Thompson is aware of the honor, but keeps his own perspective on it
“Yeah, it’s nice, but it is also kind of silly. I mean how do you really make a decision like that? Where is Segovia on a list like that- obviously, if he isn’t Number 1, than it doesn’t really get at the point, does it? How can Les Paul even be given a number like 37? It sells a lot of Rolling Stones’ but it isn’t really an accurate reflection of the state of musicianship. It s kind of futile to compare musicians working in different genres.”
His career began in the mid-sixties in his native England; Thompson is barreling through his fifth decade as a ‘working musician’ with no indication of slowing down creatively. He is rooted in a remarkable period of British pop music, the mid to late sixties; when he and his band-mates in Fairport Convention forged an entirely new style and sound, blending English and Scottish folk music with rock, Cajun and American folk traditions, along with world motifs like gypsy, middle-eastern sounds- all played on electric instruments. A measure of Thompson’s and Fairport’s influence was their being tagged with as “the English version of the Byrds.” a simplistic, shorthanded label that actually undervalues their contribution.
Bristling with Thompson’s trademark keen and mordant wit, his eclectic musical taste, and stunning guitar chops, the songs he wrote and recorded more than 45 years ago retain a timelessness that a lot of music of that era simply does not have. How has that music managed to stay so fresh, and transcendent?
“Well, it does have a lot to do with how we recorded it. Working with a great producer, Joe Boyd, and a classically trained engineer, John Wood, we intentionally avoided a lot of the studio effects and touches of the time. We did the songs in a very ‘neutral’ way, straight-ahead- drums in the center, guitars and vocals by the guitarist ‘miked’ in the same place- we created a real visual in the mind of the listener- any listener could ‘see’ the band as we played in the studio. That, and not a lot of those ‘psychedelic’ sound effects, make the music sort of timeless, I think.
Thompson has recorded more than 40 albums. While that is a considerable amount of work, it has reflected a lifetime as an artist. And that sort of longevity has advantages and disadvantages.
“Well, an advantage to longevity is that I don’t have to build an audience on the back of hit records. My audience, over time, has come from word of mouth. I suppose the disadvantage of being around so long is that it is impossible to get your CD’s reviewed. The reviewers just seem to say ‘oh look, yet another package from Thompson.’ It is a bit frustrating, when you work hard, and are coming up with new things to say, to not be able to get your materiel reviewed.”
Though Thompson has unearthly chops on guitar that have made him a highly desirable collaborator, his skill as a songwriter has lead to an astonishing range of artists covering his music.
Thompson is a bit circumspect with regard to his body of written work.
“Well, I’ve never really had the time to get frustrated with whole idea that I should have a bigger audience than I get. The music I play doesn't deserve a big audience. I’ve always written for a more selective group of people, with ideas about the world, and as a result, I’ve always known I was never going to have a huge crowd of followers.”
Those who know Thompson and have long admired him might disagree. Marblehead-based Dave Mattacks, an accomplished drummer who has partnered with Thompson repeatedly since first joining Fairport in 1969, uses him as a benchmark when speaking with others about the art of songwriting.
"As a musician, I'm always having people tell me about great songwriters and/or guitarists who I 'need-to-hear.' My response is usually positive, as I genuinely am interested. But I usually respond with ‘so, what do you think of Richard Thompson?’ If I get a blank stare back, well, I'm afraid you've just lost ten points. To put it frankly, if you don't know about Richard, and you're telling me about songwriters and guitarists...”
Another measure of Thompson’s pre-eminence among the songwriters of his generation is the extraordinary number artists, across a wide spectrum of musical styles, covering his songs. The list includes Robert Plant, Allison Krause, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, John Doe, Shawn Colvin, Nathalie Merchant, Mary Lou Lord, The Pointer Sisters, the Five Blind Boys from Alabama, Los Lobos, David Byrne, Dave Gilmour, the Neville Brothers, Don Henley, Bob Dylan, Shawn Colvin. For starters. "
Yeah, well the covers are a nice surprise,” says Thompson, in a characteristic understatement. He is less surprised about the number of ‘country’ artists who find his work compelling.
“There is a strong tie between Appalachian music and Scottish music, so the connection with artists who do country seems a natural one to me. Country is a pretty tight genre, so I guess it does say something that a number of those folks like the songs. Then again, I can remember listening to ‘Prairie Home Companion’ once, and they proved that just about any song ever written can be done in a bluegrass version.”
His peers have covered Thompson classics like Wall of Death, Dimming of the Day, Turning of the Tide, I Misunderstood, Where the Drunkards Roll. Thompson’s evolution as a songwriter- from his early, traditional-folk influenced tunes, to the searing and powerfully self-revelatory work with his former wife Linda, on through to his narrative and character-driven story songs provide a veritable banquet of choices for other musicians. His song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning- a melding of the outlaw ballad tradition with modern biker culture, fueled by some of the most incendiary and intricate finger-picking extant, continues to seduce artists up for the challenge of telling a great story, and embellishing it with high-order instrumental chops.
These days, Thompson occasionally plays with his son Teddy, born of his earlier marriage to Linda Peters Thompson- the extraordinary vocalist. The younger Thompson is not joining the elder Thompson on this tour. The elder is, of course, understandably proud of his son.
“It’s been great fun to collaborate with Teddy. It’s wonderful to make music with family, because you share a lot of the same sensibilities. You’re on the same page. Your voices sound similar, so you can sing great harmonies. It’s been great to see him become a musician, someone I enjoy and admire. Of course, as a parent, it can be frustrating. He’s good; why don’t more people listen to him?”
Given the length and arc of his father’s career, I suspect that Teddy will be adding luster to the family legacy for a long time to come.
|photo credits: Ron Sleznak|