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Richard Thompson's folk roots have served him well
Richard Thompson has been one of rock's electric guitar heroes since hooking up with Britain's Fairport Convention during 1967.
But the British-born artist will attend the this weekend's Ann Arbor Folk Festival with just his voice and acoustic guitars -- all the better to put his folk guise on display.
"Folks is such a vague term," Thompson, 66, says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "I think the word folk is applicable for a lot of styles of music, actually I think what people call folks is an umbrella term which either means acoustic or traditional music.
"I prefer to label someone a singer-songwriter or an acoustic guitarist. 'Folk' seems far too broad."
Thompson's own introduction to folk came while growing up in London's Notting Hill section. But it was also something he rejected in his youth. "Rock 'n' roll was much more exciting than hearing your grandmother sing some song in Gaelic," he says with a laugh. But when he joined Fairport Convention as a teenager, there was a sense that embracing British traditional music might help the group distinguish itself in the country's bustling rock scene.
"We wanted to be a kind of British equivalent to The Band and do what it was doing in America," Thompson recalls. "We felt like we needed to be more specific, more indigenous in our music to really stand apart from the others. So we thought, 'Let's try to marry traditional music with rock music and create something that means more to us and hopefully means more to the audience as well."
It worked -- and Fairport, in fact, has continued ever since though Thompson left in 1971 to pursue a solo career and also work for a time with his ex-wife, Linda Thompson, creating landmark albums such as "I Want to see the Bright Lights Tonight" and their 1982 divorce chronicle "Shoot Out the Lights." He's continue to mix rock and folk, along other styles, throughout his career, including last year's "Still" album, which was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
An appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) since 2011, Thompson's current project is academic and immersed in folklore -- a commission from the British Arts Council to write a piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I. Thompson is creating lyrics from actual soldiers' diaries and letters, and he's been researching the conflict to make his piece -- which he'll arrange for orchestra and plans to finish this year -- as true to the times as possible.
"It's a harrowing subject to research," Thompson says. "World War I was one of the most grueling experiences for most people. Conditions were terrible. People didn't understand shell shock, and so many people were shell shocked, mutilated, etc. etc. It's tough to research, much less create a musical piece."
6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, at the 39th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
Hill Auditorium on the U-M Campus.
Tickets are $37.50-$100.
Call 734-761-1800 or visit theark.org.
Note: Saturday's second night of the Folk Festival is sold out.
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