Richard Thompson Reimagines His Catalog of Classics


Richard Thompson‘s Acoustic Classics delivers on the title’s promise with new takes on his very best work (“1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Dimming of the Day”). Results showcase the legendary guitarist’s sharp songwriting as much as his celebrated fretwork on the acoustic guitar.

Both have evolved through the pioneering British folksinger’s work with Fairport Convention in the 1960s, his musical partnership with singer-songwriter Linda Thompson (then his wife) in the 1970s and early ’80s and his solo career across the past three decades. Meanwhile, his songs have been covered by Patty Loveless, Elvis Costello, Shawn Colvin, David Byrne and many others.

In 2012, he accepted the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement award for songwriting.

“I felt very honored, especially not coming from a clear-cut genre like blues or country,” he says by email. “It’s always a thrill to be recognized for the work you do.”

Thompson says logistics led the recording process away from the stage and toward the studio.

“I’m never entirely satisfied with the guitar sound on live records,” Thompson explains. “Even though we use state-of-the-art amplification at shows, it’s never quite the same as sticking a really great studio mic in front of it, which in live applications never give you enough volume.”

CMT Edge: Describe the song selection process on the new album.

Thompson: The original intention for this record was to have a popular selection of songs that I might play in a current acoustic show to sell at the merchandise table. In many cases, these songs were originally recorded electric and don’t exist in acoustic versions. I was also thinking these songs would be more for the first-time listener rather than the established fan.

How do these songs represent your evolution as a songwriter?

I don’t know if they do. If they were in chronological order, you might see something. I’m not sure that’s a thing to look for with this particular CD.

Tell the story behind writing “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”

If you’re an American songwriter, you have a long list of iconic objects and places to call on to give a song romance and resonance. In the UK, such things are few and far between, so you really have to search. The Vincent [motorcycle], I believe, achieves that mythical status, and is iconic enough of an object to build a romantic story around.

Describe what makes a story song great.

If it engages the listener, and keeps their attention for five minutes … not easy in this age of short attention spans.

Which songwriters do you draw from most as a lyricist?

Probably the anonymous writers of the folk tradition. The English, Irish and Scottish ballads are the place to go to learn the craft of songwriting.

Tell the story behind writing “From Galway to Graceland.”

It’s just a fantasy about an Irish obsessive Elvis fan. Such people exist, of course. I probably started with the title.

Explain what an acoustic guitar allows you as a player that an electric doesn’t.

It lets you play solo and gives you the resources to create an interesting vocal accompaniment. It’s also a great portable instrument, along with the accordion, but who plays those?

Tell the story behind writing “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.”

That was written 40 years ago, so my recollection is dim. I think I was trying to write a simple weekend song.

Does songwriting get easier with time?

I wish it did, but it’s as hard as ever. If it was easy, maybe I wouldn’t trust the process.