Given the links between the Wainwright dynasties and the Thompson equivalent, I always think of Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson, lifelong friends and competitors, certainly the former, playing together as children whilst their parents made their musical footprints. Indeed, there seems often a Wainwright present whenever the Thompsons congregate for a collective show, and possibly vice versa. Last month Rufus W put out his recent Folkocracy, reviewed here, the North American honoring, by and large, the music from the other side of his pond. Now, with My Love of Country, Teddy is now doing the same in reverse, with this paean to American music. Kinda wish he called it Countrypolitan, but he didn’t. Anyway, this isn’t Thompson’s first set of Nashville covers; 2007’s Upfront and Down Low served as his first rodeo. Plus, as we wait impatiently for the 3rd EP of his Teddy and Jenni EPs, with Jenni Muldaur, each covering a different set of famous country duet artists, it may not be his last.
For years I’ve held the hope aflame that one day Richard might get routinely referred to as Teddy’s father, rather than for Teddy to be always Richard (and Linda)’s son. But, despite seven largely well-received albums, and another half-dozen plus as a producer, Teddy’s career has always seemed to be as a supporting act, and I fear that day may have passed. A pity, as he has a strong and emotive voice, a keening tenor that is perfect for picking up all the emotions and sadness that populate many of his songs. Not to mention that of the whole anguished canon of country music. A consummate interpreter of existential angst, you just know that when he approaches lyrical distress, tears are going to be well and truly jerked.
My Love of Country was brought together by David Mansfield, veteran producer and player, a member of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and a reliable man to write any screenplay needing rootsy Americana. So, a bit like T Bone Burnett (Mansfield’s bandmate in the late 70’s Alpha Band, after each of them left Dylan’s entourage). Mansfield also produced the earlier and aforementioned Teddy and Jenni EPs and has run up a rack of Fallout Shelter recordings, an idea he came up with during the Covid lock-downs. Teddy’s father served as one earlier “guest,” as did Laura Cantrell, Marshall Crenshaw and Welsey Stace (aka John Welsey Harding.) A crack rhythm section was also recruited for this project, to abet Mansfield’s mastery of just about anything possessing a string, or that can be squeezed. Finally, a selection of cohorts and contemporaries dropped by, to give extra vocal heft.
As My Love of Country‘s first track unfolds, its first and most striking feature is the carbon-copy reproduction of late ’50s into ’60s technicolor charm, the construction a faithful facsimile of how it was done in those days, from the ever-present string section to the classic sounds of piano, fiddle and steel. As Thompson puts it himself: “The goal was to do the album in the way that country records. I love were made. Everything was mapped out, with charts and string parts in place.” That first track is George Jones’s “A Picture of Me (Without You)”; it was actually a hit for him later, in 1972, but Thompson gives it an aspic and sepia feel that convinces the listener that it couldn’t have been. Jones may have been the king of country weepie, but Thompson manages to add even more yearning into his higher tones, the plinkety-plonk piano of the excellently named Jon Cowherd exquisite.
Vince Gill joins “I Don’t Love You Anymore” to add his equally plaintive tones, that sense of finding a long lost postcard imprints further, inherited memories of simpler times, maybe, these songs unlikely to catch that many ears that loved ’em back then. (And, of course the riposte, in the next line, is “trouble is, I don’t love you any less“. Classic.)
Buck Owens’ “It’s Crying Time” is one of the better-known songs featured here, with Rodney Crowell on hand for harmony. A neat addition is the cantina feel of swirly accordion, Mansfield duetting with himself on some overdubbed fiddles that are just a trumpet short of mariachi. Confirming the cream of country is made from tears, and not those of joy at that, “I Fall To Pieces” attempts a jauntier tilt to the heartbreak, Cowherd’s piano again a joy. Does it beat Patsy Cline’s first rendition? Blasphemy alert: I think it just might.
Slipping momentarily from the Nashville songbook, Thompson plunders his parent’s catalog, giving an authentic cowboy twang to “I’ll Regret It All In The Morning,” giving it a whole different flavor, reminding listeners that the the Hokey Pokey track is one of R&L’s finest. Playing them back to back, Ma and Pa can be rightly proud of what the boy done. Mansfield’s baritone guitar is exquisite, with Gill back to echo the vocals, their two voices very similar in timbre. Perhaps prompted by re listening the original of this song invites the question of how a female voice might fit in, that duly answered as Aiofe O’Donovan slots in for “Love and Learn.” Another friend of this site, she is the perfect match, a sweeter tone to add to Thompson’s melancholy. Old school steel, Mansfield again, bathes the whole song like a balm of a peach bourbon sour.
“Satisfied Mind” is slightly less maudlin, that sense of residual hope in the song of less appeal than the abject hopelessness elsewhere, feeling it better left to the likes of Ella. But Logan Ledger adds an appealing lower pitched harmony that does give it a lift. Any brief misstep is wholly expunged by the glorious “Oh What A Feeling.” Being an Everly Brothers song means that it is foolish to do anything other than highlight the harmony aspect, with Thompson hooking up here with Krystle Warren, about whom I know little. The blend is spot-on, and, intrigued to know more, I see she is a rising star in the rootsier end of the country firmament, others finding comparison with Nina Simone and Tracy Chapman. I hear neither in this, just a sumptuous second vocal.
“Is It Still Over” leaps onto a rockabilly horseback to shake off the cumulative lassitude brought on by any introspective ennui overload. A brief respite, we can see through the braggadocio, setting up the tables for the swoony despondent grandeur of the set closer, “You Don’t Know Me,” drenched in strings. Earlier on in My Love of Country, this may have been just too much, too richly sentimental. But here, buffeted in by the build towards, it is just the ticket. I have yet to mention the drums of Charlie Drayton and bass (standup, surely) of Byron Isaacs; I must, given they are monumentally unobtrusive throughout. Which is the highest of praise, realized only as you focus down on in on their parts.
Is My Love of Country too country for the unattuned ear? I don’t know, but these ears became indelibly attached to the style decades ago, listening to early Emmylou, finding it initially a shock, her then repertoire not markedly different. I would say this a worthy primer, perhaps even a top entry, into the boundless depths of the genre. Surprise yourself and give it a go. You won’t find a better singer than Thompson, to wreak the wracked wretchedness inherent in the material, and Mansfield has manufactured as tightly authentic a feel as you’ll ever need, so as to bring these nuggets into the 21st century.
My Love Of Country tracklisting:
A Picture Of Me Without You (George Jones cover)
I Don’t Love You Anymore (Charlie Louvin cover)
Crying Time (Marshall Crenshaw cover)
I Fall To Pieces (Patsy Cline cover)
I’ll Regret It All In The Morning (Richard & Linda Thompson cover)
Love And Learn (Brenda Lee cover)
Satisfied Mind (Red Hayes cover)
Oh, What A Feeling (Everly Brothers cover)
Is It Still Over (Randy Travis cover)
You Don’t Know Me (Eddy Arnold cover)