On the Mount Rushmore of rip-snorting guitar gods, were there any such lysergic thing, many who believe themselves professional musicians or ardent audiophiles would be lightning-quick to carve the wrong players, most of which would be as much or more famous for having lived the Berlitz guide to crossfading alcohol and weed whilst dandying about like 18th-century Incroyables with their particularly dodgy-but-delightful pack of wasters as they would be for anything related to guitars. There would be a small counter-gang wherein some of the wrong players thus erroneously engraved, to their everlasting valedictory credit, would be doubly quick to point out the tragicomedy of this twilit tort – thank you, my beloved and always sky-savvy Slash.
The rest, and most of the general listening public, would unfortunately never care to learn the punchline in those rune-like slurs, or know the difference between who the masses think is atop the entablature and who actually are the most accomplished guitar players on the planet. The right players, the ones who really are the best in the world at what they do, are the fastest of all to humbly tell you that they definitely don’t deserve memorializing – and they genuinely mean that. One of the infallible marks of true greatness in guitar players is total lack of attitude or self-aggrandizement. Enter Temagog-to-Nashville acoustic journeyman Joe Robinson, and the honest ones among those other grenache gunslingers on the mountain take their casks of sherry and deftly slink out the back, their various Cerberuses cowering behind their guitar cases. Thankfully Australians, those powerful and profoundly wonderful beings, are born getting the joke of life.
Some would insist that an artist has to be a Pied Piper agitator or a maestro of press manipulation in order to rank in these heady and breakneck days of televised table-scaping that passes for mainstream culture. What then of a Dickensian troubadour who still treats intentional practice and every nuance of his instrument like an ongoing forensic investigation? What of a self-effacing song-poet who is not only fully unafraid to walk unlimited mule miles in his efforts to unlock the temple, but takes a craftivist approach to every walking bass line, penning prosimetric instrumentals that can range from flashes of sheer anarchic poetry to wafts of sweetness that seem to create lift by induction? What of a tuneful transcendentalist who grew up in what many would call straitened circumstances in the bush of Temagog, Australia?
In the relatively rarefied ionosphere of the fingerstyle guitar community wherein Joe Robinson has made his untarnished name, there is none of the vision latency that can prove so advantageous to the careers of rockers, punkers, pop stars, and hip hop artists. There is no stomach for hype amongst the acolytes of this kind of virtuosic Americana and they do not self-adorn. You are either verified in the vein of the incomparable godfather of the form, Mr. Chet Atkins, around whose lasting technical influence most of that community formed and remains loyal to this day, or you are lovingly encouraged to keep practicing. This is a musical sanctuary forged entirely on work-won legitimacy and that means you do not have to kick the tires on artists who ascend to accolades here. Those acknowledged as the best in the fingerstyle community earned it, and it is as demonstrably tangible as any rock escarpment, carven or not.
The constituents of Chet’s legacy tend to be almost ecumenical horologists – the “church” in question being labor-intensive love of the guitar and the time in question being then – as in back when you were expected to be both polite and superb at your musicianship because it was back when people universally recognized that anything less is boring and uninspired. Art and ability in the modern world is often defined by shock value and overt departure from tradition, which is all very well. That of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) and its resident citizens, by contrast, is measured for quality solely by its ability to continue and further perfect a living tradition. These string scholars remain students all their lives, and gladly, for there is an innate understanding that all of this worthiness is about process and passion, not glam and Grammys.
However, the guitar players in this ascetic enclave are not performing some protracted graveside oration or cutesy cardi party for the nostalgic, but rather pouring their proverbial blood like so much gasoline over a breathing sacramental fire. So, for as much as Joe Robinson is steadily producing such unobtrusive beauty in the form of authentic fingerstyle music, the transfixing “transgression” of him is that he has the ability and – it must be said, the guts – to make all music guitar music. The guitar, under his considerable command, becomes a conduit for any song – see him cover “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!” by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley sometime, or instrumentally arrange what you may have thought was the vocally reliant “Blue Moon” on his first album entitled Birdseed.
Even without pre-knowledge of these aforementioned truisms regarding the fingerstyle community to which he belongs, Joe Robinson would not escape your notice if quality and sincerity are things you care about in music. Early championed by Reen Nalli and both Tommy and Phil Emmanuel, all iconic legends in their fields, you wouldn’t be chancing your arm to assert that Joe is already in the top five guitarists to ever emerge from his country, and has been since he was a teenager. For sheer prowess and dexterity, you will not see his make again, and certainly not in any so young. For open-hearted kindness, shared spiritual warmth, and the expressed desire to better the lives of others through music, he has no contemporary peers.
Joe Robinson is simply, quietly, lights-out great. He is also admirably immune to the iridescent fabrications and husk garlands of fame, does not have to dress like an extraterrestrial in rhinestones (though we do so love those here at QRO!) to hold your rapt attention, is not hidebound to methylated spirits in order to access his supersonic “zone,” and is only hell for leather when it comes to the subject of advancement and the pursuit of personal growth. Songs like “Hurricane” and “Snake Man” show that he is a natural grammarian of harmonic storytelling who can likewise read rhythm much in the way that the Sami read snow, using a wealth of variable genre lexicons.
Robinson can detour through Duane Allman by way of Travis Wammack to The Beatles at will and at a moment’s notice, inserting his trademark chimes the whole way through. He is the kind of warrior-intellectual of a working musician that many who are not aware of him prior to this moment may believe went to ground sometime around the death of Glen Campbell. He is no servile lapdog to trend expectations, nor does he require a thing beyond his two hands and six strings to whip any audience with ears into a lather. To be fair, he can actually score the same with just one hand – or with two guitars at once if he wishes. See him adroitly smash TED with exactly that kilobar of ingenium if you have not done so already.
Anyone who has studied the guitar or fervently loved guitarists enough to pay proper attention will know that the sound any given guitar makes is all about the hands of the person playing it. Joe’s feather-touch attack sits in stark and symmetrical contrast to the Olympic proficiency he brings to every note and tone. There’s a valid and verifiable Muhammad Ali analogy in there for sure, but perhaps most important in the story and message of Robinson’s match with destiny is how that butterfly sting came to be. Here is a guy who got world-class at what he does the old-fashioned way – that is to say, the only way you ever truly can. He worked his ass off and continues to do so despite having nothing whatsoever to prove to anyone but himself. (Spoiler alert: that was always the case and therein you peel back one of the most deciding factors of what makes him so remarkable)
Swiftly leaping from Birdseed to 2008’s Time Jumpin’, with its breathtaking arrangement of Erroll Garner’s “Misty” and the epic bombast of “Daddy Longlicks”, Robinson’s 2011 release entitled Let Me Introduce You will do just that for both his otherworldly playing aptitude and overall musical intelligence. By the time you get to the sough and splendid Undertones of 2019, you will be well on your way to understanding: from whoa to go, this is an axe-man of a higher axial orientation (all puns intended!). Robinson’s indefatigable discipline, superior work ethic, and entire modus vivendi means he only turns in pedigree performances, whether he is playing next to Tommy Emmanuel in Rome or livestreaming from his studio in Nashville.
Continuing to exercise Vulcan control over his daily 4 a.m. practice times, actively learning both on and off the stage (he read 85 books last year, friends!), and touring with everyone from Emmylou Harris to the Rodney Crowell Trio to Guitar Army with Robben Ford and Lee Roy Parnell, mastery is clearly the only language known to this “lowly serf from the Temagog plains.” In just a few more turns of the kaleidoscope, he may well surpass even his treasured mentors (and his own expectations) to become the Slot One fingerpicker in the world. You heard it here first.
Sometimes battlefield sobriquets like “best” get gingerly avoided amongst the fearsome debaters and dialecticians of the music journalism world (as well as by the far more insolent and flinty-eyed ones inhabiting the back rooms of your local pub) because, for all their misplaced sportsman’s vernacular when it comes to music, these folks find quantifiable measures of true ability nettlesome, or they seem to think it makes the art of sound somehow military and mercantile. There’s a fair argument to be made that subconsciously it is much more about what these declensions and descriptors make the sessile signatories of the rock rag concede about their own sitz-lust than it is about the impossibility of “categorizing” musicians.
The truth is, just as you can line up runners race after race and eventually emerge with Jackie Joyner-Kersee, you can likewise put all the guitar players in the world on a heaven-sized stage, give them faster, more difficult, and more sophisticated music to play each day and ultimately you are going to be left with only a handful of six-string supernovas that can play anything you give them. The accurate superlative for these chop champions is best, and Joe Robinson would be among the last artists standing on that celestial platform.
Real genius today is almost always anonymized. It wears a campfire narrative and lives in an anechoic chamber, far from the shootouts and spectacle, treading a testudine trail paved in timeless tradition. The scorched earth policy of the contemporary music industry encourages slobber-knockers over savoir-faire, maladaptive soundboard “gladgets” over grit, and an agreed-upon paramnesia about what it takes to be really, really good at playing an instrument versus what it means to simply gain notoriety.
If you are looking for an aural miracle alternative for your staying-in-is-the-new-going-out weekends, catch up with Robinson’s livestreams each Saturday on his YouTube channel, typically around 6pm Central Standard Time. If you like indie folk, country, roots, jazz, Americana, acoustics, classical, DIY inspiration, or just guitars in general, you will have found your new favorite. If he graces you with a performance of “Uli’s Jump”, you will have to fight the urge to search his fingertips for powder burns directly afterward and it will become immediately evident that a Beyer Speed Figure does not just apply to Thoroughbred racehorses.
QRO enjoyed the inordinate privilege of chatting with Joe Robinson this week on everything from the big ting influence of Jerry Reed to the story behind the rapid recording of his latest album. While your pen-friend here will admit to having melted into a puddle of glee-glitter on the floor several times at the sharing of lived stories of baby marsupials and other Oz magic, read on to hear Joe tell it all in his own words. Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson:
QRO: You are from such an interesting and remote place in one of the more interesting and remote places of the world: Temagog, Australia. Tell us a little bit about what you think growing up there has done for your particular art?
Joe Robinson: Well, it’s been wonderful. I couldn’t think of a better way to grow up, really. Some people would just look at it and think it was just so out in the middle of nowhere. It was way out in the bush, you know. We had relatives in bigger cities and it was kind of this unspoken feeling of “why are they living out there in the bush?” But it actually was a really rich community of people who played music – and the nature is so beautiful. My father had a banana farm and his life was basically that he used to surf every day and tend to the banana farm…
QRO: That sounds like a dream!
JR: [laughing] Sounds like a pretty cool way to spend his early twenties! And then my parents got together and bought the block of land that I grew up on and we grew our own food. We had cows, and horses, and sheep, and chickens, and dogs, and birds. My mom was a veterinarian, so we’d have baby kangaroos we were hand-feeding with the bottle and all kinds of little marsupials. It was just this menagerie! And I’m the oldest of four children so my brothers and sisters and I, we all grew up just running around with our shoes off in the bush.
Our parents really spent a lot of time with us and music was a big part of the culture. My mom played in bands; she played drums. She still plays music a lot but, you know, I grew up around a lot of music and found that it was just the language that I loved. I have lots of memories of listening to music and falling in love with music, but once I figured out that I could kind of see how the mechanics of the guitar works and I was exposed to people who were really great players and willing to share their knowledge, I just became so passionate. I think the fact that I grew up in a rural setting just helped me see that, you know, if you wanted some eggs in the morning you had to literally light the fire, because that’s the only thing we cooked on – a fuel stove. Just this kind of really simple way to grow up, and I’m really grateful for that.
Our parents really spent a lot of time with us and music was a big part of the culture.
QRO: Well, it shows up really beautifully in your music. I really think a lot of the phenomenal works of art in the world come out of the middle of nowhere, and you can see that from Björk to Van Gogh to Henry Darger – so many places. You see very, very authentic artists coming out of places like that and so I would hesitate to call it a “limit.” I don’t think it’s a limit; I think it’s your portal.
JR: Yeah, I think so too. And Rodney Crowell, you know I’ve been on tour with Rodney and it’s been a really special experience the last few years, and he says: “You know I have this romantic image when I think of Joe. I think the Creator just said ‘I’m gonna put this one out there, where there’s nothing to do but play the guitar!” [laughing]
QRO: Just to see what happens! [laughing] Well, that’s a compliment to you! And it leads me to tell you something that I really wanted to, which is that I think your music really does capture place. Locality is everywhere in what you do, in my hearing of it, and that’s even down to your – doesn’t your Maton have Tasmanian Myrtle – is that right?
QRO: I mean, so even the tonewood on your guitar is about place! So I think that’s just one of those running themes that you just do exceptionally well and in Borders, your latest record, you’re sort of microscopically examining that, aren’t you?
JR: Yeah, well the main guitars definitely feel like a connection to Australia and the tonewoods really do have a personality. You know, Tommy [Emmanuel] has really established a sound with the Maton guitars and I’m really proud to have my new signature model out. I feel that that’s my voice and a connection to the sound of my homeland.
Borders was a special collection of songs to record for me. You know my fiancée is in Canada and it was just kind of like the whole world was thrown a curveball with COVID. You know, we’ve really enjoyed the year, independently, but it’s been a big challenge not to spend more of it together, and I just felt like the music just needed to come out. I had some of the songs written and some of the songs I rewrote. But it was a really wonderful experience because I recorded the album and released it in 30 days. So, it was just a really immediate kind of way to release music and it was an experiment as well because I’d like to do more of that, I think. You know it’s possible these days! And the reaction from it has been amazing from people, so it was a really special thing to be able to make that album.
‘Borders’ was a special collection of songs to record for me.
QRO: Hey, Gabriel García Márquez had his Love In The Time of Cholera and you’ve got your Love In The Time of COVID and I think it’s just as classic, Joe! It’s like an aural valentine and it’s gorgeous. Of course, I know the enforced distance was definitely not, but you’ve funneled your quarantine time into something quite a bit more beautiful than most of us.
JR: I think it’s great for people to get back to a simple way of living in some ways. I mean, obviously it’s been really hard for a lot of people but my favorite routine that I did when I was a teenager that really, I feel like, gave me the technical foundation on my instrument was waking up at 4 a.m. and practicing in the mornings – and that’s what I’ve been doing for most of the pandemic!
The reason I wouldn’t do that in a normal year is because I’m playing a concert at 8 p.m. and it just doesn’t work with that routine. I love getting up early and just creating songs. I’ve been kind of working on a new instrumental album at the moment, working on just composing pieces for it and I just love the simplicity of getting up in the early hours and playing music. Music just sounds fresher in the mornings; I can’t explain it!
QRO: No, I totally get it because even though I am the furthest thing in the world from a morning person, I love mornings so much and can write things in the mornings that I could never write in the afternoons.
I must tell you, I really admire your work ethic. You seem to have perfected the grid of it and I feel that I slide in and out of the grid of it quite a bit. I know it’s not completely rigid for anyone, but do you feel like being at home as we’ve all done this year had any impact on your energy level or ability to focus?
JR: Well, a normal year for the last ten years for me has been playing about 150 shows a year, roughly. Pretty much being gone as much as I’m home was kind of the dynamic. When I’m home I can eat so much better and I can just get into a really consistent sleeping routine, so my energy levels and overall everything has been really great this year. I miss collaborating with people, though I have been able to do that in some ways, but in terms of energy and finding nice routines and ways to be creative, it’s been a wonderful time for me.
I think it’s great for people to get back to a simple way of living in some ways.
QRO: You mention something there that I definitely wanted to ask you about, and it’s another thing that I feel you really have in common with Chet Atkins, actually, and that is your collaborative nature. You know Chet worked with everybody. So, you’ve kind of carried on in that tradition with Emmylou Harris, and you mentioned Rodney Crowell, tell me about some of those events, what’s been your highlight, and how did some of those collaborations come about?
JR: That’s a big part of the reason I moved to Nashville was just to be a part of the community here. There are just so many great people. I mean there’s just layers and layers of just really incredible, musically creative people, and so every single great thing that’s happened on my musical journey I always feel so strongly that it’s because of a mentor. That could be Jerry Reed and, you know, learning his songs and falling in love with his ‘guitar thinking’ approach. The ultimate is when you get to be around people who can be mentors and heroes, and Tommy has been that for me. There have been countless others since being in Nashville, such as Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. Being on stage with Emmylou and hanging out at the airport with her and traveling – it’s just so cool.
And it’s nice to realize that people who have been legends for a lot of years are really nice people. I learn so much, I can’t even put it into words. Whenever I go home to Australia and I connect with a lot of musicians that I grew up around, I realize how incredible it has been that I was able to come to Nashville, which is just a very special musical place. That, to me, is the best thing about the collaborative element of music. I learn from it. If you’re co-writing a song with somebody, you know I love writing alone, but when you co-write there is something about the immediacy of seeing someone else’s reaction to a lyric or just playing a song together and feeling it out with another person there. There’s a lot of power in that, and I’m so grateful that I was able to come here and be a part of the music scene here.
A big part of the reason I moved to Nashville was just to be a part of the community here.
QRO: Well, I’m sure you know this better than I, but you know Nashville is kind of an Oz home lately because didn’t Metropolitan Groove Merchants establish there? One of the bigger Oz music distributors ever, so you’ve got a lot of Oz transplants who come over and hang in Nashville, which I think is fantastic.
JR: Yeah, the MGM people are friends of mine and I think I might have picked them up from the airport one of the first trips they made when they came over here! [laughing] It’s a very close-knit musical community in Australia. The U.S. is such a huge music market and there are so many incredible festivals and the touring circuit and everything here really leads world music culture, so Australians would love to contribute to that and be a part of that. But L.A. is a really hard city to navigate and New York doesn’t have as much new music as it once did from what I hear, but Nashville has a very healthy scene here. I think it’s great when people from different ilks come in. There are session musicians from Russia here and more and more people from Europe and Australia coming here because I think Nashville and London are the two music cities in the world.
QRO: Oh, I think you’re absolutely correct! You know Lionel Richie moved to Nashville because he said he wanted to “follow the melody” and people were kind of laughing at him for moving from L.A. to Nashville, and he just laughed back and said, “No, I’ve just got to follow the melody”….
JR: Yeah, exactly! It’s really the home of organically made music. That being said, I could quite happily live up in the bush, up in the Georgia mountains! That sounds pretty idyllic! There are little pockets of magic out there, and I know in the south there’s just so much music culture that goes back many generations.
QRO: It goes without saying that you have a standing invitation at our household anytime you come down to Atlanta so just let me know! It’s just me, the bears, and this awesome little acoustic guitar shop called Acoustic Cellar up here!
JR: [laughing] That’s all you need!
It’s a very close-knit musical community in Australia.
QRO: Right, what else could one ask for? Well, as what Tony Joe White would call a “mean, spiteful, straight-razor totin’ woman,” I’ve got to ask you something before we finish that is simply cruel: as a word girl I do know how hard this is, but give me a word, like an adjective, for what it feels like for you when you’re playing your music. Give me just one word…
JR: Oh, it’s joy. No doubt.
It’s interesting because a couple of years ago I created this course called Joes12 which was basically my excuse for interviewing a lot of my friends and mentors and collaborators. We just talked about how much they mean to me, but two conversations stand out. One was with Keb’ Mo’ and one was with Tommy Emmanuel. I sat with them both and just realized that they both feel this responsibility to bring joy to the people who have come to see a concert. I really connected with that, and as I thought about that more being on stage, that’s what you want. You want people to walk out of the venue at the end of it with their spirits lifted and so I’ve really become more conscious of just trying to inject as much joy and to just let all that joy out because it’s definitely in there. I love music more and more every day. It’s just a great friend and companion to me. As are books! I mean, there are just so many ways of expressing the beauty in the world, but music is my voice and vehicle of expression and so, I would say joy is what I feel when I play.
QRO: I love that you picked a noun and not an adjective because, to me, that says it all! That’s perfect. I just wanted to thank you so very much for doing this, Joe. This has been such an unbelievable treat and wonderful to speak to you and I know our readers are going to love to hear about you.
JR: It’s really lovely to chat with you and it’s wonderful to know your connection with the CAAS community through your father. It was a real pleasure for me. I really appreciate your time in doing the article and it’s wonderful to connect with you. Thank you, Dana.
-photos: Kane Hibberd