Teddy Thompson Embraces Sad Country Songs

New CD Features Classics First Recorded by George Jones, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard

Teddy Thompson wrote just one song for his new album, Upfront and Down Low, but it fits beautifully with a treasure chest of music from Dolly Parton, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, the Everly Brothers and others. The 30-year-old son of folk musicians Richard and Linda Thompson has carved out his own sturdy career in recent years as a promising singer-songwriter. Here, the London-born Thompson talks about the new album’s humble origins, standing up for country music and why he loves sad songs.

CMT: Classic country songs can say so much in few words. Is that part of the appeal for you?

Teddy Thompson: Yeah, that’s what I was attracted to. I used to listen to country music when I was a kid and the early ’50s rock ’n’ roll music. It was the same kind of thing — three-minute songs, clever turns of phrase and concise and witty, you know? All in under three minutes, which I thought was great. Chuck Berry was doing a similar thing in rock ’n’ roll, but country music had it first, I think.

When you tackled these songs, did you have to sing a different way?

No, I didn’t at all, really. That kind of helped me because I’m not really a country singer. I didn’t try to sing in a country style. I just sang it like me. I definitely have country leanings and influences, but it probably made it less daunting to cover these songs because it was never going to be a direct country comparison. … It started out just messing around. We cut all the tracks with only acoustic guitar, bass and drums, so there was no country music instrumentation at all when we cut them. Everything was totally empty and sparse. Then we started adding things afterwards. It was never a goal to make a country record. I would have come to Nashville if I wanted to make a really authentic-sounding country record.

Do you find yourself defending country music to people who say things like, “I love all kinds of music — except country”?

Oh, you took the words right out of my mouth. That was actually quite a big part of the reason for making this record. I constantly find myself doing that. I’ve loved country music since I was 12. It’s been my favorite kind of music since I was a little kid. You can imagine being a 12-year-old kid in London. Country music wasn’t really a big thing on the playground. But even as an adult, I hear those exact words. You ask people what kind of music they like, and they say, “Oh, I like bits of everything except country music.” It just drives me crazy! I think I should make a contribution to try to show people what real country music is. Or at least what real country songs are or what they used to be.

How did you discover the songs for this album that you didn’t already know? Did you dig through the vinyl racks?

I started looking around. I spent probably a couple of months in between sessions. We did some recording, then we stopped for a while, then we went back and did some more. I had a couple of months where everywhere I went I was looking for country records. I downloaded some stuff and I bought some CDs and I bought some vinyl records. It was fun to have a project, to look for old country records everywhere I went and to find something that hadn’t been heard, or done to death.

There are so many George Jones songs you could have done. What was it about “She Thinks I Still Care” that made you choose it?

I have always loved that. I would say that’s the most famous of all the songs — and maybe the most well-known and the most-covered. George Jones was sort of the starting point, and he’s probably my favorite male country singer. I couldn’t get away from it. I thought, “Maybe I should do a lesser-known song.” I kind of wanted to do “A Picture of Me Without You,” but I think that would be uncoverable — to me, anyway — because his actual recording of that song is such an incredible arrangement. I didn’t want to go near that. This was a song I was desperate to do. I thought, “I don’t care. Everybody’s done it. I’m going to do it, too.”

Do you like any happy country songs?

I do! (laughs) But not as much as I like the sad ones. I just like the sad songs better in every kind of music — and country music especially. The thing that I love about country music is that it has sad songs, but they’re almost funny. I mean, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” is a good example: “The only thing I can count on now is my fingers.” It almost makes you laugh when you hear it, or it makes you smile, but it’s not funny. It’s kind of tragi-comedy. I don’t know what it is. It’s a country thing, which I love. I do definitely prefer the sad songs, and I find sad songs to be uplifting in a way. People do ask me, “Why do you always do the sad songs? They’re so depressing.” I don’t feel that way. I love the sad songs. They make me feel good in a sad way.