashville from Sydney, where I was living in those days. I called Chet in his office and told him I was in town, and he said, “Well, come down, I’ll see you right now.” So I jumped in the car and raced down to his office. As he came down the stairs, he said, “Do you wanna pick a little?”
So we went into a room, and I started playing “Me and Bobby McGee.” He watched me for a while and then just jumped in. He went straight to harmonies and little fills, and then took a solo. It was just like we’d rehearsed it—it was so perfect against what I was doing. That was an amazing feeling. When I watched him play, I saw all the experience and practice in his hands. It was one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen—just watching his hands move around, like watching Fred Astaire dance. Beautiful.
In 1997 you realized a dream when you released an album with Atkins—The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World. How did that collaboration come about?
In ’95 I came to Nashville to do a showcase for the CMA week, and I also played two shows at a place called the Ace of Clubs. Chet came down the first night to see me play and he was really encouraging and excited about the whole thing, and he made sure the record company came down the next night.
They were pretty knocked out with how everything went, and about a week later when I was back home, Chet called and said, “Well these Columbia people really like what you do and they think we should work together. Would you like to do an album?” After I picked myself up off the floor, I immediately started writing songs. I played them over the phone to Chet, and he liked them all, so they ended up on the album. I had the dream experience of writing and playing with Chet, and recording and producing the album. We even got nominated for a Grammy.
After that, we decided to work together in a very serious way and hired a publicist. We got a schedule together, and we were about to go to Leno and Letterman and all those shows. But unfortunately we had to cancel everything because they found a tumor in Chet’s brain and he had to go have an operation. When he came out, his motor skills were diminishing by the day. And so sadly, that never had a chance to take off and come to fruition.
Anyway, I’m out here doing my best to honor Chet and others who came before me, and to keep this style of playing alive by bringing it to the younger generation. It’s so fantastic that there are young players everywhere around the planet—China, Malaysia, Japan, Russia, Poland, you name it. All around the world there are young pickers just going for it.
It must be wild for you to hear those players.
Yeah, there are a lot of young players who would surprise the heck out of you—they’re a lot more advanced than you can ever imagine. A lot of this is because they’ve got their fingers on technology. If I play a song in a concert and someone films me, it’s on YouTube that night and there are four other versions by 6 a.m. That’s how it works these days!
If this technology had been available when you started playing, how would it have affected your music?
Maybe I’d be more influenced by somebody like Andy McKee, if I were a young person, because there’s a lot more of that style now on the Internet. But I can’t imagine playing any other way than I do because my music is me and I am it. When I play, it’s my signature. That’s my sound, my voice, and I don’t try to stray from it in any way. It took me a long time to develop that voice, so I just try to stick at it. Otherwise you end up sounding like a hybrid version of 100 people.
We all develop a particular style at a young age, I think. But then it gets refined, the more information you take in and the more you put out. All of a sudden you’ve become a channel of ideas and flow. I remember when I first heard Chet Atkins’ early stuff, I could hear Merle Travis as much as I could hear Django Reinhardt. But when Chet played one of his own tunes, there was his sound. There was his distinctive style and his signature licks.
You realize that all guitar players have these things in their DNA. I remember the first time I played for Jerry Reed. I did a couple of songs and he said, “You didn’t learn that—you were born with it.” It’s an interesting statement because somehow it does in fact feel like the music has always been there. It’s almost like it leapt on you, not that you discovered it—like it’s been in the air and you’ve just finally breathed it in and now it’s come out of your fingers.
The compositions on It’s Never Too Late have a lived-in feel.
I wrote the songs over a period of time. I didn’t really set time aside to write because I’ve been as busy as a one-armed fiddler in the last couple of years. The title track, for instance, I wrote last December when I was on tour in Poland because we were about to have a baby. My daughter Rachel was born in January of this year, and that’s her song.
A lot of the other songs were written in my travels. Of course, traveling itself is such an inspiration for me. I wrote a song called “Traveling Clothes,” which is on the album. When you travel as much as I do you figure out the right kind of clothes for feeling comfortable. I also thought, what if my clothes could talk and tried to tell the story about where they’ve been? [Plays an excerpt from “Traveling Clothes.”]
The song has a lot of movement. It’s pretty much written in the style of Alison Krauss & Union Station—that kind of big melodic sound I really love. I tried to find passages where I could play a vocal-harmony type of sound. When it’s not so guitar-oriented, that makes you sound different from other players. I often write an instrumental as if I’m going to sing the song.