Honky-Tonk Hero

Teddy Thompson reinterprets the old-school country classics

As compelling as all those vintage country tunes sung by the likes of Merle Haggard and George Jones can be, there's something particularly fascinating about these tough guys in their 10-gallons and boots--men who may drink, fight and fornicate too much--expressing rather sentimental notions in the form of pedal-steel-tinged masterpieces like "(From Now On All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" and "Change of Heart." There is poignant irony in hearing these so-called outlaws convey deeply romantic thoughts.

So what can Teddy Thompson, a decidedly unmacho British singer/songwriter who lives in Los Angeles, possibly add to such old-school country classics?

"First of all, how do you know I'm not macho?" Thompson shoots back during a recent phone interview.

"I always understood, of course, that these were hard-living, outdoor types singing these songs," he says. "But I guess I liked the sentiments of songs, regardless of who sang or wrote them. I took them on their own merit."

That's exactly what Thompson, son of guitarist Richard Thompson and singer Linda, does on his album of mostly covers, Upfront and Down Low, an exquisitely produced and performed collection of tunes that would perfectly suit the bluest of blue jukeboxes in the corner of the saddest honky-tonk at the end of the world.

Although Upfront and Down Low is a surprising effort by Thompson, it's not entirely unexpected. His two previous folk-rock albums--a self-titled debut and the 2006 follow-up, Separate Ways--demonstrate a knack for spare chord changes and melancholy lyrics that somehow manage to cover vast emotional terrain. Go back and listen to Thompson's previous work, and you can hear that classic country music informed his musical personality.

"I like the sad country stuff," he admits. "I like the turn of phrases; I just like the whole package. I'm much more interested in how well the songs are put together--how heartfelt, how heartbreaking."

Clearly, Thompson prefers the older style of country songwriting, which more or less began with '50s-era country music. Most of the songs Thompson selected are from that era, and he eschews the current mainstream blend of rock and pop. Still, he felt no compunction to employ a fake Southern twang or even arrange the material in any strict way in honor of yesteryear. And he completely suppressed any desire to don a rhinestone-covered Nudie suit.

"No cowboy boots or hat or anything like that," Thompson affirms. "These days, that almost defines you as being rubbish. It's such an affectation and part of that lame Nashville style. The best country today is written and performed by people without all that stuff."

And when it came time to add strings to certain tracks, Thompson again looked beyond Nashville, choosing folk legend Nick Drake's old arranger, Robert Kirby.

"I knew (Kirby) through my mom's last record," Thompson reveals. "I had this idea of getting an outsider's take by letting a noncountry guy provide the strings. I thought it would be a great contrast and make the songs a bit left of center."

There are appearances from other left-of-center artists on Upfront and Down Low. Thompson's friend and acclaimed singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright--himself the offspring of critically acclaimed musicians--contributes a lush string arrangement to the Dolly Parton number "My Blue Tears." Meanwhile, the lovely voiced Iris DeMent provides harmony vocals on "My Heart Echoes," while pedal- and lap-steel master Greg Leisz, who has performed with every conceivable Americana artist from Tiger Army to Wilco to Lucinda Williams, gives every track a dreamy yet elegant élan. And Thompson's guitar-hero dad shows off his country chops on "Down Low," an original song written by Teddy.

"I already had that song, as it turned out," he says. "As the album progressed into a string-laden country album, I realized that I had the perfect song. Yes, I did struggle over including one of my songs in the midst of all these great ones. But I didn't want to lose it and the feeling it conveyed. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to incorporate the song into a thematic album."

Thompson doesn't want to say that he is in any way rescuing country music. He insists that he just wanted to contribute something to a genre that he deeply loves.

"I feel that country music has lost its way, sure. But there's a precedent for English artists wanting to approach an American genre that has perhaps exhausted itself. English bands did the same for rock 'n' roll in the '60s. It was the Who and the (Rolling) Stones who saved the genre back then after it had gone a bit twee. I'm coming at country music from a different place, and I want to give it back some of its good name."

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