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TERRY GROSS, host:

Richard Thompson is the kind of guitar player that other guitar players revere. He's also a songwriter of uncommon skill, and over the past 40 years he's written some classics. In honor of Thompson's turning 60, Shout Factory has released "Walking on a Wire," a four-disc overview of his career. Ed Ward takes a look at it today.

(Soundbite of music)

ED WARD: Richard Thompson was born in the Notting Hill section of London, son of a policeman who'd moved to London from Scotland to join the force. He started playing guitar in school, taking lessons from a friend, and then started writing songs with a couple of other friends.

There was no question about what he wanted to do after that. Falling in with a bunch of London musicians who were attracted by American folk-rock and lived in a house called Fairport, he joined their band when he was 17. Their first gig was in front of 15 people in a church hall, and it was the start of Fairport Convention.

Fairport has always been a rather fluid band. And after their first album, they changed personnel for the first time, changing their female singer, Judy Dyble, for another, Sandy Denny. She proved to be perfect to sing the songs Thompson was writing at the time.

(Soundbite of "Meet on the Ledge")

FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) We used to say there'd come the day we'd all be making songs or finding better words. These ideas never lasted long. The way is up along the road, the air is growing thin. Too many friends who tried, blown off this mountain with the wind. Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge. When my time is up, I'm going to see all my friends. Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge. If you really mean it, it all comes around again.

WARD: Late in 1969, though, Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings quit. And the remaining members retreated to the countryside to think things through, emerging with a new take on British traditional music and a masterpiece of an album, "Liege & Lief," featuring extended guitar jams that showed that Richard Thompson was one of the best guitarists in England.

Fairport toured America at this point, and Thompson held his own on stage with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page at one show. But when he returned to England, he quit the band and spent a lot of time doing session work for other artists. In the course of this, he met a backup vocalist named Linda Peters, who was recording a Kellogg's Corn Flakes commercial the day they met. They were married in 1972, and two years later, released "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight," the first in a series of albums that showcased Richard's songwriting and guitar-playing alongside their almost magical vocal blend.

(Soundbite of "When I Get to the Border")

Mr. RICHARD THOMPSON (Musician): (Singing) Dirty people take what's mine. I can leave them all behind. They can never cross that line when I get to the border. Sawbones standing at the door, waiting till I hit the floor. He won't find me anymore, when I get to the border. Monday morning, Monday morning, closing in on me. I'm packing up and I'm running away, to where nobody picks on me. If you see a box of pine...

WARD: In 1975, Richard and Linda became Sufis, appearing on the cover of their 1975 album "Pour Down Like Silver" in traditional clothing, but otherwise hardly changed. Sufism is a famously liberal branch of Islam, often cloaking its devotional texts in metaphors of love or intoxication — things Richard had written about in the past. Over the next few years, Richard and Linda continued to record, but raising two young children kept them pretty close to home, despite a growing following in the United States. In 1982, they released "Shoot Out the Lights," one of their strongest sets of songs ever, maybe too strong.

(Soundbite of song, "Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed")

Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) She was there one minute and then she was gone the next, lying in a pool of herself with a twisted neck. Oh, she fell from the roof to the ground. There was glass lying all around. She was broken in a hundred pieces when her body was found. She used to live life, she used to live life with a vengeance, and the chosen would dance, the chosen would dance in attendance. She crossed a lot of people, some she called friends. She thought she'd live forever, but forever always ends. Did she jump or was she pushed, did she jump or was she pushed. Did she jump or was she pushed...

WARD: Richard and Linda started a tour when the album came out, and it lasted just long enough to fulfill the American dates. After the London show, the Thompsons' marriage was over. It was about this time that word finally got out about Richard's songwriting and guitar-playing, and stars from Lou Reed to Neil Young were mentioning him in interviews. Alternating between acoustic and electric versions of his music, he continued to write great songs.

(Soundbite of song, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Oh, says Red Molly to James, that's a fine motorbike. A girl could feel special on any such like. Says James to Red Molly, my hat's off to you. It's a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952. And I've seen you at the corners and cafes it seems, red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme. And he pulled her on behind and down to Boxhill they did ride.

WARD: "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is the song audiences clamor for now, from his 1991 album "Rumor and Sigh," but there are many, many more where that came from. Over 400 in his lifetime catalog, by one estimation. Richard Thompson continues to put out great albums and play shows that are never anything less than amazing. It's been a long time since he knocked on the door of Fairport, guitar in hand, but he shows no signs of letting up.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. The Richard Thompson box set "Walking On A Wire" came out today.

(Soundbite of song "Dad's Gonna Kill Me")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Out in the desert there's a soldier lying dead, vultures pecking the eyes out of his head. Another day that could have been me there instead. Nobody loves me here, nobody loves me here. Dad's gonna kill me, dad's gonna kill me. You hit the booby trap and you're in pieces with every bullet your risk increases, old Ali Baba, he's a different species. Nobody loves me here, nobody loves me here. Dad's gonna kill me, dad's gonna kill me. I'm dead meat in my HumVee Frankenstein, I hit the roadblock, somehow I never hit the mine. The dice rolled and I got lucky this time. And Dad's gonna kill me. Dad's gonna kill me.

GROSS: Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Richard Russo's new novel. This is FRESH AIR.

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