Anytime you talk to any of his fans, whether musicians or civilians, invariably they will speak of not one but two qualities that define his greatness.
The first, predictably, is his extraordinary guitar playing. Considered by those in the know to be among this planet’s greatest guitarists, his playing is simply miraculous, as it would take three musicians, or more, to do what Tommy does solo. Who else, for example, when playing “Day Tripper,” can lay down the rhythm part, dig into the riff and sing the melody all at once on just one acoustic guitar?
Which brings us to the other aspect of his music always mentioned, and without which the first might not be as powerful or as infectiously appealing: the joy. Yes, joy. Because it’s one thing to play these multi-dimensional arrangements flawlessly on an acoustic guitar. But to do it with that smile of the ages, that evidence of authentic, unbridled delight, is an irresistible invitation to feel his music as deeply as he does.
“The joy, he says, “is there always because I’m chasing it through music. Seeing the surprise in peoples’ eyes is worth living and working for… I can’t help but play to the people with all my heart, which is overflowing with joy of being in that moment that I’ve worked all my life for. And here it is!”
Although his expression is instrumental, he comes to the guitar much more like a vocalist, positively singing melodies through the strings. He inhabits the tunes he performs, delivering every nuance and turn of phrase. His own songs are also illuminated always with lyrical melodies that go right to the heart, such as his beautiful ode to his daughter, “Angelina,” or his great “story without words,” “Lewis & Clark.” That they resonate so deeply without words makes sense, as words only go so far. But music, coming from a genuine and joyful source, can go so much farther. Now with The Best of Tommysongs, he brings us a complete collection of his own songs, all rich with ripe melodicism and rendered with joy in real-time.
Born in 1955, one of six kids in Muswellbrook, New South Wales Australia, his first years were fairly uneventful, mostly mastering necessary motor skills between naps. By age four, he got busy becoming a musician. His father, an engineer who loved music and musicians, brought home an electric guitar one day with the intention of finding out how it worked. Piece by piece, he took it apart to discover its secrets. But Tommy and his brother were much more interested in music than mechanics, so that when their dad was away at work, they’d surreptitiously sneak away with the guitar.
Driven somewhat by sibling rivalry, they developed contests that were both fun and extremely educational. “We turned our backs to each other,” Tommy remembered, “and Phil would play a chord and I would have to say what the chord was, what the notes in it were.” It was competition which impacted his entire career, allowing him access to the rich interior architecture of songs. Though neither brother had any formal musical training, this self-schooling quickly transformed both into seriously sophisticated musicians.
Though they assumed their father would be angry if he found out, which he did, they were wrong. He was surprised and thrilled his sons could play music. Soon their big brother Chris was enlisted to play drums, and with sister Virginia playing lap-steel, a family band was born. They joyously rocked hip guitar instrumentals such as “Apache” by The Shadows, featuring Hank Marvin on guitar, who both Phil and Tommy adored and emulated. They called themselves The Emmanuel Quartet. But when people kept mistaking them for a classical string quartet, they changed the name to The Midget Surfaries.
They entered a band competition, and easily surpassed all contenders to take first prize, a national TV appearance. On that show they burned through “Apache” with such aplomb that the producer told their dad he should take the band on the road.
He agreed. Back home he told everyone the plan: Sell the house, buy a tent, two station wagons, and hit the road. It seemed to be a dream, yet it was true. What they didn’t know was that their dad had learned recently that he had an incurable heart disease and was not expected to live for much more than a year. His doctor said if there was ever anything he really wanted to do; he should do it.
It lasted for six years. They were on the road constantly, except for a few periods when their dad was too ill to tour, and Tommy and his brothers picked fruit to make some money. When his father’s heart finally gave out, Tommy remembered, his mother grieved for a few hours alone, and then emerged to give them the choice of a “normal life” or staying on the road. They chose the road, of course, and signed up with a successful traveling show, which kept them gainfully employed for a good stretch. But that came to an end when the child welfare department forced them off the road again for perceived child labor violations.
“They made us go to normal schools,” Tommy said. But normal was not something Tommy accepted for long. Though they settled down in a little town near Sydney, the brothers quickly assembled a little rock band, playing pubs, parties, weddings, and dances. One thing he learned on the road and never forgot was that he loved performing. And he was great at it.
From these origins, Tommy’s music expanded in every direction. At 30, he was burning on electric guitar with several rock bands in stadiums all over Europe. He could have gone on to live the rock star life. Yet he yearned for something purer and closer to his heart. Casting off the reliable rock band engine of monstrous sonics blasting with chains of effects through monstrous stacks of amps, he did a reverse Bob Dylan, and instead of going electric, Tommy went acoustic.
Stripping away everything but the essentials, Tommy found the ideal equation, and one which has led him to worldwide acclaim: one acoustic guitar in standard tuning played by one ambitiously unchained guitarist and lover of song. Always it’s about melody, of expressing the tune not with a barrage of notes, but with those which touch the heart. And it’s about his singular greatness at translating the dimensional dynamics and dimensions of arrangements onto the six strings of his guitar. Although many scoffed that it was possible, Tommy made a series of hit albums as a solo guitarist, and became a major star first in Australia, and soon everywhere.
The inspiration for Tommy’s transformation? That would be guitar legend Chet Atkins, who represented to Tommy the pinnacle of guitar playing. One man, one guitar, and unlimited, passionate song. Like Dylan, who made a pilgrimage from the Midwest to New York to meet his idol, Woody Guthrie, Tommy always knew he had to get to Chet. To let Chet hear his music, which had been so shaped by his years listening, and absorbing, Chet’s genius.
When he finally made that trek around the globe to meet the man himself, in Nashville, their bond was immediate, and like their music, existed beyond words. Chet picked up his guitar, and the two men jammed joyously for hours. It started a lifelong friendship which shaped Tommy’s music forever. Chet welcomed Tommy into guitarist knighthood by bestowing upon him the coveted title of CGP (Certified Guitar Player), an honor awarded only to four other humans ever. Though already devoted to the life of a solo player, receiving the love and esteem of Chet lifted Tommy into a different realm. Because, as Chet recognized instantly and told the world, musicians like this don’t come along that often; pay attention to this man. Of course, Chet knew of what he spoke. Tommy’s triumph on his singular solo path has been extraordinary. From the Midget Surfaries he’s become beloved and revered around the planet for the music. And, for the joy.
Trevor has established himself as a unique and pioneering voice on the international stage, albeit one who speaks through his guitar and every sound that it’s capable of, rather than words. On top of a touring calendar that’s taken him through 17 countries and counting, his discography has amassed millions of listens and views through streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube, allowing his music to connect meaningfully with listeners across all borders, regardless of their language or location. Since emerging on the fringe of the Philadelphia, USA, music scene as a young guitar virtuoso in the early 2000s, Trevor’s fingerpicking style of textured instrumentalism took little time to leave an impression on listeners. He was rated a top 30 under 30 guitarist by Acoustic Guitar Magazine and has shared the stage with or drawn praise from peers and guitar legends who helped blaze the path before him, including the likes of John Mayer, Steve Miller, Graham Nash, Steve Hackett, Dar Williams, Will Ackerman, Pat Martino, Stanley Jordan, Phil Keaggy, Tommy Emmanuel, Pierre Bensusan and Andy McKee to name a few. He’s also been featured on NPR, NBC, PBS, and many international outlets and publications around the world.
While cutting his teeth in the clubs and coffeehouses of the Philadelphia suburbs early in his career, Trevor caught the eye of nine- time Grammy award winning producer Joe Nicolo (James Taylor, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan) who produced two of Trevor’s releases, “Finding My Way” and a Christmas album “Let Your Heart Be Light.” As Trevor began to refine his sound and plot out his next compositions in a new decade, he began to collaborate with various engineers to develop an instrument that combined his own redesign of the kalimba, an African finger piano, with an acoustic guitar. The resulting “kalimbatar” fully demonstrated Trevor’s ability to innovate as a songwriter and unlocked a new suite of sounds and textures that he was able to weave into his music. While he had explored the kalimba on earlier recordings in a limited capacity, the kalimbatar phase of Trevor’s career was first fully realized on his 2011 Candyrat Records debut, “Entelechy”, which left a mark on the iTunes singer-songwriter and YouTube charts at the time, gathering millions of views and widespread reach.
Following on the success of Entelechy, Trevor worked with master luthier Sheldon Schwartz to redesign the kalimbatar. Once perfected, Trevor recorded his next album with longtime hero and decorated Grammy winner Will Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill Records, which was a treasure trove of inspiration for Trevor on his musical journey. The resulting work, titled “Mind Heart Fingers,” was written to honor the acoustic guitar tradition that Windham Hill records popularized in the 1980s and 1990s. It was released in 2014 and peaked at #4 on the World International Music radio charts.
This was followed up in 2015 with the first of an EP series, titled “Kalimbatar Classics Vol. 1”, which featured arrangements of classical piano standards reimagined by Trevor on the kalimbatar. Never one to rest on his laurels however, Trevor swapped out the kalimbatar for electric guitars and electronic texturing with 2016’s “Late Night With Headphones, Vol. 1”, which revealed a moodier palette, and a different side of his artistic reach.
As he worked through each album on his artistic journey, mining new connections, it became clear that Trevor’s explorations of the guitar were leaving an impact on other artists around him. In 2018, he was invited to share a stage with several other guitar titans, most notably John Mayer and Steve Miller, to honor the retirement of Dick Boak, a renowned figure in the guitar world and an artist relations director for Martin Guitar. During that evening, Mayer offered his admiration to Trevor, praising his set and acknowledging Trevor’s usage of the kalimbatar as a humbling and refreshing reminder that the guitar is still revealing new approaches and sounds, even after all of these generations. Trevor’s hard work and innovative writing had earned him recognition within the pantheon of guitar luminaries.
With more command of his craft, came more shows around the world and more opportunities to make new musical connections with other artists. Trevor has recorded and performed with dozens of musicians across the continents on a variety of different projects and compositions. 2021’s “The Other World on Our Planet” is perhaps Trevor’s most dynamic example of branching out to new territory as a collaborator, which saw Trevor utilizing his artistry to support a different discipline: investigative journalism. The EP serves as a musical compliment to The Outlaw Ocean, a New York Times bestselling book about lawlessness on international waters by award- winning reporter Ian Urbina.
After several years of a life lived loudly — performing his music around the world and immersing himself in different cultures, sounds and experiences — Trevor retreated to the solitude of his Pennsylvania home for his next solo album, “This Beautiful Chaos.” Written in the early morning hours while his wife and daughter slept, then recorded with Grammy winning Corin Nelsen, the album finds him at his most vulnerable, contemplating these growth experiences and channeling them into a set of warm, vibrant songs. This is the sound of an artist who is fully confident in his voice, free within his constraints and precise in what he has to say, seasoned by years of literally growing up on record and stage. It’s a tantalizing signpost of what he’s capable of in the years ahead. Trevor’s style is recognizably his own, but the next note he plays is never predictable, or the obvious choice. This is a musical career you’ll want to stick around for, because the next show or the next song is always a new possibility.