Tommy Emmanuel playing in Elizabethtown, Ky., on Feb. 4.
I am writing this from the Louisville airport as I wait to head home after three days of total immersion in the phenomenon known as Tommy Emmanuel. Tommy — he's on a first name basis with everyone — is one hell of a great guitarist, a member of an impossibly small elite of humans who are capable of performing the superhuman with nothing more than a wooden box and six steel strings. He calls the guitar a portal to the soul, and in his hands you can almost believe it.
I had never heard of Tommy Emmanuel until a couple years ago when my brother-in-law Peter Brown, himself a pretty darn good guitarist, put the Nashville-based Australian on my radar. I began checking out Emmanuel on Youtube and was impressed enough to say yes when Peter invited me to join him for a guy's weekend built around an event known as TommyFest. As the name implies, TommyFest celebrates all things Tommy. And it took place (its ninth year) in the most unlikely of places: a high school auditorium in the tiny community of Elizabethtown, KY, about an hour south of Louisville.
Elizabethtown is not so much a town as a sprawling polyglot of strip plazas, fast-food restaurants and chain hotels a few miles outside Fort Knox. As far as vacation destinations, especially in February, let's just say it's not exactly New Orleans or Austin. But this trip was about just one thing: the music. And so, with only a little trepidation, I agreed to Peter's suggestion that we attend all three of Tommy's concerts, Thursday through Saturday nights, plus a three-hour workshop on Saturday morning. Yes, I know…a little overboard, but hey, as far as mid-life crises go, not so bad.
Before arriving, I assumed I would have had my fill by the second show and would just have to grin and bear all the rest in the name of being a good sport. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed every minute of it. Not only is Emmanuel an over-the-top finger picker, he is a gifted composer and arranger. His version of Classical Gas alone was worth the flight down from Pennsylvania, and his soaring rendition of He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother) made up for three days of bad food in chain restaurants. He's wildly funny and likable to boot. What wasn't to like?
By Day 3, I was feeling a bit like a shameless groupie, the middle-aged stalker who even showed up for Tommy's sound check. I wasn't alone. Devotees descended on Elizabethtown from all over the country; one guy came all the way from Denmark. Many stayed for all three shows. Tommy Emmanuel is not a household name in America, but those who know him tend to have strong feelings about the guy. I guess I'm one of those people now, too.
The only downside of the immersion weekend is that I now want to go home and smash my guitar. On the other hand, the weekend was a reminder of the power of music to inspire and bring strangers together in shared humanity. Not bad for notes coming out of a wooden box. During the Saturday workshop, Tommy gave a lot of technical advice, but what stuck with me was something that could apply to all of us. Noting that he spends 320 nights a year on the road, he said he believes each of us has to find our gift, our passion, and then seize it and take it as far as we can. "It really comes down to two things in life, doesn't it?" he said. "The pursuit of happiness, and the pursuit of excellence." Exactly.
Now back to real world, but with a tune in my head.
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