PICTURED: Mike Dawes (left) and Tommy Emmanuel will perform together at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center on Jan. 20, 2022. The concert is presented by Ventura Music Festival. Photo submitted

by Mike Nelson

What motivates guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel to keep playing, performing and touring?

“I’m just trying to get good at it,” chuckles the Australian-born, Nashville-based, Grammy-nominated guitarist who is scheduled to perform with his friend and fellow guitar maestro Mike Dawes on Jan. 20 at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, a Ventura Music Festival (VMF) presentation.

“Actually,” continues Emmanuel, “I just feel very grateful to have found what I was put on earth to do. When I play, something happens that I can’t really explain, except that people’s lives get impacted in a positive way, and that brings me such great joy. I have no desire to be rich and famous, just to try and be good at this, and it doesn’t have to be more than that.”

When Emmanuel and Dawes step on stage, there will be as much “fan love” there as in the audience.

“Tommy is not just the greatest living guitar player, he’s among the greatest ever,” said the Bristol-based Dawes. “If he wasn’t so bloody nice, he’d be intimidating. But he’s not only great to play with, he’s always ready to learn, and that’s humbling. The true greats are still hungry to learn more, and I have to remind myself of that as I go forward.”

Emmanuel, for his part, is delighted to play with Dawes, who — like Emmanuel — has received awards, plaudits and profound respect from guitarist-peers.

“Mike and I are different musically, and that’s wonderful. He comes from a whole different direction, and I love that. I like people on my tours who bring something different, so it’s not too much of one kind of thing. And Mike is a real master at his particular style; he plays in a way I could never do, completely unique to him.”

Both guitarists — speaking to the VCReporter in separate phone interviews from Wyoming and Colorado at the start of a two-week western tour — expressed joy and relief at performing live, after nearly two years of COVID-necessitated idleness.

“Everything about my life has changed since COVID,” notes Emmanuel, for whom a non-pandemic year includes 250 shows plus guitar camps, workshops and master classes. “And it’s been good for me in some ways; it forced me to slow down and improve my health.”

He wrote and recorded a film soundtrack (for Ray Giarrantana’s <em>The Tiger Rising,</em> to be released Jan. 21), worked on his craft and other projects in Nashville, and did duets with several friends, including a VMF Music Connects digital event in November with Muriel Anderson.  

“The hardest part for me,” he says, “was not being able to visit my children in England. So it has been a life-changing experience, and it’s made me very grateful and appreciate what’s important in life, just get through each day by being the best I can be.”

“We’ve all been affected in a big way,” adds Dawes, normally on tour 10 to 11 months a year all over the world, but able to visit his parents more often during the pandemic. “As a social person who lives alone, I love meeting people, so coming back to live performing is all the more moving. The live side of music is so much more fulfilling than being in the studio or playing at home. Performing in front of a live audience, that energy you bring comes back to you in such a profound way, and last night [in Denver] was amazing.”

Coming to Ventura County is special for both as well. Dawes has played in Ventura and Agoura Hills, while Emmanuel fondly recalls attending a May 1993 concert at the Ventura Theater featuring his friend and inspiration, Chet Atkins.

“I told Chet afterwards I was in the audience,” laughs Emmanuel, “and he gave me a bad time for not letting him know I was there. He said he’d have asked me to play with him. But it was his night, you know? 

“And looking back, it’s a remarkable story that some little kid from the bush country in Australia gets to be friends and even record with his guitar hero, who replied so kindly to my fan letter when I was just 11. I still think about that, especially as I get messages from people from all ages, all walks of life, all over the world. It makes me appreciate the adventure of playing music and entertaining people, and I am so grateful to be in this wonderful business. It’s a joy to bring music to people.”

Tommy Emmanuel performs with Mike Dawes, on Thursday, Jan. 20, 8 p.m., at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, 800 Hobson Way, Oxnard. For tickets and more information, call 805-648-3146 or 888-645-5006 or visit VenturaMusicFestival.org.