English folkie Richard Thompson's professorial if not wizardly gray beard is exactly appropriate for his current position vis--vis the current thing in the music industry. He's an elder statesman and progenitor of the dreamy, melodic, folk-influenced sound being put out there by gentle young popsters like Conor Oberst and Sufjan Stevens. Never quite given his due commercially during the heyday of his career in the early '70s, Thompson has always been lauded as a critic's and a peer's favorite, always making it to the top part of lists that tally up influential musicians -- "influential" rather often being code for "obscure," "not popular" and almost always, "not rich." It also applies better as a description to Thompson than most others -- the echoes of his guitar work and complex, evocative songwriting style can be heard today in most of the second- and third-generation acts touched by the folk tradition. He's also a notorious oddball in the pantheon of music history. When asked to contribute, at the turn of the millennium, to a collection of songs celebrating 1,000 years of music, Thompson -- deliberately waggish and literal, but also genuinely interested in the earliest music -- chose songs from the first couple of hundred years in the prescribed time frame.
Thompson's career started out as part of the English psychedelic folk act the Fairport Convention, whose shimmery, haunting string-based music was both psychedelic and somehow very pastoral -- very English -- at the same time. Thompson worked with the Fairport Convention and later as a duo with his wife Linda Thompson (some say the star-crossed folksinging couple in the Christopher Guest folk-scene parody film A Mighty Wind was based on the Thompsons' marriage and career) in the British folk scene in the late '60s and early '70s. Their work, along with acts like David Bowie and the moody, passionate brooder Nick Drake, created a kind of music bridge from across the pond between the traditional folk phenomenon happening in America and the later emergence of far-out, sonically dense, trippy psychedelic rock.
Aesthetically, it makes sense. The kind of folk music being revived in the U.S. by musicians like Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul and Mary and, of course, Bob Dylan was rough, gritty and American. The English ballads that had come to America had been in the country for so many years that they'd absorbed many influences, most importantly marrying with African-American song styles and early rural blues. The roots of American rural music are embedded in those song structures and ballad lyrics and especially in the stories at their core, some of which go back hundreds of years in England, Ireland and Wales. By the '60s, however, when beatniks in coffeehouses were rediscovering the tunes, they had long since mutated into something else -- more suited to a younger, rougher, more heterogeneous country. In American folk, there were blues hollers and labor ballads. The English folk Thompson turned out was lusher, dreamier, more suited to the aesthetic of the fog-shrouded, ancient British Isles, studded with stone castles and fairy stories. Especially solo, though, his sound wasn't all delicate silver petals and cathedrals. Although his voice is often deep, hypnotic and repetitive, his guitar work is mighty, crashing and adds the rock to "folk-rock" in no uncertain terms.
Quietly, Thompson has been recording and working almost consistently since the late '60s. His largest output was with Linda Thompson. They produced nearly a dozen records in the '70s, and their sound had more than a hint of American country. (Thompson wrote the tragic motorcycle ballad, "1972 Vincent Black Lightning," which bluegrass legend Del McCoury recorded). His total output has now topped 40 full-length albums, and he's been the subject of both high-profile covers (Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and David Byrne have all recorded his songs) and a pair of tribute albums. Last year, Free Reed Records released a five-CD and companion DVD boxed set of rarities, outtakes, obscurities, previously unreleased tracks and general Thompsonia that many fans embraced like the Holy Grail. The collection includes a particularly tasty sampling of cover tunes in which Thompson puts his stamp on everything from Squeeze's "Tempted" and the Who's "Substitute" to traditional folk ballads like "Danny Boy" and "Shenandoah." His range is extraordinary. His guitar work is virtuosic, and his narrative songwriting is on par with any great troubadour of the past thousand years. But most likely -- and this is the prize that the "influential" and obscure artists get -- the thing that keeps his discerning fans engaged is that he continues to prove himself deeply, passionately involved with the history and the very idea of music itself.
- Richard Thompson's folk music has endured through generations of changing styles and evolution.