Recognition of his country sound Stateside, and glowing plaudits for his current album, Charlie Thompson no longer finds himself at the foot of the hill
Charlie Thompson is an elusive character. What started off with general correspondence via a few emails to request an interview, soon escalated in to a game of cat and mouse to rival that of the two central characters in the film Catch Me If You Can.
After weeks of pursuing this UK singer-songwriter with a serious gift for penning a traditional country tune, and a damn fine set of vocal chords to add to the mix, Famous Last Words (FLW) managed to secure the services of Charlie Thompson for the duration of two whole hours one Sunday afternoon.
The reason for the endless pursuit was due to the recognised quality in the song writing department (Charlie will tell you differently! FLW), but also for the fact Charlie Thompson holds a significant position in society that doesn’t allow much time for talking about his music because he serves the public as a full-time firefighter.
With approximately an hour to the scheduled interview, there is one final spanner in the works as Charlie Thompson’s usual route home, after a shift with the aforementioned fire service, turns into an unintentional competitive race! Being a keen cyclist, and admirably taking up the environmentally friendly option, Charlie Thompson managed to get tangled up in a cycle race on his way home from work. This naturally resulted in a few quizzical looks from the actual contestants taking part, with Charlie grabbing further attention by eventually taking an alternative route unbeknown to those cyclists actually taking part in the race, with the only giveaway being that he forgot his cycle helmet due to being of a certain age when such things were not part of health and safety regulations.
So when the interview finally arrived it proved to be a fascinating insight into the life and times of Charlie Thompson, that began as part of a rockabilly trio and later combo and then progressed to a combination of various influences of country, hillbilly and western swing, as well as keeping one or two irons in the rockabilly fire as he later explained to FLW.
“It really started for me around the time I was fifteen,” begins Charlie Thompson regarding his first initiation to the world of song writing. “I got my first guitar at this age, which was an acoustic Fender. I’d probably have learnt a lot quicker if I’d had lessons, but I bought a book where you’d copy the frets.
“I remember hearing for the first time Eddie Cochran’s ‘Somethin’ Else’ and thinking that it was more aggressive than Showaddywaddy for example. Without knocking Showaddywaddy, you would have thought that it would have been the other way round with their records sounding better because this [‘Somethin’ Else’] is like thirteen years before Showaddywaddy yet this one’s amazing! But even Eddie Cochran’s ‘Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie’ blew me away with its killer guitar riff; it wasn’t heavy metal and it wasn’t distorted, it was just repetitive and real hard hitting [mimics the guitar riff]. It was so basic that it was great and cool! So I went and bought an Eddie Cochran LP and then from there I heard Jerry Lee Lewis and it just snowballed from then on. If I heard a rock and roll record [during this time] like the Stray Cats or The Jets, I would buy it foolishly thinking that it will come back again [rockabilly].”
With those early American rockabilly records causing a second ripple in terms of their popularity albeit in the UK during the 70s and 80s, in addition to a new wave of rockin’ bands such as Stray Cats and The Jets leading the charge for a rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll revival, it was those countless records and fresh-faced bands that made a profound impact on the burgeoning song writing career that Charlie Thompson was beginning to embark on.
As mentioned, it was rockabilly that really captured Charlie Thompson’s enthusiasm for music, and led to his first line up being established by the name of The Hot Rock Trio, before going on to be a major player in The Blue Star Boys.
“I started in a band called The Hot Rock Trio,” confirms Charlie to FLW. “The band consisted of Steve Swanny and Kevin McGhee and they were really nice guys. I was about twenty-three at the time, because it took me a long time putting a band together as it was difficult finding people who had the right skills. It also took me a while because I wasn’t particularly headstrong, and I didn’t want to upset people. However, I came across these guys, The Hot Rock Trio, who taught me a lot, as well as having experience on their side as they were about ten years older than me.”
What sorts of lessons did your fellow bandmates from The Hot Rock Trio pass onto you that still have a bearing on what you do now as a musician?
“Well, I used to do a lot of ballads, as I loved the slow songs,” replies Charlie. “Steve Swanny told me that if I want to perform slower songs live, then I’ve got to pick the [right] crowd. What he meant was that although it’s great to hear [such songs] sitting down, an audience will soon get bored if it’s not the right atmosphere for the slower songs. They also gave me a few tips regarding old records, where they’d slightly speed them up when performing cover songs live, or that it’s easier to tune a guitar to a piano than it is to tune a piano to a guitar, and you learn all things like that. So those two individuals from The Hot Rock Trio provided a real learning curve.”
Later on Charlie Thompson formed The Blue Star Boys, which included Randy Rich (Randy Rich & the Poor Boys) and Gregory T-Nash. The Blue Star Boys released a 10″ record, with one side being recorded in 1999, and the other side being recorded in 2000 as Charlie recollects: “It seems longer for some reason, but it’s not so long ago. Fifteen years ago for a record, but it took me a long time as we had been playing for two or three years before we even released a record. The reason for that was that we wanted to wait until we knew our style, and knew where we were going.”
In terms of where Charlie Thompson now finds himself, there is no doubting that he is on the right path with regards to knowing his ‘style’ and where he is going. The musical style that Charlie Thompson is currently peddling is probably best described as traditional country, but one in the sense that incorporates several of the traditional elements by taking snippets of country, honky-tonk, hillbilly and western swing and applying them in his own natural style and vision to make it his own interpretation. The results are incredibly authentic with a real sense of 40s and 50s country music being recreated, and one that is a long way from his base in the UK.
The proof is in the pudding with Charlie Thompson’s current album ‘The Foothill Sessions’, where you will be served up a fine selection of original compositions that evokes images of the aforementioned periods in history. But how exactly does Charlie Thompson view all of this, and is he comfortable with such descriptions as ‘hillbilly’ and ‘western swing’ when it comes to his music?
“I’m comfortable with it, but over here we do pigeonhole people a lot,” suggests Charlie Thompson in relation to his current sound. “Well, like you, it’s got many different genres. I like a primitive sound, especially with rockabilly because it has to be rough ‘n’ ready in my opinion, with a wooden, earthy sound. I also love the clearer sounds of Patsy Cline for example, and the bigger studios and the bigger [record] labels such as Columbia, Decca, RCA. I love that sound as well, as it always sounds warm and sounds like they’re not picking up the clarity of the instrument like a pin dropping on the floor, they’re picking up the note that the instrument makes. For example, when I listen to recordings, sometimes there’s a lot of bass and a lot of top and it’s more [about] listening to the pluck of a plectrum on a guitar than the note the guitar is playing. It’s very hard to explain, but I try to focus on the sounds of the instruments and create a nice, warm musical sound rather than hearing everything.”
What can you tell FLW about your current album ‘The Foothill Sessions’?
“‘The Foothill Sessions’ was pretty much recorded live,” begins Charlie on his latest full-length album. “We had to do a little overdub here and there where Jeremy (JW) Wakefield couldn’t make one of the sessions, so we left a space open for him in a couple of the recordings. But some of the recordings of ‘The Foothill Sessions’ were recorded completely live with one take which, as you know, if you screw up you have to do the whole thing again.
“The album was recorded in the States, and it took a long time to finish. The reason it took a while to complete was down to having to make continual visits to LA due to work commitments back home, and therefore being hard to fly out there to do mastering and things like that. We did some work back and forth over the internet, but I really wanted to be in the studio as I love a hands-on approach where I can tap Wally [Hersom] on the shoulder and ask for something. When you’re trying to do that from 3000 miles away, it becomes rather difficult. Therefore, the album was recorded over two years.”
What was the recording studio used for ‘The Foothill Sessions’, and who were the musicians involved?
“The recording studio was amazing!” replies Charlie enthusiastically. “The album was recorded in a beautiful studio called Wallyphonic, which is owned by Wally Hersom and situated in the foothills of the Pasadena mountain range. ‘The Foothill Sessions’ was recorded with some of the guys from The Lucky Stars [western swing band] such as Jeremy (JW) Wakefield, Dave Stuckey, Wally Hersom, as well as the musicians Bobby Furgo, Carl Sonny Leyland and TK Smith. The guys who turned up were all amazing, and they blew me away with the way that they walked through any rehearsals for the album. In particular, Dave Stuckey was really by my side, helping me in terms of getting things rolling and organising things.”
Are you a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to writing and recording your music?
“The thing is, I am like that, as I will wait five years to put something out because I don’t want to release a record in six months that I’m not going to be happy with,” replies Charlie. “I know that a record has got to be released eventually and that there’s a time schedule, but this is not my full-time job as I don’t have a label paying me $50,000 to produce a record. So it’s got to be right, and it’s going to be done right, and therefore I’d rather wait five years.”
It also appears that great care and attention to detail has been given to the artwork for ‘The Foothill Sessions’ because it is rather magnificent! Therefore, who was responsible for the artwork for your current album?
“Chris Wilkinson produced the artwork for ‘The Foothill Sessions’. He’s an amazing cover designer, and very period perfect as he’s even got it down to the title at the top of the album that you would have during the 50s so that you could flick through the records and quickly see what was there. It just happens as well that he’s in the rockabilly band that I have called Charlie Thompson and his Chickasaws (Irons in the rockabilly fire folks as mentioned earlier, FLW).”
It must be a great relief when you find the right personnel who understand what you are searching for creatively?
“I am extremely fussy and the musicians involved in ‘The Foothill Sessions’ were very good in diplomatically telling me that everything was alright [laughing]! Everything can become a fight when you’re trying to record at a studio that doesn’t really know what you’re doing. This wasn’t the case at Wallyphonic as they knew what I was doing, but going back to The Blue Star Boys when we recorded in London, you’re trying to fight all the time as you’re not in the 50s, and you’re not the engineer suggesting that we should sound in a certain way. Therefore, it becomes a struggle because you’re trying to achieve something with people who don’t know what you want, and their canvass is really wide and you’re ideas are more tunnel vision.”
The tunnel vision that Charlie Thompson speaks of is definitely down to specifics when it comes to his recorded output. However, to digress slightly, the varied personal tastes of Charlie Thompson in relation to different musical genres charts back to his teenage years, and can be identified in parts of his current working methodology that has seen this country cat apply his trade to a rhythm and blues styling with Benny and the Cats recently.
“I’m very good friends with Benny in Italy, and he has an amazing band,” explains Charlie regarding his involvement with Benny and the Cats. “My main thing is country music and I love honky-tonk and rockabilly, but I’ve always had a soft spot for rhythm and blues due to growing up listening to Capital Radio’s ‘Cruisin’ in the 80s. So Benny offered me a rhythm and blues set, which I agreed to as some of those country greats such as Ferlin Husky had a little bit of a genre change. We got together and we did a couple of shows in Italy. Benny explained to me his idea that we could do this Cajun song – a country song with rhythm and blues – in the sense that we have a rhythm and blues band and a rock ‘n’ roll band with country of course. So I picked out ‘Good Deal Lucille’, which I love and that’s on the B-side.”
Back to the country music as Charlie Thompson has been on the receiving end of some very positive news after being nominated for the Ameripolitan Awards for the second time in his career. This official recognition of Charlie Thompson’s contributions to country music was first identified in 2014 by the Ameripolitan Awards which, by the way, is the brainchild of legendary country musician Dale Watson. The Ameripolitan Awards was set up in response to Nashville’s commercialisation of country music into something that is basically pop music as summed up by the great man himself, Dale Watson:
“Nashville has torn out its roots and put ’em on the curb to be picked up by the garbage man. So we went and stole ’em and planted ’em in new soil. Hopefully something grows.” (Dale Watson, The Austin Chronicle, 13 February 2015)
The decision to set up the Ameripolitan movement in Austin, Texas, was also a reaction to the well-documented comment made by Blake Shelton – musician and television personality – who referred to the traditionalists of country music as “old farts” in 2013. Such a remark incensed Dale Watson to the extent that, in addition to setting up a new camp in Austin for country music to get back to its original roots with the Ameripolitan movement, he also penned a witty reply by way of a single release. Therefore, with a fresh nomination from the Ameripolitan Awards in the Honky Tonk Male category, how does it feel to be nominated for a second time for Charlie Thompson?
“I’m still flattered by it!” Charlie replies. “When I was nominated the first time, I was actually informed by Raina [Charlie Thompson’s wife and one half of the talented singing duo The Ranch Girls] that I had been nominated for an award and that it was in Texas. I was really blown away by it.”
What was the whole experience like when you went to the Ameripolitan Awards ceremony for the first time?
“I have to say that Dale Watson is an amazing ambassador for the Ameripolitan movement, and I was taken aback when he saw me and said, ‘Hey, you’re Charlie Thompson!’ and then he went up on stage and said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this m….beep!’ [laughs]. It was an amazing experience as I got up and did a couple of songs with the band, and it was really well received.”
How do you feel about the current criticism of Nashville and country music, and Dale Watson’s reaction to all of this with the Ameripolitan Awards?
“There’s a lot of politics going on in America at the moment with the Nashville sound in the sense that it has gone,” answers Charlie before going on to add, “and [certain quarters] are not interested in hillbilly, western swing and rockabilly and old country. In fact, one of the panellists on the American X-Factor for country music, Blake Shelton, made a comment and basically said, ‘Well, old country is for old farts and we’re moving with the times and doing this’. Dale Watson was really angry about it, and he can’t have been wrong because Ray Price [country artist] even chirped up by asking who this guy was, and that some of us like this country music and didn’t feel the need to change. So, Dale Watson came out with a song called ‘Old Fart’ which includes the line, ‘I’d rather be an old fart than a new country turd’ because he was so angry about it. There’s an interview out there, and it’s very interesting because he mentions that he decided to do something about it because he got so fed up with people pigeonholing older country artists. So he came out with that song and decided that Nashville has turned its back on country by cutting down the Nashville country tree, so to speak. Therefore, Dale Watson’s thinking was that they’d go over there and dig up the roots and replant them in Austin, and call it Ameripolitan.”
How do you feel about this current furore surrounding traditional country music?
“To me [country music] is a style. If you’re going to change a style, then let’s stop playing reggae because that’s been going since the 60s, or let’s stop rap music because that started in the 70s. I know that things change, but I like all the styles, and I always think that it’s nice to keep the different styles.”
Is it right that The Ameripolitan Awards caters for a few other genres other than country?
“The Ameripolitan Awards are what’s given to hillbilly, honky tonk, rockabilly, western swing and outlaw. Dale Watson said that the reason for doing that is because blues is doing absolutely fine as it’s got a massive scene of its own. But he felt that rockabilly is kinda being laughed at, and therefore he wants to give it the respect that it deserves because when it’s done right, it’s fantastic and stands with the rest of the genres. It [rockabilly] has gone through some bad times. For example, when you see some bands today, and I hate to say it, but some of them sound as if they’re just walking through the songs, and they don’t seem to feel the songs. I can cover a song, but there’s a reason why I want to sing it because I love it and and I almost wish that it was my song. I think that rubs off because I’ve had some really nice compliments from people when I have performed such songs live.”
With duty calling, Charlie Thompson begins to make his apologies due to another shift at the fire station fast looming. However, before bidding farewell, FLW is left with a brief anecdote that suggests the present could have been a completely different lifestyle for this country artist, if he had taken up a potentially lucrative contract with a major record label after a successful audition for a talent contest.
“When I was twenty-one, I won a talent show and I won a contract with Epic the recording company. They were interested in doing something with me, as I was invited to London to meet with one of their talent scouts. He said, ‘We really like what you do, but it needs to be different somehow’, and I probably shot myself in the foot or something because it was at a time when they wanted to put it to a dance beat; it was a time when Rick Astley was popular. I understood what they were thinking, but I actually refused, and the Epic guy thought that I was mad by commenting, ‘Do you realise what you’re throwing away?’ and stuff like that. But for me, I didn’t want to do that because I love rock and roll music. I love country. I love hillbilly. If I had gone ahead and did that [set his music to a dance beat], even at that age, the scene [rockabilly] would never had let me back in. I just thought of all those people who love the same types of music, looking at me and saying, ‘What are you doing?’ I questioned myself for a few weeks after the contract offer, and remember thinking that I must be stuck in a time loop and blinkered and all that, but then I thought that I love music.”
The Foothill Sessions is out now on Fairlane Records
(Photography courtesy of Gordon Ayres)
There's a lot of politics going on in America at the moment with the Nashville sound in the sense that it has gone."
FLW - From the Tapes
Before ‘The Foothill Sessions’ there was rockabilly and songs about fast cars. Charlie Thompson remembers one song in particular from his past that he shared with FLW.
“I’ve written a song from earlier about hot rods, with the inspiration for that song coming from when I was travelling in Texas. The song is called ‘Model A Ford’ and was released on Tail Records. The record was done in a real AM radio style sound, so it’s a real old sound. I got the inspiration for the song by talking to an older guy when I was twenty-three and he was coming up for retirement, as he was still driving the Greyhounds [buses]. I took the Greyhound to Lubbock to see Buddy Holly’s town. The driver was telling me that he had a fast car back in the 50s where half of the chassis were made of wood, which is crazy and you wouldn’t dream of doing something like that now. I don’t know what the car was that he had, but I remember the chassis [part]. So he actually gave me the inspiration for ‘Model A Ford’, and I put that in it: ‘The chassis all wood but before you cuss, the Cadillac engine can make quite a fuss’, because he had a Cadillac engine in his car. It was quite funny because when we were driving along in this Greyhound, the driver suddenly veered off the route and you could see the passengers at the back looking out of the windows and thinking this isn’t the usual route! He drove about a mile up the road, and then he turned left, and we were outside an old garage and there was this old 41 Pontiac and it was red with rust. He just stopped and said, ‘Look at that! That’ll make a fine hot rod!” and then he drove off. So I wrote that song with that story in mind.”