It’s interesting that, in recent years, Richard Thompson, as quintessentially a British folk-rocker as you could hope to find, increasingly crops up in americana listings and charts. Of course, he’s lived in the U.S. pretty much full-time since the mid-80s and with recent albums being produced by the likes of Buddy Miller and Jeff Tweedy, it’s easy to see why his name is now increasingly associated with americana. It’s also worth remembering that the original Thompson, Nicol and Hutchings vision for Fairport Convention was as an English version of Jefferson Airplane.
While the old description of country music, “three chords and the truth”, could hardly be applied to Thompson’s songwriting (he’s usually used up three chords before you get through the intro!), he does write well-observed, storytelling songs, often quite dark in their nature, and these songs are increasingly being covered by other artists and, especially, roots musicians in the U.S. So it seems appropriate to do an americana ‘Essentials’ article on Thompson at this time.
First thing to say is that this is, most definitely, NOT a Richard Thompson Top Ten. That would be a whole different article and one that might well drive me to madness, given the volume and diversity of RT’s output over the course of his career. What I want to do with this list is provide ten albums that I consider to be good indications of why RT has become increasingly prominent in the americana genre. These are essential RT albums in the sense that they’re a good indication of the depth and breadth of his work as a songwriter and musician and help to explain his rise from British folk-rocker to cult americana figure, both in the UK and the U.S.
Number 10: Various Artists ‘Beat The Retreat: Songs By Richard Thompson’ (1995)
Yes, the first album on the list isn’t even a Richard Thompson album but a collection of covers of RT songs. This 1995 release is a perfect example of the versatility of Thompson’s songs and why they have come to be so appreciated in roots music circles. We get The Blind Boys of Alabama’s gospelised ‘Dimming of the Day’, R.E.M’s Byrdsian take on ‘Wall of Death’, all jangling guitars and pedal steel, Beausoleil give us a Cajun reading of ‘Valerie’ and Evan Dando and Syd Straw come across like an alt-country Johnny Cash and June Carter on their version of ‘For Shame of Doing Wrong’. Perhaps the best song on the album is Bonnie Raitt’s take on the great falling out of love song, ‘When the Spell is Broken’, sounding like a country soul classic complete with Raitt’s signature slide guitar and the slow building backing vocals from The Blind Boys of Alabama. Not every track works as well; I could’ve done without Dinosaur Jnr’s ‘I Misunderstood’, but in general it’s a great set of covers that firmly moves RT out of British folk-rock territory.
Number 9: ‘Amnesia’ (1988)
‘Amnesia’ is an important album because it’s the first real indication that a solo Richard Thompson could be commercially viable. It was his first album for Capitol Records, having left Polydor after the less than successful ‘Daring Adventures’, and saw him record in L.A. with American session players doing most of the backing work, though long-term collaborators like John Kirkpatrick and Phil Picket made some contributions. Produced by Mitchell Froom, Capitol got behind the promotion of the album and it was well received by the critics. While sales weren’t huge it convinced Capitol that they could build a more solid fan base for Thompson, given that the album charted in both the UK and the US. With songs like ‘Turning of the Tide’, ‘Pharoah’ and ‘Yankee, Go Home’ it has quite a hard edge but is softened by songs such as the beautiful ‘Waltzing’s for Dreamers’, a song that has been covered by the likes of the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Carrie Rodriguez.
Number 8: ‘1,000 Years of Popular Music’ (2003)
This album is so RT! The story behind it is now well known but if you haven’t heard it – Richard Thompson was one of a number of musicians approached, by Playboy Magazine, to list his ‘songs of the millennium’ for an article they were planning for the year 2000. Of course, what they wanted, and what they got from most participants, was a list that started somewhere around the 1940s or 50s. What they got from RT was a list that started in the 11th Century! Needless to say, Playboy didn’t use Thompson’s list, but he did, turning it into this self-released album and a touring show, featuring himself on vocals and acoustic guitar along with singer Judith Owen (aka Mrs. Derek Smalls) and percussionist Michael Jerome. A simple, stripped-down approach to a wide range of songs that included everything from Gilbert & Sullivan to Britney Spears, and shows that Thompson has always had a better understanding of the roots of the music he produces than many of his contemporaries.
Number 7: ‘Across A Crowded Room’ (1985)
His penultimate release for Polydor and his final album with long-term producer, Joe Boyd, this has long been one of my favourite RT albums and some of the tracks on the album are among Thompson’s most popular requests at live concerts. ‘She Twists The Knife Again’, ‘Ain’t Gonna Drag My Feet No More’ and, of course, the sublime ‘When the Spell is Broken’. Backing vocals come from the quite brilliant Christine Collister and, on the live tour that supported the album, Clive Gregson replaced Simon Nicol on rhythm guitar and that band can be seen on the film ‘Richard Thompson: Across a Crowded Room’, shot at a concert in Ottawa, Canada and well worth seeking out. Significantly, this was RT’s first album to chart in both the UK and the US.
Number 6: Thompson Family ‘Family’ (2014)
Americana music does like a good dynasty, and this album shows that the Thompson family can more than measure up to the Carter/Cash, Wainwright/Roche etc extended groupings when it comes to musical talent. The project was originally put together, and ultimately produced, by Richard and Linda’s son, Teddy. It also includes their daughters, Muna and Kami and, of course, Richard and Linda themselves. Then there’s Jack Thompson, Richard’s son with his second wife, Nancy Covey, and Muna’s son, Zach Hobbs. Rounding out the family grouping is Kami’s husband, James Walbourne (they work together as The Rails) and his drummer brother, Robert. Teddy, who contributes across the whole album, described it as “something of a family songwriting contest”. He also observed, with that typically wry Thompson humour (wonder where he got that from), “well, it’s not as if we’re having family therapy and making everyone pay to hear it!”. Here’s Teddy’s title song and his view on the family, featuring Linda on backing vocals and Zach on guitar, along with Teddy himself. The apples haven’t fallen far from the tree.
Number 5: ‘Still’ (2015)
Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, this is, perhaps, RT’s most American-sounding album with many of the arrangements including the sort of sound we’ve come to associate with Tweedy’s recordings, that sense of space and openness he captures so well. Thompson asked Tweedy to work on the album because he wanted to “shake up” the way he worked on recordings and together they created a distinctly different sound to Thompson’s cannon of work. It seems like the collaboration was something of a mutual appreciation society, with Tweedy describing Thompson as “one of my favourite guitar players for a very long time” and also going on to praise his songwriting and singing. For his part, Thompson said of Tweedy, “Jeff is musically very sympathetic. Although some of his contributions are probably rather subtle to the listener’s ear, they were really interesting and his suggestions were always very pertinent.” It received the now almost inevitable high praise from the critics, with several prominent publications naming it album of the week on its release and The Independent calling it a “nigh on faultless work from an acknowledged master”. There are no big stand out tracks on the album but it does include Thompson’s amusing reflection on his own ‘Guitar Heroes’ and tracks like ‘Broken Doll’ and ‘She Never Could Resist a Winding Road’, which have that classic Richard Thompson slow build feel to them. Most notably, it did give Thompson his highest UK chart position, climbing to number 10 in the album charts.
Number 4: Richard & Linda Thompson ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ (1982)
You can’t have an essential list of RT albums without the inclusion of a Richard and Linda album. While there are a number of contenders, especially their debut album as a duo, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’, it’s their final recording together that shades it for me, especially when it comes to a link with americana.
By the time this album came out the pair were all but finished as a duo. Their marriage was in tatters, and their previous albums, after the first flurry of activity, had been progressively less well received. They’d been dropped by their label, Chrysalis, and an abortive attempt at an independent recording, financed and produced by Gerry Rafferty, had left Thompson disenchanted with the recording process and doubting his abilities as a writer. Enter the cavalry in the form of Joe Boyd (again), who signed the duo to his independent Hannibal label, on the understanding that they would complete the recording in a matter of days and undertake an American tour to promote the album. Thompson responded with some of his best songs to date, many of them reflecting the collapsing relationship with Linda. The critical response was huge and extremely favourable. The American tour became legendary, not least for the passion unleashed onstage, often exhibited by Linda allegedly trying to do Richard physical harm during their performances! With songs like ‘Don’t Renege on our Love’, ‘Walking on a Wire’, ‘Wall of Death’ and ‘Did She Jump or Was She Pushed’ (a rare Richard & Linda co-write), it’s no wonder the famed American music critic, Robert Christgau, observed that, “these are powerfully double-edged metaphors for the marriage struggle”. Tammy and George take note! It was lauded by music critics in both the UK and the US but failed to chart in either country – possibly just as well, given the state of the Thompson’s relationship by this point.
It has subsequently been recognised as one of their best recordings, with The Rolling Stone Album Guide calling the album “absolutely perfect”.
Number 3: ‘Mock Tudor’ (1999)
This is Richard Thompson’s ‘Burbs’ album. His ruminations on life in the suburbs and, as such, can be compared to classic small-town America albums like Kacey Musgraves’ “Same Trailer, Different Park’, or any number of John Mellencamp recordings. It was his tenth solo studio album and his last for the Capitol label and it is full of clever observational songs about characters and situations, telling intimate stories in true troubadour style. While RT always retains a certain Britishness in his songs you can see, with this album, how his songs were starting to resonate more with American audiences and the links his songwriting has with observational writers like Kristofferson and Van Zandt. Produced by the American team of Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, who have worked with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Foo Fighters, R.L Burnside and Elliott Smith, it marks a time when RT started to more actively woo American audiences.
Number 2: ‘Electric’ (2013)
In second place we have the Buddy Miller album! This is pretty much the dream combination for any UK americana fan who’s also into great British guitar players and songwriters – Richard Thompson produced by Buddy Miller. It doesn’t get much better than that. Recorded in Miller’s own home studio in Nashville, the album features Thompson’s regular ‘power trio’ collaborators, Taras Prodaniuk (bass) and Michael Jerome (drums), with additional guitar work from Miller and contributions from bluegrass fiddler, Stuart Duncan, and a guest appearance from Alison Krauss, contributing backing vocals on ‘The Snow Goose’. It’s a fascinating album because you still have Thompson’s trademark Anglo/Scottish folk voice but set against arrangements that draw heavily on American roots music – you find yourself wondering which State somewhere like Salford might be in (‘Salford Sunday’), with that big skies backing track. Miller also brings a great sound to Thompson’s guitar playing, replacing the spit and bite often heard when he plays electric guitar with a more throaty growl on tracks like ‘Stony Ground’ and ‘Stuck on the Treadmill’.
Not surprisingly, this album gave RT his highest chart placing to date on both sides of the Atlantic (though “Still” would go on to better the UK placing) and it’s still his best-selling album, on release, in the USA.
Number 1: ‘Rumor & Sigh (1991)
While this list of ten albums is really about Richard Thompson’s rise in americana circles there can only, to date, be one top album on any list of RT records. ‘Rumor & Sigh is a giant of a record and hugely significant in RT’s relationship with America and American audiences. It gave him his highest ever single release in the U.S., ‘I Feel So Good’, that peaked at number 15 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks Chart; not bad for a song about a miscreant celebrating the chaos he’s going to create on his release from prison. The album’s title uses the American spelling of the word ‘rumour’, since the title is taken from a poem by the American poet, Archibald MacLeish, “Rumor and sigh of unimagined seas/ Dim radiance of stars that never flamed.” Among its songs are the excellent unrequited love of ‘I Misunderstood‘, the dig at religious fundamentalism in ‘God Loves a Drunk’ and the knife in the back of the recently resigned Margaret Thatcher with ‘Mother Knows Best’ – not that he wouldn’t have been equally prepared to apply the knife from the front. Over them all reigns the mastery of ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, one of his greatest story songs and one with direct connections to American anti-hero figures like James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’, and Wyatt and Billy in ‘Easy Rider’. It ensured Thompson’s position as a roots music icon when it was covered by none other than Del McCoury, who started his career in the sainted Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and has gone on to be one of the great stars of the ‘hard drivin” bluegrass sound with his own Del McCoury Band. His bluegrass version of the song is a verbatim copy but for one word – “Box Hill” becomes “Knoxville”. It has become a modern classic in bluegrass circles, and so much so that many are shocked when they discover it came from the pen of an English writer (American roots band, Red Molly, who take their name from the female character in the song, did so from the Del McCoury version, not knowing RT wrote it until many years later).
“Rumor & Sigh” gave Thompson his first ever Grammy Award nomination and ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ would make Time Magazine’s 2011 list “All Time 100 Songs”, a list of “the most extraordinary English-language popular recordings” since TIME magazine launched in 1923. Robert Earl Keen has also covered it and, in 2013, at a concert in Clarkston, Michigan, Richard Thompson’s transition to americana songwriter was completed, when Bob Dylan offered up his version of this great song.