Review by Bernard Zuel.
Teddy Thompson – My Love Of Country (Chalky Sounds)
Yes, just as it says on the tin. Breaking no new ground, nor claiming to; done with reverence rather than adventure, and proudly so, this is a record which reflects in every way Teddy Thompson’s love of country music. Old country music. 1950s and 1960s country music, principally.
Music that leans into strings and sweet choirs, that sits most comfortably in ballads, that views heartache as life’s default setting and longing as its heartbeat. Music that would say with no irony, “Imagine a world where no music was playing/Then think of a church with nobody praying.”
Music Thompson says he grew up with, fell in love with and learned to play along with. Even if, or possibly because of – considering one of the songs here is written by a certain R. Thompson – he grew up with (separated) parents, Richard and Linda, best known for folk music, and British folk at that, not the fruit of Bakersfield and Nashville.
Mixing aficionado selections alongside gold-plated standards, My Love Of Country plays it straight in every way. A lesser-known Dolly Parton, Love And Learn – written by her uncle Bill Owens – begins with pedal steel (weeping, of course) upfront and mandolin (busy, as preferred) towards the back, piano in the corner and Aoife O’Donovan’s just below the horizon. Next to it is A Satisfied Mind, made quite famous by Porter “I discovered Dolly you know” Wagoner, with fiddle the plaintive echo to the sad-eyed vocals. Everything neat and in place.
I Fall To Pieces is brisk enough in its tempo to have couples take a turn across the dance floor but Thompson is halting enough in his phrasing to have the lonely turned back to their nursed drink. While Buck Owens’ Cryin’ Time, touched up with a bit of accordion to sit against the pedal steel and losing the strings Ray Charles had, brings in Rodney Crowell for underplayed harmonies that mimic the way the song underplays the bruised emotions.
Most of the instruments are played by producer David Mansfield, though bass player Byron Isaacs (part of the experienced rhythm section with drummer Charlie Drayton and pianist Jon Cowherd) is a lovely subtle influence. The glamour, if you will, comes in the backing vocalist/harmonisers who, apart from O’Donovan and Crowell, include Krystle Warren, Logan Ledger, and Vince Gill. It is Gill who bounces off Thompson in Randy Travis’ Is It Still Over, a fast-skipping spin through the youngest of the songs here.
This kind of deep tribute to what these days is considered “classic country”, though for decades it was viewed as the syrupy, pop-influenced cleaning up of “real country”, is not uncommon at the moment. Joshua Hedley and Charley Crockett are just two who have donned the suits and ties recently, mostly with original material but an eye for the covers too. And they made really enjoyable records that walked the line between soft route copy and refreshing the pool. (Incidentally, it may be accidental but doesn’t Thompson look like a not-as-high-hair version of Lyle Lovett on the cover?)
So, the issue for Thompson may be two-fold: is he any good; does he bring anything to the songs that make us see them in a different light? Refreshed even if not renewed?
To the second question first: no. While a quality songwriter and thoughtful producer himself, Thompson never intended to do anything but respectful reinterpretations, and bar a tempo change or different instrument occasionally, that’s pretty much what we’ve got. Even the worn denim and scuffed boots take on Richard and Linda Thompson’s I’ll Regret It All In The Morning, takes its chances more in shadings than redesign. It’s a shame because these songs obviously have the potential to be re-moulded by an interpreter, but on the other hand, that is not what he set out to do.
And the first question? Yes. He and this is good. Thompson’s voice is a charm, whether in the nasally pitch of I Don’t Love You Anymore, the elegantly relaxed delivery of You Don’t Know Me, or the slightly fragile but still firmly held Oh, What a Feeling (with Krystle Warren the vocal smoke around that microphone). As familiar as the arrangements are, they still work 30, 40 or 60 years on.
It’s hard to dislike this record. After all, the songs are the songs are the songs, and Teddy Thompson knows that. Loves that. Just as it says on the tin.