David Banks, NPR News
Richard Thompson in NPR's Studio 4A in Washington, D.C.
Cover for Thompson's latest studio CD, The Old Kit Bag (Spin Art 2003)
Richard Thompson might be the quintessential cult artist. Mention his name, and people either scratch their heads, wondering why the name is familiar, or turn out to be fans who try to convert you.
Fans will tell you about his phenomenal guitar playing. They'll rave about his expertly crafted songs, delivered with the throaty voice of a modern troubadour.
A quick biography: In the late 1960s, Thompson was a founding member of the British folk-rock group Fairport Convention. He and his now ex-wife Linda Thompson released several critically acclaimed recordings in the '70s and '80s. Their son Teddy is now a full-fledged musician himself, often performing with both parents.
For the past two decades, Richard Thompson has enjoyed a prolific solo career. His most recent studio outing is The Old Kit Bag. But Thompson is also one of the hardest-working touring musicians around, and over the past couple of years, a few audiences have seen him perform an unusual set tracing centuries of songs.
His choices run the gamut from old English traditionals, to Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, to Lennon-McCartney and Prince. Those performances are now compiled on a live CD called 1000 Years of Popular Music. Thompson tells NPR's Liane Hansen he first got the idea for the set list when Playboy magazine asked him to name the greatest music of the millennium.
Thompson took them seriously, and went back hundreds of years to make some admittedly obscure selections. The magazine never printed his list, but Thompson decided to make a show out of it anyway.
"Popular is a tricky word," he has said. "People in large numbers don't always have the best taste. I preferred to concentrate on songs that were deserving, but slightly too arcane to be in every household — the also-rans, the misfits, the hidden jewels."