When legendary rock star/producer Todd Rundgren claimed, hardly exaggerating, that Tommy Emmanuel was "the two best guitarists" he'd ever seen, he was merely reflecting a notion that instrumental music aficionados Down Under had known for years. A four-time winner of Australia's Best Guitarist Award and recipient of two ARIA Awards, in 1991 and 1993 (the Aussie version of our Grammies), Emmanuel has stretched the boundaries of Australian music over the course of eight recordings since the 1988 release of 'Up From Down Under.' His best showing Stateside came on 1993's 'The Journey,' which hit the upper reaches of the Gavin and Radio & Records airplay charts. Though he has proven an equal mastery and affinity for electric and acoustic guitars, Emmanuel's Higher Octave Music debut, "Midnight Drive" which follows in the label's tradition of pop/rock influenced guitarists playing contemporary instrumental music finds him creating a silky yet often edgy lead voice exclusively on the acoustic.
"I'm a melody player, pure and simple, and the acoustic allows me to state the tune and have a great time interacting with the other musicians on the album," says Emmanuel, who surrounds himself on various tracks with superb musicians such as Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, Warren Hill, and Nathan East from Fourplay, in addition to famed pop songwriter Randy Goodrum, who co-produced. "I like playing single note as well as fingerstyle, and as a melodic writer, I have a pop sensibility which the acoustic expresses very well. I consider it my horn and my axe. While the common thread on all of my albums is the melodies, I feel that Midnight Drive is a bit classier than any of my other work, much richer in texture and sound."
Completely self-taught, the multi-instrumentalist (Emmanuel also plays banjo, mandolin and bass, as well as drums and percussion) has been one of the hardest working musicians in Australia, with a long history of touring, performing, writing and recording dating back to the early '60s, when he began playing guitar at the age of four. By ten, he was already a pro, touring the continent with his family's band. Emmanuel recalls, "My brothers, sisters and I took to it with such an amazing speed and showed potential at such an early age that is was mind-boggling to people that these kids could actually play hits from the radio. We played all the Shadows and Ventures tunes, straight off the record."
From the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s, he was a self-professed "Mr. Busy" in the studio, playing on literally thousands of records (working with everyone from Roberta Flack to Air Supply), TV commercials and shows and film soundtracks, while also working at various times as a songwriter, producer and teacher. "I was a chameleon," he says, "a player with an open attitude who gave people what they wanted musically." Over the years, he has also toured and/or recorded with Eric Clapton (opening for him during his 1991 Australian tour), Farnham, The Bushwackers, the Southern Star Band, Goldrush and John Denver. In 1991, he sold out the Sydney Opera House.
Emmanuel's first recording was a 1979 experiment in country and swing music called 'From Out Of Nowhere,' but he had more success in 1986 as a member of the pop band, Dragon, whose albums were produced by Todd Rundgren.
The '80s saw Emmanuel emerge as Australia's greatest modern guitar player, with most major solo records containing his influence to some degree. His songs appeared on recordings by, among others, Sheena Easton, Olivia Newton-John and Al Jarreau. Since 'The Journey' (which featured Joe Walsh, Abe Laboriel and Dave Koz) put him on the map in the U.S., he has kept the momentum going with 'The Journey Continues,' 'Back On Terra Firma' (a duet recording with guitarist brother Phil) and 'Classical Gas,' recorded live with the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra.
"My whole approach to my solo career has been to mix elements of everything I grew up listening to, from blues to jazz, to country, rock, classical, even Spanish music, into an accessible melodic framework," he explains. "That keeps things exciting."
Nearly every influential element of his formative years is present and accounted for on the ten eclectic tracks of 'Midnight Drive,' from the bluesy organ flavors on 'Can't Get Enough,' (which features Larry Carlton's fiery electric guitar) to the easy jazz fusion of 'Song For Nature,' the cool rock shuffle of the title track, 'Midnight Drive' with popular saxman Warren Hill and bassist Nathan East, and the folksy ballad, 'Drive Time'. The urban-tinged hip-hop of 'Reggie's Groove' features the strutting electricity of Robben Ford, while Warren Hill adds smoky passion and soaring energy to the lighthearted romances, 'No More Goodbyes' and 'Stay Close To Me'. Emmanuel is at his most eloquent and expressive on soft-spoken after hours gems like 'Villa de Martin,' 'Change For Good' and 'Inner Voice'.
"Over the years," says Emmanuel, "I notice an evolution in my playing and writing, and I feel that I am sounding better as I mature and gain experience. I love to offer a variety of sonic peaks and valleys, but mainly, I play because I love to. I feel that I am lucky to be doing exactly what I am meant to do."