Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics : A Life in Music

‘We are all falling. See my hand: it bends.
And look at others: It’s in all their calling.
And yet there’s One, who’s holding all this falling
Endlessly tender in his upturned hands .. ‘.

(Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation Walter Aue)

‘ The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness … Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.’

(Anton Chekhov: letter to Alexi Suvorin May 30 1888)

Vocation: A person’s main occupation especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication. From the Latin, ‘Vocare’ – to call’

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‘I still have to practice a lot. You have to keep yourself going and moving and then you are going to be looking for new things … You have to keep exploring and finding new shapes and new versions, new melodic ideas. Keep at it all the time.’

(Richard Thompson interviewed by Martin Chilton for The Daily Telegraph February 2013)

Richard Thompson’s latest CD, ‘Acoustic Classics’ is the hard won though lightly borne product of a career that has involved more than forty-five years of ceaselessly seeking to write, perform, record and renew songs that honour the call he has heard to tell stories through his pen, voice and guitar about the thrilling, tender, terrifying and tormented experiences humankind is heir to before that last breath.

‘Acoustic Classics’ contains no new songs yet it is one of the most vital creations of Thompson’s storied and stellar career.

It displays his considerable gifts as an artist and can be listened by the casual listener or fellow practitioner as a kind of vade mecum or handbook of the craft of songwriting and acoustic guitar playing.

Given Thompson’s immersion in and importance as a musician within the tradition of British folk music the CD might otherwise be described as a wandering minstrel’s chapbook for the ages containing tales, ballads, jests and fables illuminating the victories, defeats, joys and betrayals of an everyday life that would in its emotional essentials have been as recognisable to Chaucer’s pilgrims as it is to today’s citizens of London, Sao Paolo, Sacramento or Sydney.

Thompson is rightly proud of his songs and one of the purposes of this set is surely through the deft drama of his virtuoso acoustic playing to demonstrate their immense contained spiritual and emotional power without the listener being overwhelmed by the head swirling Sturm und Drang he brings to the electric versions.

One of Thompson’s greatest attributes as a songwriter is his ability to find the right tone and language to describe the characters he presents and the situations they are confronted with.

He does not suffer from the besetting sin of so many modern songwriters of wearily reproducing self analytical, fast fading xeroxes of their own emotional states.

He has consistently been able to imagine lives that he might have led, that he could never have led or would never have wanted to lead. He is interested as an observer and as an artist in the dramas of the human condition as expressed in the travails of our endlessly variable capacity to build and/or destroy our relationships with ourselves, each other and our god.

Thompson, as a religious man, is acutely aware of the inevitability of death. As a songwriter he understands that an essential element of the beauty and poignancy of our lives is their fragility.

To celebrate life necessarily involves embracing death and relishing the intense pleasures of the moment. There is an affinity here with Thomas Hardy – a certain winter chill of the imagination, a sure consciousness that time has an unflinching rigour that must not be denied.

His reverence for British traditional music has instilled in him a desire to create songs that will last because they speak to the eternal truths of the human condition. Songs that will not be found wanting by the tests of performance and passing time.

Take the example of, ‘Wall Of Death’ which through a deliriously circular melody and lyrical celebration of the pleasures of the fairground slyly hymns the thrill of peering over the cliff edge of life at the unfathomable depths of dark death beyond.

To do so feels, ‘the nearest to being free’ so it’s well worth taking your chances when it reminds you of the miracle of every breath. His guitar playing here is springily and increasingly propulsive brilliantly mimicing the dizzy carnival ride.

Thompson had a pronounced stutter as a boy and young man and it was through the guitar that he found a voice that could communicate to the world with a depth, complexity and fluidity denied to him in everyday speech.

Throughout the CD his playing though sometimes displaying astonishing technical accomplishment never seems strained or flashy. He has an acute sense of what to play and what not to play. He plays what needs to be played to bring the songs to life.

Thompson’s gifts as a storyteller and witness to the lost and disregarded are given full rein in his wonderful song, ‘Galway to Graceland’ which has the added merit of also being an oblique tribute to Elvis Presley.

The song tells the tale of a Galway woman who leaves her marriage and everything about the west coast of Ireland life behind to travel to Graceland in West Tennessee to be with the King. She keeps an obsessive vigil over Elvis’ grave confessing to him the hopes and dreams she has never told anyone else.

For, in her mind, they are married (doesn’t she have his ring!) no matter what the world might say. Thompson in his vocal delivery and the balm of his beautifully paced and graceful guitar gives the character her full human respect and dignity so that tears spring to the eyes.

I have been in bars in Ireland where a floor singer sang that song and heard people singing along and yet when I asked them who wrote the song I was told that it was a, ‘traditional song’ which says something for Thompson’s ability to write within and yet extend the territorial reach of the folk song.

The same might be said for his truly classic composition, ‘The Dimming Of The Day’ which has the soothing cadences of a long lost lullaby from another age.

I am confident this song will be sung as long as, ‘the moon pulls on the tide’ for it speaks to core human needs; the need to have a confidant, the need to have a hand to hold in the fast falling dark: which can sometimes seem so much more powerful than the light.

We all need to find someone who will recognise our better side. I always feel the lovely line, ‘When all the bonny birds have wheeled away’ is a tip of the hat to his fallen comrade from Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, whose own great sigh of a song, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ opens with, ‘Across the evening sky all the birds are leaving’.

Thompson’s guitar playing on this song has a taste and simplicity that only a considerable artist can achieve.

The CD sound is bright, close and clear having been expertly mixed and mastered by Simon Tassano. You feel as if you are right next to Thompson as his fleet fingers and plectrum coax golden shimmering notes from his guitar.

If you are a guitar player you can try to play along and if you have a hundred years of intense study to spare you might yet match him! Throughout his guitar is an eloquent complementary voice to his vocals alternately driving or commenting sometimes obliquely, sometimes ironically, on the action and themes of the songs.

Thompson has chosen the songs to showcase here wisely. So we get the crowd pleasing brilliance of his performance of, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ bringing the motorcycle world of 1950s England to technicolour life not least in the description of the femme fatale of the song, ‘Red hair and black leather – my favourite colour scheme.’

You can almost smell the petrol fumes and be dazzled by the chrome as his guitar playing effortlessly exceeds the speed limit as he climbs Box Hill. Bob Dylan, who knows a thing or two about great songs, recently played this song in concert as a tribute to his fellow songsmith.

There are the songs like, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ and, ‘Down Where The Drunkards Roll’ in which Thompson captures in a tender but clear eyed way the lives of the boorish and the outcasts trying to make it through another day.

The latter song shows an awareness that those in the gutters might just see more of the stars than those who rush through a sober blinkered life. There are songs like, ‘Valerie’, ‘Persuasion’ and, ‘I Misunderstood’ that show how the promises of love can be fulfilled or wring with wrong the deceived and the deceivers hearts.

Thompson knows that many gamblers never draw a hand and that there are sailors aplenty who never leave dry land. He knows that life can be as breathtakingly beautiful but also as fragile as a Bees Wing.

His art is always aware that everyday we are walking on a wire and that sooner or later we will fall.

His songs give us courage and heart as we cross.

Tracklist: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Walking On A Wire, Wall Of Death, Down Where The Drunkards Roll, One Door Opens, Persuasion,
1952 Vincent Black Lightning, I Misunderstood, From Galway To Graceland, Valerie, Shoot Out The Lights, Beeswing, When The Spell Is Broken, Dimming Of The Day.

This post dedicated to Mike Brosnan – no mean guitar player himself. In our bachelor days we spent many an evening marveling at Richard Thompson’s genius as a guitarist and songwriter while the Whiskey flowed.

Mary Gauthier, Iris Dement : Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories

‘It’s just an ordinary story about the way things go … Round and round nobody knows but the highway goes on forever’ (Rodney Crowell)

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’ (Raymond Carver)

I live an ordinary life. So do you.

Yet, I guarantee that if we sat down and talked honestly about the lives we have led, the people we have met, the narrative arc of our lives; including the successes, the mis-steps, the fulfilled and broken dreams, the regrets and the wonders, that we would each think the other has led a truly extraordinary life.

All our lives contain experiences we struggle to understand and come to terms with: unresolved longings, fault lines, tender wounds, hidden scars. In a very real sense we will always remain mysteries to ourselves.

I believe that our attraction to art – to stories and songs – is because the best of them resonate with and go some way to help explain the eternal mystery of why we exist and why we have turned out the way we have.

A great song can be our pilgrim’s companion and staff as we navigate through life’s slalom ride of fate and happenstance while attempting to fashion a connected, meaningful life.

The singer-songwriters featured on the Jukebox today; Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier, share the ability to look compassionately, honestly and unflinchingly at ‘everyday lives’ illuminating them with sharp eyed, flinty, observations and heart rending detail.

These are songs about the dignity and indignities of real lives not adverts for ‘lifestyles’. Popular culture, as these artists demonstrate, can offer far more than mere consumer branding: it can offer us the insights and balm of art we yearn for as we struggle to make it through, or knock off, another ordinary day.

Iris Dement’s early childhood was spent, as the youngest of fourteen children on a tiny island in rural north eastern Arkansas before her father moved the family to California, as millions had done before, in search of work and a better future.

Crucially, she was also raised in the bosom of the Pentecostal Church with a mother who daily sang its sweet consoling hymns as she went about her domestic tasks – a process Iris recreates with tender love in her song, ‘Mama’s Opry’.

The influence of those hymns pervades all of Iris’ songs though her own relationship with faith has been troubled. Her songs seem to me always to be charged with a sense of the sublime, a conviction that every life, however small, burdened and disregarded, carries a light that shines through the darkest hours.

Above all, the gospel influence is felt by the listener through her voice: a gloriously cracked country voice that throbs with yearning passion. It’s a voice made to embody intense emotions, a voice that cannot and will not be denied.

At the end of an Iris Dement song I always feel both uplifted and exhausted no matter what the subject of the song because her vocals are freighted with a humanity of heart, flesh, blood, bone and spirit that hits you like a punch to the solar plexus.

A punch that takes away the breath while reawakening you to the miracle of every breath you take.

‘Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day’ is Iris Dement’s finest song and one of the best songs ever written about the passions, dreads and torments involved in living a seemingly ‘everyday’ life’.

The song steadily, plainly and without hysteria or pity presents us with a portrait of a mature, self aware woman struggling to come to terms with the sense of strangled entrapment she feels in her marriage, her job and her community.

The beauty and art of the song lies in the dry eyed simplicity with which the weight of accumulating straws on the back of the protagonist are evoked: the rain, the buzzing alarm clock, the marital conversations and lovemaking reduced to mechanical routine.

The radio mast lights blink on simultaneously highlighting and mocking her dreams of another life with a different name in another town. She knows she will never make it to Couer d’Alene. And yet, though easy’s getting harder every day she carries on.

She carries on.

Mary Gauthier writes songs of bright boned shocking intensity. Before she took up songwriting in her thirties she had lived a life filled with more drama and incident than Dickens himself would have dared invented in a multi volume novel.

She has been; an orphaned foundling, a teenage runaway and a street and college student of philosophy. She has known the degredation of addiction and the unremitting daily struggles of recovery. She has been arrested and jailed and also triumphed as a highly successful Cajun ccok and restauranter.

All the while with her her keen intelligence and moral rigour she was storing away these experiences so that when she came to write her own songs she could have no truck with dishonesty or glib sentimentality.

There is an almost brutal matter of factness in many of her songs. She is able to honestly describe desperate lives lived the gutter because she has been there. There is respect but no romance in her descriptions of such lives.

It is the test of a true artist to be able to present recognisable living characters but not to idly judge them. The reader or listener can do do that if they feel comfortable casting a stone.

‘I Drink’ was played by Bob Dylan on one of his Theme Time Radio Hour radio programmes – an accolade given to very few contemporary songwriters.

Bob, the Keeper of American Song, would have recognised the spare elegance of the song and the craft involved in creating a wholly believable genealogy of alcoholism.

This is not the testament of someone who has won through. It is the confession of someone anchored in addiction unblinkingly reporting on the history and daily realities of that condition.

The slowly dropping hours and self absorption of the habitual drinker are superbly evoked as the narrator relates the banal details of how he cooks his TV dinner and the flatly acknowledged realisation that the face in the mirror is the same as that of the father silhouetted in the lighter flame a generation earlier.

Mary Gauthier’s words, sung carefully with a court reporters calm and measured clarity, move beyond prose into the realm of folk poetry especially in the nursery rhyme chorus which hits home with the keening knell of pure truth.

As the silence descends at the end of the song you are left bereft and sadly aware of the terrible imprisoning and yet alluring power, for the prisoner, of such cycles of defeat and pain.

Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier with immense skill show us lives that but for fortune any one of us might have led or might be on the way to leading.

Their visions are not comfortable to confront but to avoid such visions is to impoverish our humanity and our moral imaginations.

So Pilgrim, as you listen remember that everyone you meet today and tomorrow is almost certainly in the middle of a much harder battle than you can see.

I dont know about you but I’m sure that, wherever it comes from, I need a little mercy now.

Further Listening:

You can’t go wrong with these artists. All their CDs will repay your time with compound interest.

With Iris Dement I would start with, ‘My Life’ before moving on to, ‘Infamous Angel’, ‘Lifeline’ (a deeply moving gospel set), ‘The Way I Should’ and her latest the comeback classic, ‘Sings The Delta’.

With Mary Gauthier I would start with, ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’ and then move on to, ‘Mercy Now’, ‘The Foundling’, ‘Filth and Fire’ and ‘Trouble and Love’.

They are both well represented on YouTube and other sharing sites.

Footnote 30 September 2014:

Many thanks to Mary Gauthier for describing this post as, “Beautifully written” and for alerting her fans to the Jukebox through Twitter.