At 31, Joe Robinson can look back on his jaw-dropping television debut and tell his online audience, “I actually wasn’t really that great.” Maybe, maybe not, but that 30 seconds of acoustic guitar shredding on The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” was the prelude to winning Australia’s Got Talent with an even flashier, even more awesome performance of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” played with the single-minded intensity of a 16-year-old guitar obsessive.
Within a week of collecting $250,000 in prize money, Robinson was already in Nashville, and 15 years and thousands of gigs later, he’s still there, steadily working on his craft. His guitar lessons typically draw thousands of views on YouTube, and his performance videos easily draw hundreds of thousands more, with him playing and singing pop classics like Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” alongside jazz standards like “All of Me” and “Misty.” Through them all, fingerpicking an ever-expanding collection of acoustic and electric guitars, he’s found his grown-up groove—a laid-back, smooth soulfulness that’s jazzy without being cerebral, played with an effortlessness that makes all this incredible technique look easy.
It’s not by a longshot, and with this seventh full-length album, he’s reaching for the biggest prize of all: writing songs that are as good as his guitar playing. It’s a tall order, especially for a guitar phenom who started touring with Tommy Emmanuel at 11 years old. For this next stage, Robinson reached out to another mentor, Nashville producer/engineer/hitmaking songwriter Brent Maher, to co-write the ten songs on The Prize, making the album a major step into the world of pop music for Robinson.
It’s a far-ranging collection, covering a wide variety of styles and sporting first-rate support from some of Nashville’s finest. On “Gotta Keep Moving,” which opens the album with a funky fingerpicking riff on Robinson’s signature 2011 Maton J.R. Personal, the momentum builds with synthesized horns (played on keyboards by Tim Lauer), rock-steady bass (Glenn Worf), hand drums (Nir Zidkyahu), organ fills (Lauer), backup singers (a multitracked Wendy Moten), and a pair of guitar solos that recall peak George Benson and Lenny Breau.
Shifting gears, Robinson gets into a cool shuffle groove peppered with quick fingerstyle ornaments on “The Prize,” plays alongside a string quartet on “Fine Line,” channels a young Merle Travis on “Wandering Man,” and flirts with rockabilly on “Got a Woman to Love.” On “Winds of Change,” he lays down an acoustic solo so smooth and sweet it would make Chet Atkins proud. And on a pair of songs, he goes electric with his 2014 Fender Custom Shop 1963 Stratocaster(“So Much More”) and 1990 Ibanez GB10 (“Moonlight & Magic”), each as warm as any of the album’s acoustic cuts.
In the sweetest turn of all, Robinson goes all-out romantic on “Where Would We Be Without Love,” and even though I wish the lyrics could dig deeper, I find myself singing along, marveling at the guitar brilliance, the soulful pop glow of the production, and the careful perfection of tone and technique.
Read more reviews of more great guitar albums here.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.