In 2003, Richard Thompson was No. 19 on Rolling Stone's list of the top 100 guitar players of all time, right between John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and James Burton, Elvis Presley's bandleader.
"I think that's pretty good company," says Thompson from his home in Los Angeles a few days before the start of a solo acoustic tour, cheerfully hiding his cynicism. "Sometimes these lists are so random, and honestly, I would rather not be on any list."
Despite his charming modesty, the fast-talking and quick-witted Thompson deserved to be higher on the list. With a résumé that includes a critically heralded solo career, membership in legendary folk rockers Fairport Convention and session work with everyone from the late Nick Drake to avant-garde oddball Fred Frith, Thompson is criminally underappreciated.
"If you look at the top of that list, you will see people who shouldn't be there, and at the bottom are folks who should be higher," Thompson says. "I mean Kurt Cobain (ranked No. 12) was an important figure in popular music, but as a guitarist, well, you know."
It would be hard to find anyone who would debate Thompson's merits as a guitarist or a songwriter. His infamously sad songs of loss and regret have graced albums for 40 years. From his duo work with former wife Linda (best represented by the seminal Shoot Out the Lights) to multifaceted solo releases such as Rumor and Sigh and Mock Tudor, Thompson's body of work is extensive and impressive.
"You hang around long enough and you get to play with everybody," jokes Thompson. "It's much better than the alternative."
Even though Thompson is approaching 60, his profile has rarely been higher, with two ventures gaining substantial attention: the soundtrack to Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man and Thompson's adventurous 1000 Years of Popular Music project.
"It was a very intense recording experience," Thompson says of the soundtrack sessions. "We had only a couple of days, and it was mostly improvised." The Grizzly Man DVD contains a bonus documentary on Thompson that has garnered nearly as much attention as the film itself.
In 1999, Playboy asked Thompson to compose a list of the "top 10 songs of the millennium." Correctly surmising that what the magazine wanted was the best rock and roll songs since 1950, Thompson took them at their word and presented the editors a list that went back to the 11th century. Not surprisingly, Playboy didn't use the list, but Thompson turned the idea into a touring show that chronicled popular music across the ages. Shocking additions to the set list included Prince's "Kiss" and Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did it Again."
"It was ludicrously ambitious," Thompson says. Yet the accompanying double-disc set plus DVD has proved quite popular.
"I suppose no one had ever done anything like that before," says Thompson modestly, before adding, "besides, I have a soft spot for Britney."
The newly hairless Spears is just one of many popular culture icons who are fodder for Thompson's more playful side. On his Web site, fans can download the concert favorite "Dear Janet Jackson," a not-so-tongue-in-cheek examination of Janet's notorious wardrobe malfunction.
"I wanted to write about Janet from the point of view of a housewife with six kids," Thompson says, "Her view of the world of Janet, what Jackson uses her body for and how a housewife uses her body." Although Thompson would never record the song for a proper release, he finds comfort in its inspiration.
"I was just thinking about bodies, which everyone does from time to time," Thompson says, laughing.
After this solo tour concludes, Thompson will finish up Sweet Warrior, a new electric effort with a full band.
"My new songs sound more live," he says, "with a bit more jump to them, a little edgier." Any perusal through Thompson's daunting discography will reveal plenty of edge. Whether it's a harrowing amusement park ride ("The Wall of Death") or a bitter look back at love gone awry ("She Twists the Knife Again"), Thompson's oftentimes gloomy subject matter belies his sense of humor.
"I think there are demons you pick up throughout your life," he says. "If you haven't experienced the dark side then you can't write about the dark side."
Claiming that he rarely gets depressed, Thompson does slightly bemoan the recently released five-disc box set RT: The Life and Times of Richard Thompson. The massive compilation, which features outtakes and rarities from throughout his career, is a bit bloated for Thompson's liking.
"I had a kind of editorial input into the collection," Thompson says. "But I could certainly hear the sound of scraping at the bottom of the barrel."
Thompson finds single discs more to his liking. He says his favorite recent effort is Mock Tudor from 1999, but novices are pointed toward the three-disc retrospective Watching the Dark for just enough of Thompson's tales of wit and woe.
"It's hard to succeed with every record," he says. "I think I do well with every other one, but with every single record, I think I could have done it better."
Thompson is one of the few guitarists on any list who value the song more than the solo. Perhaps that is why he is not a household name like Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton.
"Guitar playing should always be based on the structure of the composition," Thompson says. "I like to think of a solo as an extension of the song."
So instead of flashy pyrotechnics so common with the better-known guitar heroes, Thompson is more interested in telling a story and showing his chops through improvisation.
"If I get tired of a song, I just don't play it," says Thompson with glee. "In the case of a song like 'Vincent Black Lightning'—or any song that gets requested a lot—I can always find some new and interesting things to do with it."
Content with his place as the consummate cult artist, Richard Thompson looks forward to continuing to defy any traditional career path and to the upcoming Fairport Convention reunion as his first band celebrates 40 years of making music.
"There is not a label for what I do, and there's certainly not a Grammy category for it either."
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