Linda Thompson – The dawning of the day
“She faxed the lyrics for ‘Nine Stone Rig’ to me in New York. I always have a big pile of half-finished songs lying around when I practice guitar every day, and I threw her lyrics in the pile. One day I picked up the lyrics and read the lines about the moor and the moss, which suggested a very dank and haunted place that was particularly English. So I fooled around on the guitar until I came up with something that sounded like the words — sort of scary.”
Teddy plays guitar on five of the album’s ten songs, but not on “Nine Stone Rig”. The guitarist on that track is John Doyle, formerly of Solas, who came up with a jazzy folk arrangement reminiscent of John Renbourn. On hand to make it work is bassist Danny Thompson (no relation), who was a partner of Renbourn in Pentangle and has frequently played with Richard Thompson over the years.
Fashionably Late is filled with such connections. Linda’s 19-year-old daughter Kamila sings harmony on three songs. (The oldest sibling, 29-year-old Muna, is a fashion designer with no music ambitions.) Two former members of Fairport Convention — Dave Mattacks and Jerry Donahue — are on hand, as are Steeleye Span guitarist Martin Carthy and his daughter, fiddler/singer Eliza Carthy.
Rufus Wainwright — Teddy’s pal and the son of Richard’s production client Loudon Wainwright — co-wrote one song with Linda and sings harmony on another with his sister, Martha Wainwright. But the most unexpected guest artist is Richard Thompson, who joins his son, daughter and ex-wife on the album’s opening track, “Dear Mary”.
“Teddy already had the tune and some lyrics for that song when he showed it to me,” Linda explains. “It reminded me of those Louvin Brothers and Felice & Boudleaux Bryant things that I like a lot. So we finished it together, and Teddy played it a few times on tour with Richard. I was very pleased when he told me, ‘Daddy likes it and plays on it.’ It’s always great when someone else likes your song. It was the defining moment in my life when Dolly Parton told me, ‘You’re really a great writer.’ I said, ‘Lord, take me now.’
“When we were getting ready to record the song, Teddy said, ‘Dad does something on this song that I can’t hear anyone else doing.’ So I asked Richard if he’d be on this record. I mean, tell me a better guitarist. I never expected him to say yes. But he did. Kami was on it, too, so it was the whole family thing. The only thing we’ve ever done as a family, I might add.”
Three-fourths of that family band regroup on the album’s final song, “Dear Old Man Of Mine”, an austere ballad that finds Linda singing over nothing but Teddy’s acoustic guitar and Kami’s occasional harmony. She describes an ex-lover, a musician who’s “singing like he’s got a gun to his head, hanging on sweet notes and a thread,” and regrets that they never said goodbye properly.
“I don’t why I’m crying,” she sings in a tone that’s anything but weepy in its unflinching clarity. “Maybe it’s because we can’t go back, and there’s no use denying this is the way it never was. Many a heart has proved untrue, here’s to me and here’s to you…dear old man of mine.”
“That’s obviously about Richard,” Linda concedes. “I went to see him do a gig in London just before he left his last record company. Teddy was in the band, and all these record-company punters were about. They played all these very fast, very radio-oriented songs. I could tell Richard was trying to get paid, because you get sick of not selling records.
“But it was so different. I looked around, and people were dancing and drinking. When we performed together, people would be crying. When I drove home with Teddy afterwards, I said, ‘Daddy sounded like he was singing with a gun to his head.’ Teddy said, ‘That’s good, Mom, you should work on that.'”
Teddy’s favorite song on the album is the only one Linda wrote by herself, “On The Banks Of The Clyde”. The Clyde River runs through the heart of Glasgow, the city where Linda spent most of her childhood. This trad-sounding ballad opens with Scottish bagpipes and goes on to describe a young woman who leaves Glasgow to seek her fortune in London. But like the protagonist in Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley”, Linda’s character is forced by poverty into prostitution and into the saddest sort of homesickness.
Unlike Van Zandt’s character Caroline, however, the Glasgow girl does not die silent and defeated; instead, she speaks up for herself in Linda’s unyielding voice. “So farewell to London and all of her lies,” she sings, “to days filled with sadness and dark, empty nights. There’ll be no new beginnings; where would I start? I hate you with all of my cold, dead heart. Come all you young women, a lesson take by me: To be tied up in love is worth more than liberty. Your kin will keep and love you like no one else can do.”
“It was hard to hear her sing about whoring,” Teddy admits. “Like any kid, it’s embarrassing to hear your mom talk about sex, even if it’s completely fictional.”
“I was unprepared as to how badly I would take my mother’s death,” Linda admits. “She was 81, and you’d think it was a good life and you needn’t grieve that much, but in fact I felt bereft. I was just inconsolable for three years, inconsolable. I wanted to write a song that would remind me of those years in Glasgow, like an old Scottish ballad, so I wrote in that kind of language.”