“I write from my heart about real people and events,” says singer-songwriter Allen Thompson. “Unfortunately, reality isn’t often pretty, so you won’t find a lot of sunshine and sugar in my songs.”
Thompson’s new album 26 Years offers something more: inviting melodies, lyrics charged by his resonant baritone and bracingly honest turns of phrase, and earthy acoustic arrangements evocative — but never derivative — of musical inspirations like The Band, Lucinda Williams, the Replacements and Jimmie Rodgers.
The Virginia-raised, Nashville-based Thompson is intensely focused on honing his craft as a writer. “I’m trying to carve my own niche, not settle into someone else’s,” he declares. “I’m not good-looking enough to risk having my career based on anything else.” He’s also passionately devoted to understanding what came before him so he can build on that artistic foundation. A self-avowed “huge dork when it comes to American music,” he’s drawn to music and writers who understand their past and respect it with “references to old folk tales and books and such. So much music nowadays is divorced from that context. It’s such a shame. I’d like to make the effort to bring that back and update it for our generation.”
He decided to record an acoustic album in part because he wants to play more acoustic shows. “It’s been difficult trying to get gigs sending Southern rock records [2006’s Highway and 2008’s Allen Thompson] out to club owners, then showing up with just me and a guitar,” he admits. “Plus, I was always in love with albums like Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’. They’re acoustic records, but they’ve got hardcore rock ‘n’ roll attitude.”
That description applies to 26 Years too. “Forgive Me” and “All These Years” kick with the loose, jugband joy of noodle dancers at a Grateful Dead or Flying Burrito Brothers concert, while Thompson’s poetic lyrics flow with the ease of good conversation, particularly on the empathetic “26:1.” Nominally about Gram Parsons, whose Southern family history of alcoholism, mental illness, heartbreak and suicide eerily echoes Thompson’s own, “26:1” is also a bittersweet tribute to the music that helped Thompson survive a rocky childhood spent bouncing between his parents and maternal grandparents.
“There’s 26 years in an hour of darkness and you’re lost in a hotel room
You can’t recall the night ever taking so long to break through
You spent your life praying for someone to tell you the truth
’Cause you were raised by lies, dissatisfied, so lonely and blue
“I’m quite proud of all of the tunes on 26 Years and all of the great people I assembled to work on them,” Thompson says. “Some of the songs are about my relationship with my mother. Some are about my relationship with my fiancé. Some are about my relationship with the South. Some are about my relationship with myself.”
“I’ve run so far from nowhere, I can’t go back to say nothing to you/ And truth is what you find inside yourself when your dreams don’t come through,” he sings on “Virginia.” Like “Forgive You,” another dramatic high point, it’s sung over a quietly relentless mandolin and a Dobro whose keening tone underscores Thompson’s barely contained wail, its lyrics piercing with the force of hard memory: “I could not leave home/ Home left me.”
Thompson eyes his past like a gauge to keep him honest. Resolutely focused on the future, despite having survived a childhood straight out of a gothic Flannery O’Connor novel, he’s no victim; rather, he’s a scarred but savvy observer of life and the human beast. Like the truest of artists, he translates his pain into insight that informs his art. He maintains balanced perspective on his experiences by viewing them as characters or events within a more expansive canvas, a la revered novelists and painters such as Vladimir Nabakov, James Joyce, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Vincent Van Gogh. “William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is about this certain type of family that’s sort of dying out in the South,” he comments. “That’s sort of the picture that I wanted to paint, because at the end of the day I wouldn’t be trying to release a record that was done just for my own personal therapy. I want to release a record that other people can relate to as well.”
Currently booking tour dates through the summer and fall, he also has an album release and a wedding looming on the near horizon. 2009 is going to be a very busy year. “Getting married and going on tour and promoting a record — that couldn’t be better for me,” he enthuses. “I’m so excited, I can’t wait for it to get here.
“This is the only job I know how to do. I’m happiest when I do it, and everyone around me is happy when this is what I’m doing. It’s been a pretty strange experience getting here, and not the one I envisioned for myself. But I guess it never is for anybody.”