by Edd Hurt
However you characterize Thompson, he's an artist of the rock 'n' roll era — a man with an electric guitar playing a souped-up version of what used to be called folk music. An astounding guitarist who can comp, solo and accompany with equal facility, Thompson makes his licks bite. Playing electric guitar in a sort of modified chicken-picking style that takes James Burton's approach into the space age, he uses unusual modes in an effortless way. He's equally compelling on acoustic — check out the unplugged demo recordings he released as part of his 2010 full-length, Dream Attic.
Thompson has made his mark as a songwriter. "Cajun Woman" still sounds great, and such early-'70s tunes as "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" and "The Old Changing Way" belong in the popular-music canon alongside songs by Merle Haggard, Paul Simon and Randy Newman — he works at that high level of idiomatic experimentation, literacy, and masterful simplicity. Nearly every Thompson tune has a twist, or a strategically placed guitar figure, or maybe a turn of phrase, that marks it as the work of an advanced songwriter and musical thinker.
Born in London in 1949, Thompson has been recording for over 40 years, and his body of work is large. He's just released his latest full-length, Electric, which he cut last year in Nashville with producer Buddy Miller. It's a loud, funny rock record, with riffs that churn and solos that unspool in the great tradition of mentally disturbed rock 'n' roll. Not a subtle singer, Thompson is nonetheless compelling, and Electric finds him in fine voice — he has a few things to say about the parlous state of human affairs, and sounds like he may even enjoy the experience. Thompson rocks, Buddy Miller provides the atmosphere, and the result is a collection that ranks up there with such monuments of Thompson's career as Shoot Out the Lights, Hokey Pokey and Henry the Human Fly.
Thompson deserves that Americana songwriting award, and then some. Over the years, he's balanced black humor and straight-ahead lyricism, cynicism and idealism, and done it all with style. Electric may or may not be Americana, but it rocks hard, and Thompson's songwriting is at a peak. In late March, Thompson will embark upon a series of dates featuring his electric trio along with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. As you would expect from such an accomplished songwriter, he chooses his words carefully, and displays a dry sense of humor that is as bracing as his music. The Cream recently caught up with Thompson via phone, and you can see our chat below.
Let's start off talking about Electric, Richard. How did you come to work with Buddy Miller in Nashville on the new record?
I had a short list of producers I wanted to work with, and I thought, actually, that a record with Buddy would be the most interesting, you know. I really enjoyed the work he'd been doing on Robert Plant's record, and the Solomon Burke record. I knew that he'd recorded those in his home studio, and I thought that would be interesting. It turned out to be a very relaxed environment — slightly eccentric, kind of a creative-chaos kind of environment. Essentially, the ground floor of Buddy's house is the studio. The drums are in the corner, and right next to that is a mixing console. I think I was in the kitchen nook, where they make the coffee, and the amps were in another room. So it was pretty cozy and pretty tight, and just a wonderful experience. We recorded really quickly — everything recorded to tape. Analog 16-track, which is like the old days.
That sounds great. What was it about Buddy's production style that attracted you?
It's kind of a realistic sound. You can hear the room — it doesn't sound shiny. You can hear the room reverberating. On the record I did, we wanted it to sound slightly trashy, slightly garage. So the actual sound was appealing. I think also that Buddy has good arranging ideas. He's a great guitar player, and he can add guitar to things. He can lay out, if that's required. He's a non-egotistical kind of producer who will bring to each track what's required.
Did you and Buddy sit around and trade licks?
I wish we'd had time to do that. It was very work-efficient. I love to watch him play, because he plays a slightly unusual style. He did some low stuff on baritone guitar, for instance, where he tunes very low, and he has a nice sort of fat, Uni-Vibe sound. I hope I'm not speaking out of turn when I say I hope that both of us are not flashy kind of guitar players, and that we try to play in the service of the song.
I would say you're not speaking out of turn at all. I saw you perform last fall at the Americana Music Awards show at the Ryman, Richard. You played guitar with Booker T. Jones on ''Green Onions.'' What was it like to play with him on that tune?
Well, that was the highlight of my year, or possibly decade. I bought the record in 1962, when it came out. And I thought, "Well, the least that he can do is allow me to do the Steve Cropper bit on 'Green Onions.'" That's a fair exchange, I think. I gave him, you know, 17 cents in royalties; at least allow me the honor. It was so much fun to do that, just great.
I assume you were listening to Stax and to R&B, back in the '60s.
Absolutely. I think everybody was. It was part of the diet. I was listening to Motown and that kind of stuff, as part of the U.S. stuff that came over. That was very important. I think Cropper was a very influential guitar player on U.K. guitar players.
The songwriting on Electric has affinities with country songwriting. Did you have a kind of Nashville connection in mind when you began recording, or are the songs on the record an example of the kind of thing you always do?
I think it's the same thing that I always do. When I wrote the record, I didn't know I was gonna record in Nashville. And I'm not sure Nashville was critical in what happened. But I would say there's a close connection between country music, Appalachian music, old-timey music, and Scotch-Irish music. Particularly, Scottish music seems to be a very big influence on country music melodically, and even thematically. I think if you write a popular song with a kind of Celtic influence, it doesn't sound dissimilar from a country song.
The last song on Electric, "Saving the Good Stuff for You,'" is worthy of a great country singer — George Jones, maybe.
Well, I'm open to covers, you know.
How do you feel about receiving the Americana Music Association's songwriting award last year?
Well, there I was, receiving the award, and I thought, "Well, obviously, I don't play in an American style, particularly." So I kind of assume Americana really means roots music in a broader sense.
You have roots in traditional folk music, among many other styles. Do you think the populist message of folk music is still valid today?
"Folk" is a difficult word. I think it's hard to say what music of the people actually means these days. You could apply that to rap, and could apply it to rock 'n' roll, probably, as being kind of populist folk music. Coming from a tradition kinda keeps you at a certain level of communication, which I think is a good thing. It means that when you stand up with an acoustic guitar, people understand what you're saying, and can relate to what you're singing. You know, it's not art music. It stops you being too pretentious, stops you being too bombastic — accusations you could level against rock music, that it becomes overblown and inflated. If you keep it rootsy, you keep it real somehow.
You combined folk and jazz on one of my favorite records of yours, Industry, which you did with bassist Danny Thompson in 1997. Is it fair to say that it straddles the fence between populism and artiness?
I think so. That record speaks of our love of the industrial age, in the sense that I love communities that grew up because of industry — these amazing steel-working towns and coal-mining towns that were just extraordinary places, and [with] wonderful human beings. Even though the jobs were, in some cases, terrible, the communities were the opposite: The communities were extraordinary, people working alongside each other in dangerous situations. That tends to breed a certain kind of spirit, and a certain kind of music, and a real camaraderie that really is gone now from Britain. It just isn't there anymore. I think that was something that we missed, and that we wanted to pay tribute to.
It's similar to what the United States has experienced as the industrial Rust Belt has aged.
It's the post-industrial scene. But I kinda grew up in it as a child. To me, it was kind of a beautiful landscape, that industrial landscape, and I miss it. I really miss it.
Do you have any ambition to play the Grand Ole Opry?
I'd love to, absolutely. I'm a long-time fan of country music. I was listening to it in 1965 and '66, at a time when it was deeply unfashionable in the U.K. Everyone else was into Otis Redding and the blues. I discovered a Hank Williams record, and I thought, "Wow, this is really something." And I kind of went off from there, to Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce. I love '60s and '70s country music.