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The Ballad of Tommy and Chet

by Teresa Annas
reprinted by permission

When Tommy Emmanuel was 11, he wrote a letter to his guitar idol. "Dear Mr. Atkins, I'm a big fan, and I play guitar, too." He was the fourth of six children, part of a struggling family band in Australia called The Midget Surfaris.

Tommy set his sights high. He made country guitarist Chet Atkins his role model.

Weeks later, he came home to a surprise. ``Put your bags down, Tommy, and go in your room,'' his mother told him. ``There's something on your bed.''

It was a brown package with American stamps on it. Heart pounding, he ripped open the envelope. Inside was a signed photo of Chet Atkins and a hand-written note.

"Dear Tommy, Many thanks for your kind note. I didn't realize that anybody in Australia knew me. I was so thrilled. Give my regards to your family, Chet Atkins " Neither guitarist could have known that someday they would be like family, too.

Tommy's dad, a former coal miner, took the clan on the road when Tommy was just 6. He did so after the family band was a hit on an Australian television show.

They bought two cars, which they slept in. Often, they'd make only enough for a dinner of rice and powdered milk.

Tommy first heard Atkins on the radio in 1962. Even at age 7, he recognized the quality of his playing, its exquisite tone and feel.

His records were hard to find in Australia. But when he was 10, someone gave him ``The Best of Chet Atkins.''

When he opened the album, he saw pictures that explained things. He could see that Atkins played his distinctive finger style with a thumb pick. That was much easier than producing the "boomchick" bass line with a flat pick, as Emmanuel had been doing, while playing melody with the other three fingers.

Soon after his father's death in 1966, the government made the kids stop touring and go to school. They moved to a town west of Sydney.

That's when he received Atkins' letter, which set him on fire. He joined a band called The Trailblazers and played weekend gigs. He also ran a lawn mowing service, taught guitar and manned a shop, all while attending school. Otherwise, he spent every free minute studying Atkins' records.

When he was 17, a friend recorded him playing in a lounge. Unknown to Tommy, he sent the tape to Atkins.

And the legendary guitarist wrote back.

Tommy's a fantastic player. I was impressed with his tape. I hope he comes to America so we can meet up.

Two years later, in 1974, Emmanuel moved to Sydney to work as a studio musician. He landed a recording gig on his first day; from then on, he was never without work, he said in a phone interview last week. No one in Sydney played like he did, in a style influenced by Atkins and Merle Travis.

No one else had his free-spirited attitude.

``I could come up with suggestions that were nine times out of ten more appropriate for the track than what was written,'' he said. ``Not a lot of people have that fearless approach.

``I played out of the sheer love and joy of it.''

He kept scrutinizing Atkins' records. He was bewitched by Atkins' ability to play an entire melody in harmonic overtones, producing bell-like notes. He tried and tried, but couldn't decipher the riddle.

Then, one night, he had a dream. There was a spotlit stage. Atkins walked out wearing a tuxedo and carrying his Gretsch guitar. He sat on a stool and began to play. In his dream, Emmanuel watched Atkins' hands play harmonic overtones. The next morning, he could play them, too.

``The secret,'' he said, ``was unlocked.''

In 1980, he made the pilgrimage to Nashville. Emmanuel checked into a Holiday Inn and got Atkins on the phone.

``Oh, hi, Tommy. I've got your tape,'' he said. ``I've just been playing it. Come on down.''

When he arrived, Atkins asked him if he wanted to pick a little. Emmanuel played for the big man, who then joined in. They jammed for hours.

``When you listen to his music, you feel like you know him. And you do know him. His personality and everything about him is in his music,'' Emmanuel recalled.

``Playing together, it was just like a hand in a glove.''

Back in Australia, Emmanuel recorded with various artists, from Eric Clapton to Stevie Wonder, and began to make his own albums.

In 1993, while preparing for his album ``The Journey,'' he put in a call to Atkins, who immediately recalled their first meeting. ``Remember the day we played...,'' Atkins began.

Emmanuel mentioned his album, and Atkins offered to play on a track. So he went to Nashville and recorded Atkins playing ``Villa Anita.''

Four years later, Atkins played on Emmanuel's album ``Midnight Drive.'' The next year, Columbia Records suggested the two produce an album.

Emmanuel stayed at Atkins' home, where they recorded in his home studio.

``I learned from him that it's important to nail the melody right and play it with the right feeling.''

Two tracks were particularly special to Emmanuel, ``Mr. Guitar,'' his homage to Atkins; and Atkins' tune, ``Smokey Mountain Lullaby,'' which they recorded in one take.

``He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and had little energy left. We had to nail it in one go.''

That was the last track Atkins recorded for his final album.

``He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest guitarists on the planet,'' Atkins wrote about Emmanuel for the liner notes, ``and working with him on this project was one of my most exciting musical journeys.''

From then on, the two were tight, speaking often. Emmanuel learned how much they had in common, both raised so poor and loving people and music so much.

``The thing about Chet is, whether you were the waiter or the postman or the president, he treated everyone the same. I have to say, I learned more about being a good person from him, than the music.''

In 1999, Atkins named Emmanuel a Certified Guitar Player, honoring him as among the world's greatest fingerstyle guitarists. Only four musicians were so awarded by Atkins.

As Atkins grew more ill, Emmanuel was among the few invited to stay at his home. Emmanuel stopped by in mid-June of this year, and found the 77-year-old Atkins in a wheelchair.

``We spent a good hour together. Before I left, I reached out and put my hand on his cheek. I told him how much I loved him, and how much I needed him in my life. And how I would always honor him.''

Atkins reached up and touched Emmanuel, too. ``There's real affection here,'' he said.

Two hours after he left, Emmanuel got a call from Atkins' nurse. ``Mr. Atkins cried when you left,'' she told him.

On June 30, Atkins died.

Emmanuel was in Cardiff, Wales, and about to go on stage when his cell phone rang. ``I went into my dressing room. I was trying not to cry too much.

``I had this sense: I'm going to go out there and play my heart out.''

He played ``Mr. Guitar,'' and told the audience a giant had just fallen. The crowd was with him.

``And my sorrow turned to joy.''

During the three-hour drive home to London, he put on their duo album, ``The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World,'' and played it over and over. That's when the tears came.

``I was never that close to my father. Chet was like the father I never had, and I was like the son he never had.''

He couldn't go to the funeral, though Atkins' wife made him an honorary pallbearer. The Emmanuels were moving that week and he was needed.

Emmanuel hasn't come to terms with Atkins' death.

But the other night, he had a dream.

Chet Atkins came walking up beside him, looking young and fit. ``I'm feeling so great,'' he said. ``Everything's good.''

He walked so fast, Emmanuel couldn't keep up. He left him in the dust.

Even in death, his beloved mentor was still ahead of the pack.

And Emmanuel, and all the other guitarists, forever left behind.


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