There are obvious similarities with Dylan here (indeed, it's hard to think of any other British performer worthy of such
an accolade) but Thompson's current output is far more unpredictable and eccentric. He is currently on a month-long British
tour which will feature bleak, witty and angry songs from his recent solo acoustic album Front Parlour Ballads (which was
recorded in his "monastic home studio" in the garage of his Los Angeles home), along with songs from his wildly adventurous
1000 Years of Popular Music project, that really does cover the last thousand years, from Summer Is Icumen In through to music
hall, the Mikado and even Britney Spears.
Along with all that there will be a selection of the old Thompson classics "from the 1960s on", that often change, or are
used as the springboard for different guitar improvisations, every time he plays them. Thompson's remarkable output over the
years can be judged from his next major release, RT - The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, an epic five-CD boxed set with
It contains some surprises, including a rousing tribute to the Who and a selection of often sturdy songs like Lucky in
Love that were never recorded. For artists eager to cover little-known Thompson songs, this could be his answer to Dylan's
Basement Tapes. As with Dylan, the key to Thompson's wildly eclectic career starts with his influences back in the 1960s.
"Did you see the Dylan documentary?" he asks. "He was brought up in Minnesota and there was nothing interesting there.
He had to go to New York to find Woody Guthrie and the music. But in London, everything was here. There were jazz clubs, folk
clubs and rock clubs and I used to go to them all."
Thompson attended William Ellis school in north London, where he played in a school band with Hugh Cornwell, of Stranglers
fame, and then joined Fairport Convention, along with his friends Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings. The band "customised ourselves
to whatever the gig was. So if there was a gig at a blues club for £15 we'd be a blues band, and if a folk club offered £10
we'd be a folk band. So the first Fairport album was insanely eclectic." As for folk-rock, "it was Ashley who pushed us in
that direction, but it was emphasised by the arrival of Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick", both from the folk scene. It was
this line-up that recorded the Liege and Lief album in late 1969. Mixing traditional ballads and Thompson songs with blistering
guitar work, it was rightly hailed as a classic.
"It was a project, a one-off," says Thompson. "It was not there to set the direction of the band, though it did." He had
no doubt about its importance. "It was the first folk-rock album, and people applied it to their different cultures. In America,
Los Lobos listened to it and thought it validated what they did, playing their traditional music as well as blues."
Thompson will break off from his tour to revisit the Liege and Lief era. On February 6 he'll be at the BBC Folk Awards
for what promises to be a historic evening. Also present will be the surviving members of the 1969 Fairport line-up, and Liege
and Lief is surely a contender for the award for "most influential folk record of all time".
The late Sandy Denny will be sadly missed, of course, but the chance of hearing Thompson reunited with Hutchings, Nicol
and fiddler Dave Swarbrick (now apparently well enough to attend) is an intriguing prospect, even though Thompson regularly
appears at the Fairports' summer festival in Cropredy. "I never escaped from Fairport, and that's fine. I'm quite proud of
the old chaps," he says.
Richard Thompson may not see himself as a folk singer, but the folk tradition has helped influence the often bleak and
sad-edged songs he has written since leaving Fairport Convention. "If you want to write and structure a song," he says, "the
folk scene is not a bad place to learn." Folk music, and reading, also influenced his famously dark lyrics. His father was
"an expatriate Scot, a history buff who loved poetry," and he spent his childhood reading the novels of Walter Scott and books
"I ditched them at 13 when rock'n'roll came along, but I must have absorbed some of the stuff. Scottish balladry has incest,
murder, people carried off by fairies, set in a bleak landscape, that's what I'm used to. So I think of my subject matter
as normal, though by music standards it's on the dark side.
"It's like the blues," he adds. "In the guise of entertainment you sing about problems. I don't think catharsis is the
point but there may be catharsis in it."
His Englishness seems to have increased with his move to LA, with references to anything from Penge to "the pewter skies
over NW11" in his recent compositions. "There's a theory that it helps you to have perspective if you leave what you're used
to and go away," he said. "You get a sharper focus. It worked for Robert Louis Stevenson."
Now in his mid-50s, Thompson's career is still on the rise. In the US, his songs are played on college radio, and in Britain
last year he was invited to a music industry bash at Buckingham Palace. "I told the Queen I was a singer-songwriter, because
she had just met Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton and I didn't want to confuse her by being another guitarist."
There's yet another folk revival underway, celebrated by the forthcoming Folk Britannia series on BBC4 (that, of course,
includes a contribution from Thompson), and there's a growing audience for his modern ballads. In concert, he said, his two
most popular songs of the moment are Beeswing and 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, "and they are both five to six minute ballads.
It's gratifying that in this age of eight-second soundbites people can sit in a concert and listen to a story."
· Richard Thompson is at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, until January 21, and then tours. RT - The Life and Music of Richard Thompson is released on Free Reed on February 6. Front Parlour Ballads and Grizzly Man Soundtrack are out now on Cooking Vinyl
Richard Thompson official site
BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2006