Bougainvilleas and Cyanide
The irredeemably British world of Richard Thompson
by Jack Neely
Knoxville’s lately been treated to a series of musical superstars from the ’60s and ’70s still touring even on the far side of middle age. In that demographic group, Richard Thompson is a freak. His name’s been in the international music press for almost 40 years, but it’s not clear that he’s peaked yet.
Lead guitarist for Fairport Convention, the groundbreaking British folk-rock band of the late ’60s, he became better known as a songwriter as half of the duo Richard and Linda Thompson. Since the breakup of that team and marriage, he has enjoyed critical raves, if modest crowds, in a solo career as a performing songwriter. Most recently, his instrumental soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s harrowing documentary, Grizzly Man , has drawn more attention to his guitar work.
He attracts superlatives. As a guitarist he’s been compared to Jimi Hendrix. As a songwriter, he’s compared to Bob Dylan. Thompson may now be more prolific than Dylan. He’s more approachable, anyway.
On a weekday morning, he’s sitting on his front porch in suburban Los Angeles. Birds are singing, a neighbor’s dogs are barking.
“It’s a beautiful day,” he says. “Not very English. Unless you’re optimistic.”
Thompson has lived in L.A. for 15 years, for professional and personal reasons; his wife’s American, and they have kids. “Hundreds,” he says. “Well, five. Two are musicians. And it looks as if my 14-year-old may not be spared.”
Maintaining one’s essential Englishness there might seem a challenge. “In Southern California, it’s actually very easy,” he says. “In Texas, or Tennessee even, you might feel there’s enough of a local culture that it would start to impinge on your style. You might want to incorporate something local. But this is quite a bland place. I’m sure the people in Tennessee will be glad to hear that. It’s culturally bland. Apart from Jan and Dean, there’s not much that’s local. You can be who you want to be. If you’re Korean, be Korean. If you’re English, be English.”
“I started out with an English garden here, with flowers in pastel colors, but it started to look all wrong, the sun is too strong here for very subtle harmony. Then I planted bougainvilleas, bright reds, blues.” That’s about as American as he gets.
Many of his songs have a narrative to them, and things tend to go wrong. Thompson’s narratives are often dark tales, populated by bearded ladies, robbers, drunks, arsonists.
“There’s an appeal to melancholy music, something uplifting about singing about your trouble,” he says. “Sweet, happy music gets stale after a while.”
Most musicians do, too; still writing strong, sometimes incendiary songs at 57, Thompson’s different. “I’m driven, but I don’t know why,” he says. “Demons from the past drive me.” He doesn’t elaborate.
“I think perhaps we should have a different expectation from rock musicians these days; it really is a multigenerational form now. We should be more like novelists, more like film directors,” creative professionals who thrive into their later years. “You no longer have to die when you’re 23, or be blown out when you’re 24.”
Though first a guitarist, he says, “My main obsession is the song form, and what you can do with it. As a soloist, I can improvise and further the narrative.”
It was as soloist that he contributed to Grizzly Man, a movie that could have been based on a Richard Thompson song except for the fact that it’s true: a documentary about a gonzo naturalist who was eventually eaten by one of his beloved bears.
“It was really enjoyable,” Thompson says. “I’m a big fan of Werner Herzog; he was in the studio for the whole thing. We did the whole thing in two days, just improvised.”
He’ll be the first musical headliner to break in the renovated Bijou Theatre: a solo show, Thompson and his guitar.
“Expect a show beyond your wildest dreams,” he says. “Some old stuff, some new songs, break some of them in on the audience.”
It’s his first visit in almost seven years. “Knoxville used to be a regular stop on our tours, but kind of dropped off the map. There’s a promoter there called Ashley Capps, who’s a real character.”
In other interviews, Thompson has mentioned an admiration for the Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers, two acts based in Knoxville early in their careers. And one of the songs on his recent 1,000 Years of Popular Music album is “Drinking Wine, Spo-de-o-dee” by Knoxville native Stick McGhee.
“I’m a fan of the Knoxville sound,” he deadpans.
Another song on that millennial record is one grim confession called “Oops, I Did It Again.”
“It’s a little shocking to the audience to hear a Britney Spears song,” he admits. “It’s actually a good song. I like the lyrics, and the chord structures are very similar to a dance tune from the 16th century. I play it in the style of the 16th century to bring it all back around.”
Almost as startling was venerable bluegrass stalwart Del McCoury’s recent rendition of a violent Thompson classic, “1952 Vincent White Lightning.”
“It might have been his boys who heard it, I’m not sure,” says Thompson. “Scots Irish is very kin to Appalachian music, so I don’t see much of a stretch, culturally.”
He adds, “It mentions Knoxville, so it can’t be all bad.” (The doomed motorcyclist riding “down to Knoxville” was McCoury’s idea; in Thompson’s original it’s Box Hill, in England.)
Thompson’s latest album is called Front Parlor Ballads . “It’s an album of quite intimate songs. I recorded it myself in my house. There’s percussion on two, a little mandolin, a little bass. There’s not a lot happening, the songs are a little more artful than I usually write, with more influences from classical music key changes and offbeat harmonics. Some early 20th-century influences: Ravel, Kurt Weill. But some songs sound like folk songs.”
He’ll be going back to the studio later this year to record another album with a full band.
Writers readily apply the cliché “cult following” to Thompson’s fan base. “It means the fans of my music have to be willing to die,” he explains. “Everybody has a cyanide capsule, I give the word, and they take it.”
“I say niche . It means you’re not in the musical mainstream, which is fine by me.”
Who: Richard Thompson, solo concert