"As strange as it may seem, country music was the music I was brought up on," says Teddy Thompson, whose parents are British folk-rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson. "It's the music that's closest to my heart and the music that speaks to me the most, and it's always been a big influence on my own songwriting. I was obsessed with country music when I was a kid, and it's definitely had a huge influence on the way I write songs. I was always attracted to songs that had a brilliant pun or a clever turn of phrase, but came from a dark, bitter place. As a writer, I've always gravitated towards that feeling."
Teddy Thompson's self-produced Up Front & Down Low offers distinctive readings of beloved country classics: George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care," Ernest Tubb's "Walking the Floor Over You" and Merle Haggard's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers." Equally impressive, however, are such lesser-known songs such as Boudleaux Bryant's regretful "Change of Heart," the yearning "Touching Home," Dolly Parton's bittersweet "My Blue Tears," the tongue-in-cheek Bob Luman hit "Let's Think About Living" and the Elvis Presley chestnut "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone." The album also features a lone Thompson original, "Down Low," whose heart-on-sleeve lyrics take on added resonance in this context.
Throughout Up Front & Down Low, the songs are supported by artful, evocative arrangements that often diverge from the material's original country milieu. Six tracks feature distinctive string arrangements by legendary English arranger Robert Kirby, renowned for his groundbreaking work with Nick Drake, while "My Blue Tears" features strings arranged by frequent Thompson cohort Rufus Wainwright.
"The whole thing started off as a fun little project rather than an album," Thompson explains. "And then I really started throwing myself into it and it grew into a whole other thing. I really tried to concentrate on the songs first and foremost, rather than feeling the need to use country instrumentation or make it sound like a 'real' country record."
Born in 1976 in the London commune where his parents resided, Thompson "didn't listen to any music made after 1959 until I was about 16," and formed his first band in his early teens. After finishing school at 18, he moved to Los Angeles, where he began to pursue a musical career in earnest. His original tunes and live gigs generated sufficient buzz to win him a deal with Virgin Records. By the time he released his self-titled solo debut in 2000, he'd already played in his father's touring band and contributed guitar and backing vocals to his albums You? Me? Us? and Mock Tudor. In 2002, Teddy played a key role in drawing his mother out of a 17-year musical retirement to record her landmark comeback disc Fashionably Late, which he co-produced and played on; he also led her live band when Linda toured to support the album. Teddy also found time to record a self-released six-song EP, Blunderbuss, and to tour as part of Rosanne Cash's band, before signing with Verve and releasing the acclaimed Separate Ways in early 2006.
Up Front & Down Low's compelling blend of melancholy and uplift is consistent with Thompson's prior work. "It was liberating," he adds, "to be making a record of songs I didn't write. I was able to be a bit more detached, and I didn't stress over every little detail as much as I do with my own material. It was easier to concentrate on whether it was a good performance, and not worry so much about whether the snare sound was perfect.
Indeed, Up Front & Down Low marks a temporary departure from the London-born, New York-based singer/guitarist's prior recorded work. Whereas his first two albums Teddy Thompson and Separate Ways showcased his formidable songwriting skills, Up Front & Down Low focuses on Thompson's abilities as an interpreter of outside material. The collection finds him delivering personalized reworkings of a memorable assortment of songs drawn from America's rich country music tradition, all delivered with a level of commitment and musical imagination that consistently cuts to the emotional heart of the material.