There is an old saying that a good title reveals just enough about a story to make you want to read on. The secret is not to give too much away in the process.
Case in point: the title of the new Richard Thompson album – Electric. From that, one might surmise that the latest music by the veteran guitarist and songsmith, an artist who makes no secret of his British folk heritage, was designed to let his rock ’n’ roll roots show. And you would be pretty much on target. Electric is loaded with the kind of amped-up color and wily soloing that has made Thompson a revered yet highly unassuming guitar slinger. But the agenda hardly stopped there.
Thompson also let Electric become a cross-continental summit with one of the most heralded Americana stylists in Nashville. In addition, the album openly defied its title at times to offer a few extraordinary acoustic reflections that highlight a gift for intensely emotive narratives. And, truth to tell, Thompson wanted to create songs fashioned to the lean electric sheen of the power trio he often tours with. So, yes, along with the intentions came a little functionality.
“The genesis for the new album was the idea of writing for the trio,” said Thompson, who returns to Lexington for a concert Tuesday at the Kentucky Theatre. “My band is usually a five piece. But sometimes, if we’re just doing a one-off festival or something, we’ll take out the trio (which also features drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk) because it makes economic sense.
“That’s when I would think, ‘Well, we don’t have any material for the trio.’ We usually just use old material that we’ve adapted. But writing for the trio would be fun. It’s a different thing. There are different harmonic possibilities. There isn’t a keyboard or rhythm guitar stretching the harmony all the time, so you have to kind of adapt the instruments. The whole idea for the new record was the trio and how you arrange for it. And that translates to the live situation extremely well.”
To create Electric, the immovably British Thompson went to Nashville. It’s not as far a stylistic leap as one might suppose. After all, Prodaniuk toured extensively with Dwight Yoakam before joining the trio. But heading to Nashville didn’t mean Thompson was out to make a country record. He instead sought out Americana giant Buddy Miller, who became the producer for Electric. As deep as Thompson’s roots are in traditional British folk and the pioneering folk-rock he fashioned with Fairport Convention as far back as 1966, so is Miller’s connection to American roots music.
“One of the things that is very attractive about Buddy as a producer is his empathy for a project,” Thompson said. “He doesn’t insert his ego into the process, which is a great thing. You can’t say that about all producers. If you want him to play guitar on a track, he’ll play. If you want him to not play, he is just as happy to do that. He’s really all about the project, all about getting the personality of the artist across. He’s a wonderful colleague to work with. He has a really strong feel for traditional forms of music, and I think he’s rightly celebrated for that.”
Thompson wound up recording all of Electric in Miller’s home, including one of the album’s least electric moments – a startling acoustic confessional titled The Snow Goose that calls on the powerfully delicate harmony vocals of Alison Krauss.
“It’s hard to say about how songs start. Sometimes I just sit down to write a story, and perhaps it starts with the first line. Then it just takes off in its own direction. You just become a storyteller. I’m never really sure, until it’s written, of what the song is even about sometimes.
“The Snow Goose is a song about being young, I think. You have this desire. There is a part of your mind that says, ‘You’re going to end up failing. This is impossible. You can’t do it.’ And so, you never achieve anything. As I say, I don’t quite know how these songs happen. But I think it’s an interesting story that springs from my own past somewhere, from when I was a teenager, perhaps.”
Electric isn’t the sort of recording destined for chart-topping status, but it has again extended the mainstream visibility of an artist who has commanded a devout fan base for the past 45 years.
“I have steady, loyal fans – some of whom have been there since the ’60s. I thank them greatly for staying the course. But I suppose I make music for my own satisfaction first and hope that translates to other people.
“If it translates to 50 people, 500 people or 5,000 people, that’s great. Any size audience, to me, is encouraging. If I can earn a living, that’s tremendous. If the audience gets larger, then I think, ‘Maybe I can tour with an extra musician or an extra crew member.’ That’s the way I think about it, really. I’m not concerned with being famous or super rich. I just enjoy doing what I do.”
Richard Thompson Electric Trio performs at 7:30 p.m. April 9 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. Tickets are $40 (including service charges). Call (859) 231-6997.