Tommy Emmanuel,
Endless Road
(Favored Nations, 2004)

This Australian guitarist seems to have inherited the mantle of the late, great Chet Atkins, and rightfully so. Atkins was a telling influence on Tommy Emmanuel (they recorded a CD together -- the superb The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World), and on many tunes it's easy to imagine that you're hearing previously unreleased Atkins tracks. Emmanuel, however, is also his own man, and has taken the acoustic guitar beyond what even Atkins might have envisioned.

The title track that begins this CD takes no prisoners, moving suite-like through varying tempos and moods, displaying amazing technique and fertile imagination. "Tall Fiddler" is a jaw-dropping display of speed chops, in which Emmanuel starts fast and gets faster. Listeners will think of Atkins in "(The Man With the) Green Thumb," with its loping, bass-heavy style. "Bolla Soare" is even more relaxed, but deceptively so, since such a tempo can sound easy to play, while in fact the many ornamentations can be far more difficult to master than much faster pieces.

"Morning Aire" is an exquisite and delicate exploration in free rhythm, the perfect remedy for 21st-century angst, while "Angelina" ends with some of the most ethereal harmonics you've ever heard. There are two Atkins tributes in a row with "Windy and Warm," and "Chet's Ramble," but rather than recreating Atkins' style, Emmanuel builds on it, proving himself an even more versatile guitarist than his mentor (may I be forgiven for my sacrilege). "Son of a Gun" is a rocket ride in less than two minutes, a bouncing and bounding shot of six-string adrenalin. After such an experience, it's time for the jazzy "Sanitarium Shuffle," with some fun vocal riffing.

The standard, "Mona Lisa," gets an elegant reading here before another Atkins-influenced medley, "Christmas Memories/Wheels," in which you can definitely hear Chet's ghost in the studio. "Old Town" is a rockin', boppin' treat, followed by "Over the Rainbow," in which Emmanuel's initial arpeggios sound positively harp-like. Beautiful.

Emmanuel does a fine job both vocally and instrumentally on "I Still Can't Say Goodbye," but no one can ever equal Atkins's own version, which I find almost unbearably poignant, as will anyone who has lost a beloved father. There's another touching vocal on "Today is Mine" by Jerry Reed, another Atkins compatriot. There's no guitar on this one, just Emmanuel's a cappella singing, and it's quite enough. It's followed by another Reed composition, "Struttin'," which ends with a single line run as breathtaking for the ease with which it's thrown off as for its perfection. Emmanuel takes things out with the Latin-flavored "Pegao," which shows off nearly all of his incomparable skills.

If you like acoustic guitar, you absolutely must listen to (and subsequently worship at the altar of) Tommy Emmanuel. He's one of those rare musicians whose musical vision is actually achievable thanks to his remarkable ability on his chosen instrument. More than highly recommended -- absolutely essential.

by Chet Williamson
19 November 2005

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