Preview Accomplice One by Tommy Emmanuel.
Accomplice One by Tommy Emmanuel
In Americana music, guitars are the stars. And it’s hard to imagine any six-string instrument shining more brightly than the Maton guitar that Tommy Emmanuel played on his latest album, Accomplice One, a collection of sparkling performances that range from folk and country to rock and jazz. The variety of the tunes he plays is as impressive as his flawless finger picking.
One of the most highly regarded acoustic guitarists working today, Emmanuel seems able to play anything. When finger-picking, he is a one-man band, playing both bass and lead while holding down the rhythm. He is equally comfortable with a larger band, melding chords and runs into dynamic accompaniment to a song. And when it’s time to solo, he can unleash jazzy single-string flurries, note-bending blues licks or just about anything else.
In short, Emmanuel is capable of bringing down the house on his own. But on Accomplice One, he is far from alone. The tracks feature an extraordinary cast, including Jason Isbell, Rodney Crowell, Amanda Shires, Mark Knopfler, David Grisman, Jorma Kaukonen and Jerry Douglas, to name just a few.
Having assembled a stellar lineup, Emmanuel plays the role of generous host, leaving plenty of room for his guests to shine. “Looking Forward to the Past,” a clever tune written and sung by Crowell, would be a hit in a different era of country radio. Emmanuel eschews showy solos in favor of hard-driving, rhythmic riffs that fuel the twangy, bouncy beat. The opening track, “Deep River Blues,” offers Isbell the opportunity to sing a Chet Atkins classic as Emmanuel demonstrates the finger-picking skills he mastered as a follower and friend of Atkins.
One of the most striking songs on the album, in my opinion, comes from Emmanuel’s collaboration with Shires. The pair tackle the early Madonna hit, “Borderline,” reinventing the tune as a stately waltz. Shires’ singing and playing, which is always incredibly expressive, has plenty of room to breathe here, even as Emmanuel weaves electric and acoustic guitars in and out of the melody.
And Emmanuel sings, quite well actually, trading verses or simply singing harmony in a smooth and pleasant voice that blends well with his famous friends. In fact, his confidence, and showmanship shine through in the easy, mid-performance banter on many of the tracks, particularly on “You Don’t Want To Get You One Of Those” with Knopfler and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” with J.D. Simo. On both of those tracks, Emmanuel and his guests seamlessly trade solos and rhythm guitar duties to move the song along.
Of course, there are plenty of instrumentals sprinkled among the tunes with vocals. Emmanuel and Grisman team up for two tracks, including an infectious “C-Jam Blues” that also features Bryan Sutton. There is a triple-guitar arrangement of “Djangology” with Frank Vignola and Vinny Raainolo; a beautiful, Celtic-inspired, guitar duet with Clive Carroll (“Keeping It Reel”) and a shimmering composition of his own with ukulele master Jake Shimabukaro.
The album does deliver a dose of face-melting fun when Emmanuel sits down with dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas to tackle “Purple Haze.” It starts with that famous riff and runs through a verse and chorus or two before lifting off into a furious jam. As the notes pile up, the song dissolves before reaching a crescendo, and then in an instant, Emmanuel and Douglas return to the tune’s melody. It is an incredible performance by the two.
The truth is that every song is a highlight. Emmanuel’s nickname is “One Take Tommy,” after all. On Emmanuel’s YouTube channel, you can already find a handful of other recent performances with Grisman, for example, that didn’t make the album. To my ears, they sound just as good as the performances that were included on the album.
As a title, Accomplice One undersells what happens on the album. Who is the accomplice here? Emmanuel and his collaborators are equal partners in the music. That fact underscores the reality that Emmanuel’s artistry extends well beyond his technical prowess on the guitar.