Well into its fifth decade, Richard Thompson’s career has spanned from his days with pioneering English folk rockers Fairport Convention to his collaboration with then-wife Linda Thompson (including the indescribably essential breakup masterpiece “Shoot Out the Lights”) to a solo stint that the sparkling new “Electric” suggests is in little danger of flagging. In the process, he's picked up reputations as a songwriter with few peers, a guitarist of jaw-dropping facility, and a walking musical encyclopedia, as exemplified by his live album “1000 Years of Popular Music” (which is exactly what its title suggests).
Perhaps it was no surprise, then, when Thompson (who plays the Wilbur on Tuesday) won last year’s lifetime achievement award for songwriting from the Americana Music Association. “I don’t think I fit exactly into American genres,” says the Brit, “but with a little pushing and shoving, I think my songs could be made to fit.”
Q. What is it like to be honored for your skill in the music of a country that you come to as an outsider?
A. Well, it’s fantastic, of course. It’s absolutely great to get that kind of acknowledgement. I suppose it means that “Americana” doesn’t really mean American, it means roots music. Perhaps a reggae artist or an African artist would qualify as an Americana artist. I think the people who run the Americana Awards are perhaps trying to make that point a little bit. They’re trying to diversify a little and to look outside of the US. That’s my guess, anyway.
Q. With Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, you helped spearhead a specifically British style of folk-rock. Was that a conscious corrective to the fact that most of what was categorized as folk-rock at the time was based on American folk music and not British folk music?
A. Yes, it was conscious. In fact, we were all aware that probably since the beginning of recorded music, since the early days of the gramophone, a lot of American music got exported around the world, including to the UK. So American styles seemed normal, from ragtime to jazz to swing to rock ’n’ roll. We just accepted these styles as, “Well, this is what popular music is.” But in the mid-’60s, we became aware of the disconnect between our own traditions and popular music. Traditional music in the UK was in need of a revival, and we thought, well, the way you do that is to hybridize it with rock music. That’ll revive it and it’ll be a style of music that we’re comfortable with and will really speak for us, and it should speak to the audience as well. And it’ll probably become incredibly popular and we’ll become rich and famous.
Q. How did that work out?
A. (laughs) Yeah, the last bit didn't quite pan out. It always remained a cult in the UK. It never became that popular. But it was a significant cult. I think it did change the landscape, for sure.
Q. When you hear Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” on the radio, do you ever shake your fist and think, “That could be our song!”?
A. No. They’re nice boys, you know. (laughs) They did what they had to do.
Q. You’ve been at this for more than 40 years. What’s different about the way you approach your music now versus, say, around the time of [Fairport Convention’s] “Unhalfbricking” or “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” [with Linda Thompson]?
A. I would say that my approach isn’t that different. I think I’m probably more focused now. I can get into the process quicker, I think, just from years and years of doing it. I can kind of sit down and start being creative quicker. In my youth, I’d probably start writing at midnight and end up exhausted at 5 a.m. Now I get up at 7 in the morning and work, and I get a much more fulfilling and productive working day.
Q. As your career goes on, you don’t seem to say, “I’d think I'd like to see what happens if I explore this stylistic thread” like a lot of musicians. It’s more like you've just been digging deeper and deeper, instead of wandering afield.
A. Yeah. Well, deeper and deeper’s a good thing. It’s good to find a style. It’s OK to change styles, too, and it's certainly OK to evolve styles, and I think I kind of slowly evolve styles. On each album, you find experiments. You find songs that are a little bit different, a little bit strange. I might try and do a Scottish tune with kind of a reggae rhythm. Maybe that’s successful and possibly it isn’t successful. So that’s an experiment that might not pan out, so I kind of keep going further along the usual road. But if I can get deeper, that’s a great thing. Everybody wants to get deeper, and I think I get a little deeper than I did 40 years ago.This interview has been edited and condensed. Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.