Teddy Thompson doesn’t mince words when talking about modern country music.
“It’s diabolically bad,” he says. “It’s literally the same song that could be produced for a bad pop record, except that it has Carrie Underwood on it and a pedal steel guitar. It’s appalling.”
Thompson isn’t just bitching about the situation. He’s doing something to counter it. The singer’s new CD, Upfront & Down Low, covers country songs of the classic era. These finely crafted pieces, marked by mournful wit, were penned by writers like Ernest Tubb, Dolly Parton and Boudleaux Bryant and made famous by singers like Merle Haggard, George Jones and Elvis Presley. Though a first-rate songwriter himself, Thompson only put one of his own pieces into the mix.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that so retro a salute would come from an outsider—of an extreme variety, no less. The resolutely English young singer was born to Richard and Linda Thompson, two deities in the world of British traditional folk-rock. Yet the 31-year-old Thompson describes classic American country as “the first music I ever remember hearing and consciously liking. My parents always played it. All country music comes out of English folk and Celtic music anyway. But I liked the sound that came from America more. Perhaps it’s the accent.”
Happily, on Down Low Thompson didn’t simply mimic U.S. torch and twang. He Britished it up—at least in one sense. He hired Robert Kirby, the man who scored the prim strings on Nick Drake’s albums, to arrange a tidy clutch of cello, violin and viola on the tracks.
“In the `70s, country records always had these big orchestras on them,” Thompson explains. “I wanted to be different. I had this idea of country songs with chamber strings.”
Such a twist should come as no surprise from Thompson. He has plowed a different furrow from the start. Growing up with musically sophisticated parents exposed him to a far wider range of music than most of his peers. Until the age of 16, Thompson jokes, he never heard a song recorded after 1959. The singer’s earliest days were spent in a hippie commune.
“My only memory is that we always had big feasts,” he says. “All the women would come in with silver platters of food.”
Thompson, whose parents were divorced before he hit his teens, moved to L.A. as an aspiring recording artist at 18. Once there, he got a job as a runner with a movie studio. By 23, he had nabbed a deal with Virgin Records, which resulted in a self-titled debut in 2000. While that album showed promise, Thompson didn’t come furiously into his own until 2006’s “Separate Ways.” It offered an impeccable combination of determined singing, catchy folk-rock tunes and scathingly clear lyrics.
Small wonder it caused some critics to muse that Thompson merges the writing skills of his father with the vocal grace of his mother.
“Maybe I’m just a watered-down version of the two,” he jokes. “But they are something to live up to. They’re at the top of those two games.”
On “Separate Ways,” Thompson showed his daring as a writer by presenting himself as a far-from-admirable character. Collectively, the tracks had him admitting to being an evasive cad with a mean streak and, perhaps, a substance-abuse problem (“Altered State”).
“A lot of those songs were written at a particular time when I was more of an (expletive),” Thompson says. “Part of it is that English self-deprecation. But a lot of it has to do with how I see myself. I’m not a big fan of me.”
Thompson knows that writing with such brutal honesty isn’t the most commercial approach. “People want to hear a nice sentiment,” he says. “They want to hear `I love you.’ But that’s not what it’s about.”
Given his parents’ experience—as hugely respected artists with circumscribed audiences—it’s no surprise that Thompson finds comfort in carving out an admirable career that’s unlikely to escalate to superstardom. But even if he has followed closely in his parents’ footsteps, all the comparisons can get tiresome.
Luckily, he has made his own mark. Thompson was confident enough of that to work as producer of his mother’s 2002 comeback CD, Fashionably Late, and to feature his dad on all his albums. “It would be perverse to look for someone else,” he says of his father. “He’s the best man for the job.”
Not that Thompson is above some perverse reactions. He says one reason he wanted to release an album of country covers was that his record company thought the idea was so bad. (The label believed it would confuse the public.) Also, he needed a break from writing his own material—and wanted the special freedom afforded by singing other people’s songs.
Now, having gotten all that out of his system, Thompson says his next album will be more “poppy. It will be nothing but happy songs about how nice people are,” he jokes.
In the meantime, Thompson enjoys basking in the wan wit of classic country. “It’s hurt-and-lonesome music,” he says, “And I love the break in the voice. It’s beautiful music.”
At least when it’s done right.
// Notes from the Road
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