Richard Thompson: No looking back

by Ryan Snyder

Pretend for a moment that you’re a musician who’s recently celebrated your 40 th year performing and recording. You have more than 40 albums to your credit and some of your best work has been covered by the likes of Elvis Costello, David Byrne, Bonnie Raitt and Dinosaur, Jr. You have your own tribute album. You’re skillful playing has earned you a spot as the 19 th -greatest guitarist of all time in a list compiled by Rolling Stone magazine, all the while earning consistently glowing reviews. Now imagine that you’ve only seen one US album venture within the Billboard Top 200, even then at No. 97, and the general listening public has no idea who you are thanks to a near-total lack of mainstream exposure. It’s difficult to comprehend such a paradox, but that’s also a rather unsophisticated summation of the career of British electricfolk hero Richard Thompson.

Of course, a more deserving analysis of his musical impact could fill a book. Though the humble Thompson sees himself as a mere footnote in a compendium of modern music, the truth is that songwriters with a wit as elegant and incisive as he possesses are a true rarity. His songs are characterized by morbid familiarity just as much as they are their eccentric protagonists. They’re seldom rooted in allegory, but still allow room for listeners to ascribe their own meanings. Yet Thompson still exists on the fringe of an industry with a history of rewarding the insipid and instantly gratifying.

“I think you have to be true to yourself musically, which means you really have to stand apart from the mainstream,” Thompson said during a recent phone interview. “The artist should be living somewhere on the rim of society rather than in the middle of it just so you have the right perspectives. You have to take risks just so you’re not being

conventional and making conventional choices.”

WhileThompson can ravage an audience with the penetrating verses of “DownWhere the Drunkards Roll” and “King of Bohemia,” he can also exhibitmind-blowing mastery over his ’59 Sunburst Stratocaster on “Hard On Me”or “I Can’t Wake Up to Save My Life.” While peers like Jimmy Page andEric Clapton were off re-creating the nonnative spirit of the Americanbluesman, Thompson looked to the musical history of the British Islesfor inspiration. He incorporates Celtic and Arabic modes amidhis love of indigenous folklore, accented by a little bit of ironicBritish humor. Look no further than his own cover of Britney Spears’“Oops!…I Did It Again” for solid proof of the latter. While hispreferred style may not be immediately relatable to most, it alsodoesn’t bother him one bit that more widespread success and acceptancehas eluded him for so long.

“Theway people find the music is through concert and word of mouth, but ittends to mean that once people find you, they’re loyal and they stickwith you because there hasn’t been much hype,” he said. “There hasn’tbeen this sort of artificial idea created of who you are and whenpeople really examine your work, they’re disappointed.”

Indeed,to use the term “hardcore Richard Thompson fan” might be redundant, asit takes a sincere commitment to navigate his intimidating catalog. Hewas a founding member of seminal British electric folk pioneers Fairport

Convention,released some of his bestreceived work alongside then-wife Linda, spenttime as a prolific session player and now he’s enjoying a fruitful solocareer. He’s rewarded his faithful fans with two box sets full ofrarities and obscurities, but until recently no conventional gateway toa less adventurous audience existed. That changed when Walking on a Wire: 1968 –2009, a71-song compilation of some of his most adored material from every era,was introduced in August. Thompson is clearly not the nostalgic type,however, and the new set is by no means meant to be a retrospective. Onthe contrary, when asked of his favorite era of his career, Thompsonalluded to his own uncultivated future.

“2009is going very well. I think I’m always optimistic and forward-looking,”he stated. “I always think the thing I’m working on is the best thinggoing and I tend to forget about the things in the past.”

I think you have to be true to yourself musically, which means you really have to stand apart from the mainstream