Thirteen conversations about Richard Thompson

Go ahead. Count ’em.

Richard Thompson wouldn’t tackle <i>1000 Years of Popular Music</i> in anything other than leather pants.

Richard Thompson wouldn’t tackle 1000 Years of Popular Music in anything other than leather pants.

Friday, February 4; 24th Street Theatre, 2791 24th Street; (916) 457-7553.

Richard Thompson is Richard Thompson. This is to be recited with a certain reverence.

Richard Thompson is almost more a force of nature than a man. To use the word “accomplished” to describe him would be too obvious. And yet, many younger musicians haven’t heard of him at all. Nor have they heard of Fairport Convention, the groundbreaking British folk-rock band that Thompson was a member of in the late 1960s. Fairport Convention played traditional British folk songs as rock numbers, thereby nurturing the creation of contemporary folk rock and its various offshoots. (Perhaps younger musicians should look at their parents’ record collections more often.)

Richard Thompson is considered a distinctly British songwriter. It is therefore ironic that he now lives in Los Angeles, the most American of cities.

Richard Thompson is a god, or at least a minor deity, to many music fans—particularly those with a bent toward roots music. His name is spoken in hushed tones—tones that say “can do no wrong,” and “perfect,” and “master.” Rock critics name him, at least in private conversations, their favorite living songwriter, or guitar player, or musician.

Richard Thompson’s songs have been covered by the likes of Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr., to name a few.

Richard Thompson is responsible for the worst-selling record in the history of Warner Brothers Music, 1972’s solo effort Henry the Human Fly. It is a badge of some distinction. Like fellow songwriter Warren Zevon, Thompson has never sold many units, in spite of his critical reputation. Unlike Zevon, Thompson is alive and healthy.

Richard Thompson likes pop music—hardly the expected fodder of a notable roots rocker. “[In pop music] there’s less opportunity to be pretentious,” he said via e-mail. Then he noted, “But the last 20-odd-years have been fairly uncreative, lots of recycling of previous forms, lots of mediocre dance music…at least half of what my 13-year-old and his friends listen to comes from the ’60s.”

Richard Thompson is taking that love of pop music to the stage in a big way with his current touring show, 1000 Years of Popular Music. Thompson reveals his leanings toward musical interpretation by rearranging and performing songs as historically diverse as the mid-13th-century ballad “Sumer Is Icumen In” (perhaps a monkish pop hit in its day) and Prince’s “Kiss.” That actually makes it 800 years of music, but who’s counting?

Richard Thompson is a guitar player. Not only that, but some music fans believe he is the guitar player. This assessment is based on the rather lengthy guitar solos and improvisations Thompson pulls out of his bag of musical tricks during live performances.

Richard Thompson’s best albums, at least in this critic’s view, were those released with his wife, Linda, in the 1970s and early 1980s. There’s a sense of urgency and hunger in those recordings that is sometimes absent from his later releases. In many ways, though, it doesn’t matter what Thompson records or doesn’t record these days. His position as an obscure but potent musical icon is already written in stone.

Richard Thompson recently started his own record label, Beeswing Music, and a Web site (at where fans can order his music. “The record biz ain’t what it used to be,” Thompson wrote. “It can no longer serve the public at large, so other means of distribution and promotion must be found. Fortunately, that internet came along just in time. That and smaller labels with more flexibility are the answer for ‘niche’ artists like myself.”

Richard Thompson will bring his niche, his legend and his 1000 Years of Popular Music to Sacramento this week. Pianist-singer-composer Judith Owen and vocalist-percussionist Debra Dobkin will accompany him. Of course, the show has already sold out, because …

Richard Thompson is Richard Thompson.