Teddy Thompson gets upfront and goes down low


By Dan MacIntosh, August 2007

Teddy Thompson is speaking from a phone booth in the middle of noisy London. And as he talks, he does so with a strong British accent. But that should come as no surprise; he is the son of legendary British folk singers Richard and Linda Thompson, after all.

Quite naturally, songs like “Everybody Move It” from his previous “Separate Ways” release roll to gentle folk rhythms and show that he is, indeed, his parents’ son. Yet the singing voice on his new Verve Forecast release, “Up Front and Down Low,” doesn’t sound British or folk at all.

Instead, it is nearly a dead ringer for modern country crooner Raul Malo, as it finds him performing a set of mostly traditional country songs

“Well, I actually grew up listening to country music because of my parents.” Thompson explains. “They played a lot of country music in the car – Hank Williams and The Everly Brothers – when we were traveling around. Like a lot of musicians, they didn’t really listen to the music similar to the kind of music they were making. That was sort of their day job. So they listened to a lot of American music.”

Some of the old country songs Thompson, who lives in New York City, covers are quite familiar, such as Ernest Tubb’s “Walking The Floor Over You.” But a few – like “My Heart Echoes”- are relatively obscure – even to diehard country music fans.

But whether easily recognizable or not, most of Thompson’s smart choices showcase classic country’s clever wordplay. This trait is exemplified by the titles “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” and “You Finally Said Something Good (When You Said Goodbye).” This disc contains more than just witty titles. For instance, you’ve gotta love a line like: “The only thing I can count on is my fingers,” from “(From Now On All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.” Furthermore, not everything is ancient, as Thompson performs Dolly Parton’s relatively recent “My Blue Tears” and includes one original, “Down Low.”

“I had a few of the songs that I knew I wanted to do,” Thompson recalls. “After that, I just kind of started hunting through…it was a project…I started hunting through box sets and CDs and old records looking for songs. So, I listened to a lot of stuff. There were some songs that I wanted to do, then decided against it. I always wanted to do ‘A Picture of Me Without You,’ but after I listened to the George Jones record, I realized it’s uncoverable. Because the record’s too great.”

Nevertheless, Thompson did have a go at one Jones-associated song, “She Thinks I Still Care.” And to avoid drawing comparisons to his musical heroes, he avoided trying to sing like a traditional country singer.

“I didn’t feel too daunted because I felt like I wasn’t going to sing them in a classical country way,” he explains. “So, I wasn’t worried about having to live up to the originals or sound country or anything like that.”

Part of the reasoning behind this mostly covers album was the fact that Thompson wasn’t quite ready to make an album of all new material

“It’s a common situation that a lot of artists find themselves in,” says Thompson. “You get home. You’d finished a record, and it’s done well. And you feel happy. And you’ve toured. And you come home, and you realize that a year has passed – and even longer since the record was released – and you start to think, ‘Oh god, I’ve got to make another one again.’ That’s the way the machine works. You start to think, ‘Oh shit, I haven’t really written any songs, but I don’t really want to sit home and try and write songs for six months.’ And you start thinking all these things and then Brad Albetta (bassist, producer) says, ‘Why don’t you just make a George Jones record or something or do some George Jones songs?’ But we were never really going to do just at George Jones record. But it sort of planted the seed.”

This “Up Front and Down Low” new growth didn’t begin as an official next release. It just sort of grew into one, instead. Thompson’s record company dug it at first, then didn’t dig it so much. So, he was happy when they told him they loved it, initially, and when they began to sour on the idea, this adverse reaction just made him all the more headstrong over completing the project

“We started recording some of these songs just independently, just for fun,” he recounts. “I didn’t tell the record company, and we just did it. And we did a week’s worth of work, and I thought it was really great. And then I played it for the record company and said, ‘This is what I’ve done.’ And at first, they loved it. To be fair, the people at my label – who are actually no longer there; that’s the way these things go – the guys who were in charge at the time loved it because they were big music fans and said, ‘Ah this is great. We should do this.'”

“And then a couple weeks later, they call up and say, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve thought about this…’ I suppose they thought about it in terms of ‘How are we going to sell this?’ And then they decided it was a bad idea. In a way, as soon as they told me they didn’t really want me to do it that sort of spurred me on. It was then, like, ‘Fuck you. I’m definitely going to do it.’ It just made me want to do it even more with that perverse nature that I’ve got. ‘If the record executive thinks it’s a bad idea, then it must be a good idea.’ Basically, there was a lot of fighting. I had push really hard. I had to try really hard. There was a big break where there was a lot of turmoil where they said, ‘Oh, we don’t know about this.’ But I just kept on them; I just fought really hard to get it done.”

Fortunately, Thompson’s found many likeminded musicians to help him make this CD.

“A lot of people that worked on it, worked for free at the beginning because the record label was non-committal,” he says.

Much of this ‘free labor’ was also of the highest possible caliber. He received instrumental support from guitarist Marc Ribot, pedal steel work from the master, Greg Leisz, and all kinds of help from multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield (Dobro, mandolin, guitar and viola). The delightful Tift Merritt also sings, and Rufus Wainwright arranged some string work.

Oh yes, there was also that father of his, Richard, who played guitar on “You Finally Said Something Good (When You Said Goodbye).”

“First and foremost, he’s my favorite guitar player,” Thompson notes. “When I’m making a record, invariably there are one or two songs, which I can’t think of anybody who could do it better. It’s also nice to have a reason to see my dad.”

One of the disc’s best duets is “My Heart Echoes,” which Thompson sings with the reclusive Iris Dement. But before he could secure Dement’s vocal services, he first needed to awkwardly introduce himself to the great lady.

“I didn’t know her at all,” Thompson admits. “But I’ve always been a big fan. For me, Dolly Parton and Iris Dement are the great female country singers today. And that’s no exaggeration on my part to put her in that company. I just think she’s incredible and just a real singer. So, I’ve loved her for ages and ages, and I met her at a festival last summer in Canada somewhere. And I rather sort of accosted her in the backstage area, and I think I sort of scared her. Because she’d just come off stage, and I breathlessly went up and started spewing rubbish. But she was very gracious. And I said, ‘Oh I’d love to sing with you,’ but this was actually before I’d even thought about making this record.”

Thompson wanted Dement on this CD so badly, he visited the woman himself. And this time the meeting was far less stressful. This time, it was planned. “I went to Kansas,” he explains. “I flew in there on the way back from Australia, some ridiculously long trip. So, I stopped in Kansas to record this song with her. She was just so gracious. She came and picked me up at the hotel, and we went to do the song. And then she went to pick up the kid from school. It just seemed like she just had a really quiet life. It was just a little detour for her to sing the song. Then she went back to her life.”

Iris Dement has only recorded 4 albums in the past 12 years. The space between the last two (“The Way I Should” and “Lifeline”) is eight years, and the latter was mainly an album of gospel cover songs. So it’s been 11 whole years since Dement put out a CD of all new material. And like many other long-suffering Dement fans, Thompson wishes she’d record more of her own songs

“Even I asked her, I said, ‘Why don’t you make more records?” And she gets bothered by feeling like she has to stick to some sort of schedule of putting records out,” he learned. “She just seems to have a happy life of her own, independent of that.”

With two highly creative parents like Richard and Linda Thompson, it’s not hard to see where Teddy gets all his talent. Like his dad, he’s quite adept at writing smart songs.

But vocally, he’s not at all like his father. The elder Mr. Thompson has a rather rough and conversational style, whereas Teddy is much smoother. Instead, he leans closer to his mom’s more ethereal vocal approach. In fact, when he applies his beautiful natural instrument to these newly rerecorded country standards, he brings to mind Raul Malo, formerly of The Mavericks.

“I’ve heard some of his records, I’ve heard him sing,” says Thompson. “But no one’s ever told me that before. But I’ll take that as a compliment. Actually, in England they (The Mavericks) have a big following. I really think he’s great, so I’ll take that as a positive.”

Understandably, Thompson will take all the positives he can get. After struggling to come up with the concept for his fourth album and then to have to fight with his label to get it released, he more than knows what it’s like to be down low.

And honestly, how can you put yourself inside a sad country song without also feeling a little sad yourself? But it’s a little bit like a child’s birth: it takes a lot of pain to produce one new life. And “Upfront and Down Low” makes all the pain and suffering it took to create it worthwhile.

No pain, no gain, as they say. And one gain Thompson has made with this release is that he can give country music haters good reason not to hate the style anymore.

“I got so sick of people saying, ‘I like everything except country music,'” Thompson notes. “So many people say that – especially the younger people – my age and younger. When they think of country music, they think what they see on TV or hear on the radio, which is just total crap. Like Shania Twain or something, I think, is what most people are thinking of. If you haven’t been exposed to anything else, that’s what’s shoved in your face. And it’s so bad and it made me so sad because I love it (traditional country) so much. It’s so great. So, I did kind of want to do my bit to try and get country back a little bit of its good name.”

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