For this year at least, Richard Thompson looks like the hardest working man in the folk-rock business.
First came the spring CD and DVD release of a performance for Austin City Limits, which closely followed the DVD release of a Providence, R.I., concert.
Now Thompson is releasing an album of new material, “Front Parlour Ballads,” a solo effort that blends Thompson’s simultaneously romantic and cynical sensibilities with the genteel troubadour spirit of centuries past.
Thompson wrote the music for Werner Herzog’s upcoming “Grizzly Man,” a documentary about an animal activist and his girlfriend killed by bears in Alaska in 2003.
This fall brings a CD and DVD release of Thompson performing his “1000 Years of Popular Music” show, a survey of material culled from 11th century tunes to modern pop such as Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again.” Also due this fall is a mammoth five-disc boxed set compiling familiar and unreleased Thompson recordings.
All this comes amid incessant concert tours by the 56-year-old British guitar maestro and a flurry of “official bootleg” live releases made available on his Web site the last couple of years.
“It has been really busy,” Thompson said over lunch at a cafe in Santa Monica, near his Pacific Palisades home. “Things just seem to have accumulated.”
Thompson has maintained a virtually nonstop output for almost 40 years, from his start as the teen guitar prodigy for the iconic folk-rock group Fairport Convention, through his 10-year collaboration with then-wife Linda Thompson, and a solo career of almost 25 years.
Many critics ranked his and Linda Thompson’s 1982 “Shoot Out the Lights,” their final record before parting in a bitter divorce, one of the decade’s top albums.
‘I am what I am’While he has never scored a big hit record or single, his more than two dozen albums featuring vivid, witty, sometimes twisted lyrics and virtuoso musicianship have earned Thompson a fiercely loyal cult audience.
“I’m not a mainstream writer. I am what I am. I don’t play in one of the popular styles of music,” Thompson said. “I don’t play white blues or white soul music. I’m not Eric Clapton. I’m not Sting.
“They’re playing an accepted music form. The music I play, it’s a little more difficult for the audience. I’m taking several steps toward the audience, but the audience does have to take a step or two towards me.”
“Front Parlour Ballads” presents Thompson in stripped-down arrangements compared to his last two hard-rocking, full-band albums “Mock Tudor” and “The Old Kit Bag.”
Thompson bought recording software, set up a microphone in a garage studio at his home and cut the 13 tracks by himself, mostly playing guitar but overdubbing mandolin and accordion on some tracks. He also added percussion by Debra Dobkin on two songs.
“It’s not bombastic. I think rock music can kind of beat you over the head,” Thompson said. “It’s called ‘Front Parlour Ballads’ because it’s meant to be played in a small room with a small audience.”
The tunes range from the madcap delirium of whirlwind romance in the opening cut, “Let It Blow,” to a series of soft ballads about worshipful love turned sour to a dark reminiscence of a perversely cruel acquaintance from Thompson’s youth in the closing track, “When We Were Boys at School.”
“He was dark and had dark interests. Someone you wanted to run from,” Thompson recalled. “I’ve always been slightly haunted by the thought that he’s out there somewhere. Perhaps he changed when he grew up. Met some babe that changed his life or something.”
Thompson is touring by himself in the United States and Europe through fall, though “solo concert” is a misnomer given his nimble playing and versatility.
Alone with his guitar, Thompson can coax such a fury of notes that it sounds as though two other performers are on stage with him, while he flits seamlessly from instrument to instrument.
“I don’t think of myself as playing that good at other instruments,” he said. “With stringed stuff, yeah. It’s all the same family. But compared to some of those bluegrass guys, the Ricky Skaggs’ who can play everything brilliantly, play fiddle and mandolin and guitar...”
Thompson’s fiercely expressive guitar playing is best highlighted on such concert staples as “Shoot Out the Lights,” “Beeswing,” “Tear-Stained Letter” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” the latter song a centerpiece in most of his shows.
From his 1991 album “Rumor and Sigh,” “Vincent Black Lightning” exemplifies Thompson’s mix of ancient and modern, the tale of doomed romance between a motorcycle hoodlum and a red-haired girl in black leather harking back to outlaw songs of age-old balladeers.
Though he figures he plays it nine nights out of 10, Thompson said he never tires of the tune.
“It’s always a little different, which has to do with the mood of the room or the audience,” Thompson said. “There is a mood that you kind of interpret. Even if you are playing the same notes, if you’re playing the same Schubert piano notes, it’s still different every time.
“It’s a song I can’t sing superficially. I have to get inside the song. ... I think you live the story fairly visually. I kind of run a movie of it, and the movie’s slightly different every time and the pictures differ every time. But if I can follow it visually, then I know it’ll be a good performance.”
Thompson has released his last two albums on the small Cooking Vinyl label, yet he said his record sales are virtually the same as when he was signed to big outfits such as Capitol and Polygram in the 1980s and ’90s.
Understanding the sort of small but devoted audience he has gathered through the years, Thompson realizes the marketing clout of a major label is not necessarily an advantage.
“If you figure out what you’re going to do, and if it’s got some virtue, then if you stick to your guns, enough people will find you to give you a career. The ability to keep doing it,” Thompson said.
“And you know, you might never be huge, but that’s OK. I’m probably having more fun than a lot of other people.”