Richard Thompson laughs when asked why Shout! Factory is releasing a box set of his work. “I don’t know,” he answers, gathering himself. “I just turned 60. Maybe they think I’m too old to rock & roll, too young to die. Boxed before I’m boxed or something.”
Thompson’s laughter at perfunctory questions regarding his 40-something-year career is endearing while simultaneously reinforcing the obvious: There are many things he’d rather be doing than explaining why he does what he does. The singer/songwriter/guitarist and ex-pat Londoner is sitting for interviews in a quaint English garden café in Pacific Palisades, near where he lives with wife, Nancy Covey, and their son Jack, his fifth child.
“Shout! Factory are kind of a box-set label,” he continues. “One of the things they like to do is assemble parts of peoples’ lives, put them into little boxes and sell them. I imagine that would be their motive. Not my motive. I don’t think in those sort of terms.”
Thompson produced Walking on A Wire: Richard Thompson (1968–2009) himself, choosing 71 tracks from every major release, spread over four discs. Combined, the set shows how prodigious and consistently brilliant he’s been. He’s up in that rarified strata, with Dylan, Cohen, Joni, Neil, Zevon. He guesses that his repertoire of originals numbers 400. “Must try harder. That’s only 10 songs a year. Must work harder.”
He was 18 when he co-founded Fairport Convention in 1967. With singer Sandy Denny, they personified British folk-rock in the way that the Byrds and the Band did here. Their fourth album, 1969’s Liege & Lief, consisted of traditional English folk songs (and a few originals that sounded trad) powered by a rhythm section and Thompson’s fluid, whiplash — and very electric — lead guitar. The young guitarist began showing up in polls with Hendrix and Page (he jammed with both at various times), and it’s been reported that he was asked to join the Eagles, Traffic and the Band. His next phase was a duo with Linda Peters, whom he married in 1972. Richard and Linda Thompson recorded and toured for a decade, culminating their extraordinary partnership with 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights, not only a perfect album but — along with Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks — a classic divorce record (even though the songs were finished before the marriage was). Since then, Thompson has never stopped writing, performing and recording, with almost every release accorded the raves Rolling Stone once gave him: “Ho-hum, another first-rate Richard Thompson album.”
Walking on a Wire serves as both primer for the Thompson novice or as mixtape for the collector. Everything Thompson’s ever offered musically is represented. His singing voice — unprepossessing in Fairport — quickly grew into an emotive instrument, with a modal phrasing that sounds vaguely Indian or Middle Eastern until you remember that his father was a Scot and that Scottish music — along with its other modal Celtic brethren — is a large part of his vocabulary. (Think bagpipes.) His guitar sound is utterly singular. Former producer Joe Boyd once wrote that Thompson’s playing has “no blues clichés … he is unapologetic about his whiteness,” while a friend noted that “he plays the guitar faster than I can listen to it.” But the singularity is strangely geometric; whereas you can hear most guitarists traipsing up and down the neck, Thompson sounds as if he’s fingering laterally.
His record production is lean and elegant (and quick), and he’s an engaging — and incredibly funny — live performer. But songwriting may be Thompson’s greatest gift, partly because — like Dylan and Cohen — he’s eminently coverable (R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, the Pointer Sisters, Patty Loveless, Del McCoury, Jo-El Sonnier, among others). The short list is astonishing: heartbreaking ballads (“Dimming of the Day”), frantic rockers (“Tear Stained Letter”), odes to edge-dwelling (“Wall of Death”), tales of doomed love (“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”), accusations of betrayal (“She Twists the Knife Again”) — Thompson’s tunes cover every perspective of human experience with authority, empathy and skill. In “From Galway to Graceland” he sings of a delusional Irish lass who travels to Memphis “to be with the King.” His dark humor cuts in the strutting “I Feel So Good,” wherein a recent ex-con swears he’s “gonna break somebody’s heart tonight” (and worse).
While he’s never been in a nut house or killed anyone (that he’ll admit to), he explains his harrowing subject matter: “You write about people on the edge because it’s more revealing of human nature. People show themselves, certainly, quicker. As a songwriter, you’re concerned with speed, getting into the character. People show themselves quicker when they’re in extreme situations. How are people going to reveal themselves? And what you want in fiction is for people to reveal the truth about human nature.” He points to traditional Scottish ballads as the most influential on his own work. “The best storytelling, the best use of language, succinct, best imagery — that’s the place to go to school for a songwriter. And I like things like detective fiction. Somehow I find that relevant to songwriting. You hear it in T-Bone Burnett or Elvis Costello. It’s that Raymond Chandler thing, where he’s got short sentences and terse images: ‘She looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake.’ ”
Thompson’s wife, Nancy, is a California girl whom he met during her tenure as McCabe’s Guitar Shop concert director. He displays his utterly dry trademark wit when he explains that, after endless commuting, they moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago after Jack was born because they felt Los Angeles was “much richer in educational possibilities than England.” When an interviewer expresses shock at that statement, the poker-faced guitarist retracts: “No, that’s not true. It’s sunnier here actually.”
It seems as if he’s always got some big project he’s working on. In recent years he’s recorded an album called 1000 Years of Popular Music which covered madrigals, carols, sea chanteys, music hall, Gilbert and Sullivan, early jazz, Cole Porter, honky-tonk music, the Kinks, the Easybeats, Squeeze, and, yes, Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again.”
“Harmonically, it’s not that different from an Italian dance tune from the 1500s,” explains Thompson. “It fits right in there to make the point that things change but basically not that much, and it all comes round again.” He scored Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man and recently composed a 75-minute orchestral song cycle for the International Society of Bassists.
It’s debatable why Thompson isn’t more popular. His work has all the characteristics of commerciality: melodies and hooks, enticing and memorable lyrics, killer musicianship. Mass acceptance has been elusive, but it doesn’t appear as if Thompson cares. “What I’m trying to do is to write a kind of British music that includes the lingua franca, which is rock & roll. But it’s culturally rooted in British traditional music. That’s what Fairport was trying to do in 1969. I’m still writing for that cult audience. If I do something that has a wider appeal, it’s more by accident.
“I’m not writing for the American public,” Thompson says. “I’m writing for a British public that isn’t there anymore. I think they died off. Or maybe they never existed.” He stops joking — momentarily. “There’s a limited number of people who will immediately get it. This is home for me. The average listener would have to put out a small amount of energy and effort to get into the music.” It’s worth the work. Unlike some of his peers, Thompson’s still at the top of his game: voice strong, chops hot, songs sublime. As the man says, “I’m as excited as I ever was about music.”
Richard Thompson, Walking on A Wire: Richard Thompson (1968–2009) (Shout! Factory)