Throughout his 50 years as a working musician, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel has been one of acoustic music’s premier performers, integrating his unique fingerpicking technique into a wide variety of jazz, pop and country releases. To pursue his new all-star duets album Accomplice One, all Emmanuel needed was a little encouragement from his manager.
“I told him I wanted to work with Ricky [Skaggs], Jason Isbell, and all these people in a project,” Emmanuel tells Rolling Stone Country. “Once I got a couple of tracks done, that really got me on a mission, and then it just sort of snowballed from there.”
The resulting LP, released today, unites the talents of Emmanuel with those dream guests, including Skaggs, Isbell, Rodney Crowell and many others, for an engaging set of originals and innovative covers. It’s one of three albums he’s released since last May, including Live! At the Ryman and Pickin’, a collaboration with David Grisman.
Emmanuel recorded Accomplice One over the last two years in seven different locations, carefully scheduling studio sessions that lined up with his collaborators’ busy touring schedules.
“It’s a beautiful combination of artists and locations,” Emmanuel says. “And that kind of sums up where I’m at, because I have a very open attitude about music as long as the song is good, so I end up feeling at home in all genres. That’s why this album is so eclectic.”
As Emmanuel’s second studio LP made up entirely of duets (after 1998’s Collaboration), Accomplice One is representative in many ways of the guitar virtuoso’s experience as an in-demand instrumentalist for other prominent artists. His guitar work on Rodney Crowell’s 2017 album Close Ties ended with an agreement between the two that in lieu of payment, Emmanuel could choose one of three unrecorded songs by the Crowell to perform with him on Accomplice.
“I showed him some of my songs that were lying around,” says Crowell, who appears on the exuberant cut “Looking Forward to the Past.” “I wanted to give Tommy something we could record that really offers a vehicle for what he does so well. With him, it’s all human. You go in the the studio with no notion of, ‘We’re gonna replace this vocal later.’ We didn’t even play to a click.”
Emmanuel also served as the album’s executive producer, prioritizing performances from each contributor over pristine recordings. The LP is replete with candid laughter, foot-tapping and chair creaks captured by the microphones. Resonator guitar legend Jerry Douglas, who arranged a fiery instrumental cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” for the album, recalls an inspiring collision of musical styles in their session.
“It was just one take,” says Douglas. “And that’s what you hear on the album! If you’re a guy into improvisation like he is, and I am, you just pick the right people and you know what’s going to happen, but you also leave an element of surprise. We were just staring at each other through the glass, reacting. You’re in the ballpark, but you don’t know what position you’re playing.”
Elsewhere, Jason Isbell’s soulful croon on the Doc Watson-penned “Deep River Blues” sounds right at home over Emmanuel’s choppy rhythm guitar work, opening the album to set a tone of musical symbiosis. Isbell’s partner Amanda Shires appears on a complete overhaul of Madonna’s “Borderline.” “Rachel’s Lullaby,” a lilting song inspired by Emmanuel’s baby daughter, features ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. The original tune “Tittle Tattle” lets Emmanuel trade solos with jazz guitarist Jack Pearson. In each of these instances, Emmanuel’s collaborative spirit is evident as is his mentality to let things unfold naturally.
“The songs are the stars of the show,” he said. “They have to showcase the artist and myself, and that’s everything. There’s no big production ideas, it’s just about keeping it all as organic as possible.”