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 Accomplice One, an album of collaborations with some of the finest singers, songwriters and, yes, guitarists alive today – a list 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.
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. 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.”
“The growl and purr of motorcycle engines. The patter of rain on a tin roof. The twinkle of chimes on a porch in February. The steady, insistent thrum of heartbeats. Maxwell Hughes' playing evokes all of this, and much more. At a time when too many musicians treat their instruments as simple props, he's a total original (and maybe a freedom fighter, too): an artist determined to explore the entire expressive latitude of his acoustic guitar, and to coax as many different sounds and moods from it as he can. In his hands, the guitar is a magic wand, a lightning rod, a stick to conjure the storm.
Hughes is an imaginative songwriter and a daring composer. In performance, he's a warm, charismatic presence, able to hold audiences spellbound with nothing but his genial manner and his six-string. As he's demonstrated during his time with the internationally-famous Lumineers and Denver favorites Edison, he's an excellent accompanist and musical collaborator, too. But every conversation about this unique artist must begin with his mesmerizing instrumental talent. And while Hughes has his antecedents and happily acknowledges their influence on what he does, it isn't hyperbole to say that there's nobody out there who approaches the instrument in the same way that he does. His driving guitar-playing -- with its dazzling fusion of finger-taps, picking, strumming, deftly-caught harmonics, and rhythmic raps on the body of the instrument -- creates a musical language heretofore unheard. And by the time a listener is through listening to one of his records, or seeing him play a live show, he or she will be fluent in it.
Remarkably for a musician of his profile, Maxwell Hughes didn't even pick up an instrument until he was 16 years old. Before that, he was just a normal kid growing up in Fort Collins, Colorado -- a music fan, to be sure, but one with no awareness of his dormant powers. His awakening came when he was introduced to the music of Australian acoustic guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, whose percussive approach to the instrument inspired Hughes to see possibilities he'd never before entertained. From there, Hughes explored the music of the frenetic virtuoso Kaki King and the electrifying mandolinist Chris Thile (Hughes contributed mandolin to the Lumineers during his tenure with the band -- one in which he wrote two of the songs that would highlight their Grammy-nominated debut.) Echoes of Emmanuel, King, and Thile are audible in his own compositions, but through hours of practice and innovation, he's utterly transformed his sources. As precise and dazzling as his technique is, the most astonishing thing about Hughes' playing is just how emotionally evocative it can be.
It was the chase for that distinctive, personal sound that compelled Hughes to leave the Lumineers -- and he's never looked back since. Under his own name, he's put out three collections of his distinctive songwriting -- and a fourth is on the way. He's been busy with other projects, too: his guitar and bass are the bedrock of Edison's acclaimed album Familiar Spirit. And in 2013, he was officially sponsored by Larrivee, the company that manufactures the acoustic guitars he plays. They know what the rest of the country is finding out: there's no better advertisement for guitars, and musicianship, and artistic innovation than the music that Maxwell Hughes has already made. As for the music he's going to make next?, well, watch out.”