The occasion at the Ryman was in February 2016, but the resulting performance was recorded and released last month as “Live! at the Ryman.” The Lexington showing comes Saturday.
It’s an intriguing coupling. Emmanuel has played the Ryman numerous times before the concert captured on his new album, but never as the star attraction. In Lexington, the Aussie-born guitar pro has played in many situations, from pops concerts with the Lexington Philharmonic to frequent guest appearances on WoodSongs Old-Time Radio. But Saturday marks the first time that Emmanuel, 61, has headlined a show anywhere locally.
“Exactly,” Emmanuel said. “I’ve played the Ryman many times with other people, but the record represents my first solo venture there. It’s really the same thing as in Lexington, so it’s pretty exciting.”
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The first thing you notice about “Live! at the Ryman,” aside from Emmanuel’s astounding finger-picking technique and his obvious devotion to the understated lyricism of guitar mentor Chet Atkins, is his tone. Emmanuel’s execution is so clean, melodic and complete that one might overlook the sheer complexity of his playing.
“Well, tone is everything, isn’t it? I’m always trying to coax the best tone out of my instrument and out of the equipment I’m using. But it has to be a natural sound. I don’t like a processed kind of playing. I just like the sound of the guitar when I plug it in and we put it through the sound system. Everything is set flat. There is no trying to dress it up. We just present the guitar as it naturally sounds. And I think that did the business for us.
“Three months after the concert, when I came back to Nashville and listened to the recordings, I was expecting them to not be good enough to put out as an album. But I was pleasantly surprised.”
Not good enough? Seriously?
“Yeah. Because my memory of that night was me concentrating, trying to play well. I thought, ‘Surely, it can’t be that good.’ I had already kind of dismissed putting it out as a record. But when I listened to it, I realized how fresh it sounded, how vibrant it sounded. I was amazed.
“The only thing we did was we cut off the first song because I could tell I was trying get used to the sound. I don’t think I played the first song as well as I could, so I just cut it off. Nobody knows that. Well, you know that because I just told you. But that’s the only thing we did. What you hear is what happened on that stage that night.”
You would have to dissect “Live! at the Ryman” down to the tiniest of music components to find technical flaws, but dealing with performance mistakes was once part of Emmanuel’s extensive career. For several years, he worked as a studio musician who was recruited to clean up the recorded mistakes of other players.
“I was called in to repair live recordings of bands many times because of things that were out of tune, things played badly or things not being in time, all that kind of stuff. I’ve been called in as a studio musician to fix up many a live recording — including Davy Jones’ ‘Live in Japan.’ Oh, I remember doing that one. It was Davy Jones from the Monkees with a Japanese band backing him. There were three guitar players and they were all out of tune.”
Such repair work is a thing of the past for the artist, one of only three guitarists to bear the honorary title of CGP, an acknowledgement bestowed by Atkins (the other two, Steve Wariner and John Knowles, make guest appearances on “Live! at the Ryman”). It stands for Certified Guitar Picker, but onstage the title denotes music rich in country accessibility, jazz ingenuity, classical expertise, rockish drive and several other stylistic virtues that sit side by side — and often on top of each other — in Emmanuel’s playing.
“I love the challenge of having to play many styles as authentically as I can. There have been many times when I’ve had to play like Jimi Hendrix or play like George Benson or whoever. Even in the old days, when I was a studio musician, I could play with just about anybody because I loved the adventure of that. I loved the challenge.
“But when I play on people’s records now, they want me to play like I play, and that’s nice. I mean, I can’t really escape my own roots. I play the way I do because of where I was born, when I was born and the music I listened to all my life. I just try to keep an open mind about all kinds of music and then put my heart into it.”