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Teddy Thompson gets upfront and goes down low

By Dan MacIntosh, August 2007

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Fortunately, Thompson's found many likeminded musicians to help him make this CD.

"A lot of people that worked on it, worked for free at the beginning because the record label was non-committal," he says.

Much of this ‘free labor' was also of the highest possible caliber. He received instrumental support from guitarist Marc Ribot, pedal steel work from the master, Greg Leisz, and all kinds of help from multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield (Dobro, mandolin, guitar and viola). The delightful Tift Merritt also sings, and Rufus Wainwright arranged some string work.

Oh yes, there was also that father of his, Richard, who played guitar on "You Finally Said Something Good (When You Said Goodbye)."

"First and foremost, he's my favorite guitar player," Thompson notes. "When I'm making a record, invariably there are one or two songs, which I can't think of anybody who could do it better. It's also nice to have a reason to see my dad."

One of the disc's best duets is "My Heart Echoes," which Thompson sings with the reclusive Iris Dement. But before he could secure Dement's vocal services, he first needed to awkwardly introduce himself to the great lady.

"I didn't know her at all," Thompson admits. "But I've always been a big fan. For me, Dolly Parton and Iris Dement are the great female country singers today. And that's no exaggeration on my part to put her in that company. I just think she's incredible and just a real singer. So, I've loved her for ages and ages, and I met her at a festival last summer in Canada somewhere. And I rather sort of accosted her in the backstage area, and I think I sort of scared her. Because she'd just come off stage, and I breathlessly went up and started spewing rubbish. But she was very gracious. And I said, ‘Oh I'd love to sing with you,' but this was actually before I'd even thought about making this record."

Thompson wanted Dement on this CD so badly, he visited the woman himself. And this time the meeting was far less stressful. This time, it was planned. "I went to Kansas," he explains. "I flew in there on the way back from Australia, some ridiculously long trip. So, I stopped in Kansas to record this song with her. She was just so gracious. She came and picked me up at the hotel, and we went to do the song. And then she went to pick up the kid from school. It just seemed like she just had a really quiet life. It was just a little detour for her to sing the song. Then she went back to her life."

Iris Dement has only recorded 4 albums in the past 12 years. The space between the last two ("The Way I Should" and "Lifeline") is eight years, and the latter was mainly an album of gospel cover songs. So it's been 11 whole years since Dement put out a CD of all new material. And like many other long-suffering Dement fans, Thompson wishes she'd record more of her own songs

"Even I asked her, I said, ‘Why don't you make more records?" And she gets bothered by feeling like she has to stick to some sort of schedule of putting records out," he learned. "She just seems to have a happy life of her own, independent of that."

With two highly creative parents like Richard and Linda Thompson, it's not hard to see where Teddy gets all his talent. Like his dad, he's quite adept at writing smart songs.

But vocally, he's not at all like his father. The elder Mr. Thompson has a rather rough and conversational style, whereas Teddy is much smoother. Instead, he leans closer to his mom's more ethereal vocal approach. In fact, when he applies his beautiful natural instrument to these newly rerecorded country standards, he brings to mind Raul Malo, formerly of The Mavericks.

"I've heard some of his records, I've heard him sing," says Thompson. "But no one's ever told me that before. But I'll take that as a compliment. Actually, in England they (The Mavericks) have a big following. I really think he's great, so I'll take that as a positive."

Understandably, Thompson will take all the positives he can get. After struggling to come up with the concept for his fourth album and then to have to fight with his label to get it released, he more than knows what it's like to be down low.

And honestly, how can you put yourself inside a sad country song without also feeling a little sad yourself? But it's a little bit like a child's birth: it takes a lot of pain to produce one new life. And "Upfront and Down Low" makes all the pain and suffering it took to create it worthwhile.

No pain, no gain, as they say. And one gain Thompson has made with this release is that he can give country music haters good reason not to hate the style anymore.

"I got so sick of people saying, ‘I like everything except country music,'" Thompson notes. "So many people say that – especially the younger people – my age and younger. When they think of country music, they think what they see on TV or hear on the radio, which is just total crap. Like Shania Twain or something, I think, is what most people are thinking of. If you haven't been exposed to anything else, that's what's shoved in your face. And it's so bad and it made me so sad because I love it (traditional country) so much. It's so great. So, I did kind of want to do my bit to try and get country back a little bit of its good name."

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