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Great guitar players can fill any room, but the smaller the better

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Tommy Emmanuel’s signature D’Andrea USA 1.5-mm Pro Plec guitar pick.


By Mark Rutledge

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Tommy Emmanuel is among the greatest guitar players alive. And now that I own one of his signature D’Andrea USA 1.5-mm Pro Plec guitar picks, I expect that my own level of playing will climb a couple of notches.

Known for his energetic and technical fingerstyle playing, Emmanuel is often called a musician’s musician. He is one of only four people upon which the late Chet Atkins bestowed the title “Certified Guitar Player.”

For anyone who loves and appreciates the guitar, Emmanuel is among the best live shows around. It would be hard to find a more gracious and approachable entertainer, or a more giving ambassador for musicianship.

I attended my third Tommy Emmanuel performance on Wednesday night in Johnson City with my wife, Sharon, and two friends from North Carolina. One friend drove from Charlotte, the other from Raleigh.

Emmanuel was scheduled to play in Charlotte on Thursday and in Raleigh on Friday. But our friends drove hundreds of miles just to hear him at The Down Home listening room, where the music is generally comfortable even if the chairs are not.

Since 1976, The Down Home has been hosting some of the finest musicians around. With seating for about 150 people, the tables are small and the chairs ladder-back, which maximizes the limited space. It’s a tight fit for a sellout crowd, but no one complains.

Down Home’s earliest shows included performances by artists such as Norman Blake, John Hartford, and Doc Watson. My wife and I caught a Watson show there during the mid-’90s. We arrived early and snagged the table at center-stage, which placed us roughly six feet from Doc.

That makes for a live-performance memory possible only at small venues. They’re called “intimate,” which is accurate on several levels. The artist is up close and personal, everyone hears everything, and audience interaction can become exceptionally dynamic.

One of the first performances I experienced at Down Home was by Norman and Nancy Blake. A guy came on stage before the show to announce that talking during the performance was not cool. A table that ignored the rule was nearly dispatched to an area of the sidewalk outside.

When an audience member became overly vocal during the Doc Watson show that we attended, Doc delivered what probably was his stock good-natured response during such occurrences: “I remember when I had my first beer.”

A similar moment occurred during Emmanuel’s performance. In the middle of a long and thundering number, he leaned over a person sitting at that prime, center-stage spot and shouted, “You’re at a show!”

He briefly expressed displeasure over playing his heart out to someone more interested in a gadget, and then continued blowing the rest of us away with his guitar.

The Down Home is so intimate, one can easily touch the hem of an entertainer’s garment as he leaves the stage. I gave Tommy a pat on the sleeve, but I’m thinking now that I should have used my chording hand.

The anointed hand has so far not raised the performance level of my signature pick.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com or like him on Facebook at Mark Rutledge Columns.