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The guitarist picked the right career

Richard Thompson has been blazing trails for 35 years

By John Burger
Special to CNN

Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson continues experiments in mixing rock, folk, Celtic and jazz influences on his latest CD.

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• Official site: Richard Thompson external link
RICHARD THOMPSON
Born: April 3, 1949, in London, England

Career: With Fairport Convention, 1967-71; with Linda Thompson, 1972-82; with Frith, French, Kaiser, Thompson, 1987-90; solo, 1972-present


Notable albums: "What We Did on Our Holidays," "Unhalfbricking," "Liege & Lief" (all 1969) with Fairport Convention; "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" (1974), "Shoot Out the Lights" (1982) with Linda Thompson; "Across a Crowded Room" (1985), "Rumor and Sigh" (1991), "Mirror Blue" (1994), "Mock Tudor" (1999)

ALBANY, New York (CNN) -- Richard Thompson didn't listen to his schoolmaster's advice.

"He said I should go into banking, accounts receivable, that kind of thing," the guitarist recalls. "The [people who followed that plan] were all out of work by the '80s."

Whereas, for more than 30 years, Thompson has always had work when he wanted it. His latest CD, "The Old Kit Bag," continues his experiments in mixing rock, folk, Celtic and jazz influences, with the usual guitar virtuosity displayed on several tracks.

On the new record, producer John Chelew puts Thompson's eclectic mix of styles in an intimate setting. The sound is reminiscent of pre-digital recordings, a sense reinforced by the dividing of the CD in two "chapters."

"I'm an old vinyl head," Thompson says. "I was hoping people would listen to half of it, stop and have a cup of tea, and then listen to the rest."

'It's great fun writing songs'

The new CD was recorded with drummer Michael Jerome, background vocalist Judith Owens and bassist Danny Thompson (no relation). The album marks a return to the informal, textured sound of his early '70s work.

At that time, Thompson was just beginning a solo career after several years with the British band Fairport Convention. With Fairport, Thompson participated in several classic albums, including three released in 1969: "What We Did on Our Holidays," "Unhalfbricking" and "Liege & Lief."

"Liege" featured Fairport dedicating itself to adding electric instruments to traditional English folk music. It's a style Thompson perfected in his initial recordings with his first wife, Linda.

The pair had a notably tumultuous relationship, often reflected on their records -- and in occasional on-stage antics, including a time when Linda Thompson reportedly attempted to brain her husband during a performance.

In 1982, they released "Shoot Out the Lights," a chronicle of their marriage's dissolution. "Shoot Out the Lights" was widely considered to be one of the best albums of the '80s. It also marked the end of their marital and performing relationship.

'It's great fun writing songs'

Thompson continues to write his legendary love-gone-difficult songs despite having been happily married to his second wife for almost 20 years. He says his songs spring from various sources, sometimes starting with the music, other times with the lyrics.

"My intention is to write down a story for my own amusement," he says. "It's great fun writing songs."

And how much is autobiographical?

"Some are totally autobiographical," he says, joking, "but I prefer to work autobiographical elements into the fiction so that you can't see the join, like a well-made toupee."

Listening to the audience -- and vice versa

The songs on "The Old Kit Bag" offer varying musical and lyrical shades. "Jealous Words" and "First Breath" are bare-bones recordings that capture the musicians interacting live in the studio on both fast and slow songs.

On other tracks, Thompson creates a layered sound by overdubbing mandolins, accordions, harmoniums and, of course, guitars. "Gethsemane" evokes the feeling of drifting on a river between patches of fog by alternating haunting fingerpicked guitar with surging bass and drum lines.

Ringing guitars decorate "Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen," a graceful ballad built on a hushed but urgently galloping guitar strum. It is a well-crafted studio production that is just as effective in its live, solo incarnation.

Indeed, Thompson designs the songs for live performance, where he's as rousing as the early rock 'n' rollers he admired as a teenager.

"My songs are mostly performance-driven," he says. "It's in performance where you find out about the songs. If the audience is quiet, you know they're listening."

start quoteI prefer to work autobiographical elements into the fiction so that you can't see the join, like a well-made toupee.end quote
-- Richard Thompson on his songwriting

It helps that Thompson is an engaging performer. Sometimes he'll shyly tell a joke between songs, softening up his audience. The next song may be a fast shuffle, a tender ballad or a heavy jam. His guitar may lilt like a bird, or it may squall in anger. He might sing of lovers, soldiers, shady businessmen or bone collectors. He might take pity on his audience and sing a novelty song.

"You want the audience to be uncomfortable. I like to joke with them and then play something serious, mixing humor and darker elements within the song," he says. "It's good when the listener doesn't know the intention of a song upon first hearing it."

Thompson's challenging work may have kept him from being a mainstream star, but he has an intensely loyal fan base. His fans seem to recognize every track he's recorded. He caters to their demand through his Web site (www.richardthompson-music.com).

Among the limited-issue recordings he is planning are a children's album and a release of "1000 Years of Popular Music," a live set from a series of concerts recorded last year.

Thompson is a folk-rock institution, particularly in his native England. His effort to win over new followers is seen in his frequently experimental recordings and his rollicking concerts.

But he has a soft spot for America. "They're a little younger in America, which I like," he says. "The old fans have been dying off."


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