Multi-talented Wonder From Down Under
By Fred W. Gretsch
In 2001, the Gretsch family lost a dear friend with the passing of Chet Atkins, one of the most talented guitarists and influential musicians of a generation. That same year, a 10-year-old boy named Joe Robinson, living half a world away in Australia, was jumping on a trampoline one day, heard Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” on his Dad’s stereo, and decided it was time to stop the piano lessons and start playing a much cooler instrument: the guitar.
I’d like to thank Joe’s parents (and Eric Clapton) for their roles in that pivotal moment. As many of you know, Joe was a quick learner for his age. The 10-year-old soon outgrew his guitar teacher, and because he lived in a small, remote town in Australia, taught himself primarily through online lessons and YouTube videos. A year later, an 11-year-old Joe was being mentored – and playing onstage – with fellow Australian (and Chet Atkins CGP Award winner) Tommy Emmanuel, one of the world’s pre-eminent fingerpicker guitarists.
The prodigy picker’s teenage years were just as eventful. There are too many highlights, awards, and accolades to list, but here are a few: Joe won the Australian National Songwriting Competition at 13, recorded his first album at 15, won Australia’s Got Talent grand finale (playing a blistering Tommy Emmanuel-inspired version of “Classical Gas”), and recorded his second critically-acclaimed album “Time Jumpin’” at 17. He was also named “Best New Talent” in Guitar Player magazine’s reader poll, and toured extensively across Europe, Japan, Australia, and America, impressing audiences and winning over new fans with his jaw-dropping guitar chops and intense, energetic live shows.
And Joe hasn’t stopped evolving or showing any signs of slowing down in his 20s. He released a breakthrough album, “Let Me Introduce You” in 2012 that featured one of Joe’s best-kept secrets: his smooth, soulful voice. The five-star album was an impressive mix of mature, melodic songwriting, superb acoustic and electric guitar playing, and a voice that complimented his own style of blues, rock, jazz and R&B.
Now a resident of Nashville, Joe has continued his growth and evolution as an artist by honing his singing, songwriting, and composing skills. He recently released three highly-rated EPs and is a current member of the Guitar Army Tour, sharing the stage with legendary guitarists and musicians Robben Ford and Lee Roy Parnell. Dinah and I had the pleasure of visiting with Joe recently and attending a show in Virginia. It was an amazing performance by this trio of superb musicians. What a show!
Dinah and I are so proud to have Joe in the Gretsch family of artists, and were happy to learn that one of Joe’s heroes and early influences was Chet Atkins. Joe’s parents were amateur musicians and had a lot of musician friends at their home, especially on weekends, jamming into the wee hours of the morning. According to Joe, one group of friends lived and breathed Chet Atkins. They played Chet’s songs on a Gretsch Country Gentleman and even showed young Joe how to play with a thumbpick. Through Chet’s music, Joe learned a wide range of styles, the importance of a good melody, and how to fingerpick. It also exposed him to fellow Australian and Chet disciple, Tommy Emmanuel, and Joe said he continued to “absorb Chet Atkins” through playing and mentoring with Tommy.
It’s appropriate that one of Joe’s main guitars onstage and in the studio is a Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman. He plays both a full-sized 6122 and a Country Gentleman Junior. And, it’s even more appropriate that Joe first fell in love with his Country Gent at the Gretsch display at a Chet Atkins Appreciation Society event in Nashville. Although he thinks of himself as an acoustic player first, Joe was drawn to his Gretsch because of its fingerpicking-friendly feel and its versatility when plugged in. He also loves his Country Gentleman for what Joe calls its “big, fat sound.”
Dinah and I also appreciate Joe’s willingness to share his love of music with students. Joe has made three visits to Thomas Heyward Academy in Ridgeland, S.C. as part of Dinah’s Mrs. G’s Music Foundation, which supports music education in rural schools. Joe said he remembers musicians visiting his rural high school in Australia and encouraging and inspiring him, so he jumps at any chance to get in front of children and teenagers to do the same. Joe’s friendly, down-to-earth personality and his own inspiring story of hard work and determination really help him connect with the students. Plus, Joe uses the opportunity to try out new songs, because he says kids will give you honest feedback and tell you exactly what they think, which he finds refreshing.
If Chet Atkins were here today, he would undoubtedly like Joe Robinson and enjoy trading licks, playing, and recording with this young Australian virtuoso. He would approve of his work ethic (Joe woke up at 4 a.m. and practiced four hours before school, then practiced four hours after school), the level head on his shoulders, his drive to grow and explore new musical directions, and his total love for the guitar (like Chet, Joe often falls asleep with his guitar). I also think Mr. Guitar would approve of Joe representing Gretsch and playing one of his signature guitars onstage and in the studio, because like Chet, Joe is also a gentleman. He just happens to be from another country.
This clip of 16-year-old “Smokin’Joe” Robinson performing his “Day Tripper/Lady Madonna” instrumental on Australia’s Got Talent TV Show has had over 3 million views.
Joe performing “Lethal Injection” with Bernard Harris on bass and Marcus Hill on drums.
Joe obliges Fred Gretsch’s request from the audience to play “Adelaide” at the Gretsch 130th Anniversary Celebration in 2013.
Joe and Richard Smith (right) honoring Merle Travis and Chet Atkins by performing an impromptu fingerpicking classic, “I’ll See You In My Dreams” at the Gretsch 130th Anniversary Celebration in 2013.