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Music Review: Randy Thompson – Collected.

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There has always been a dynamic tension between old and new in the more thoughtful forms of country music.  How does one combine traditional forms with modern instruments and rhythms?  Bluegrass, for example, was created when Bill Monroe and company took traditional sounds and repackaged them in a new, hard-driving approach..

Randy Thompson has been composing and playing what he calls “Virginia Red Dirt Roots Music” for a couple of decade, and has several albums to his name (Wearin’ Blue – 1998, That’s Not Me – 2004, Further On – 2008).  He traces his Virginia bloodline back to the 1700s, specifically to the picturesque and historic Piedmont region.  Many of his songs reflect this roots heritage.  Collected. consists of 12 songs redone from previous releases, plus three new songs.

Thompson’s band (including Garrick Alden – lead guitar, Rickie Simpkins – fiddle/mandolin, Andy Hamburger – drums), has a distinct musical style.  Part of it comes from Thompson’s taut, expressive baritone.  The songs he writes merge traditional styles with more modern concepts.  Finally, the group combines traditional, acoustic instruments with heavy rock-style rhythms and highly amplified electric instrumentation.  The result is an enjoyable multi-layered mix of country, rockabilly and classic folk sounds.

“Songbird”, which opens the CD, blends high-volume electric guitars and a heavy backbeat, underlined by banjo arpeggios and traditional call-and-response lyrics:

Where are you going, with your head hung down that way
Where are you going, with your head hung down that way
I’m looking for a songbird to keep in a cage.

Will your songbird whistle, will your songbird sing,
Will your songbird whistle, will your songbird sing,
My songbird will whistle, but only for me.

The song concludes on a less possessive mindset:

Where are you going on such a fine day,
Where are you going on such fine, fine day,
I’m looking for a songbird so I can set her free.
 

“Unknown Zone”  explores Thompson’s Virginia roots, specifically the heritage of the Civil War. 

If you go down, Virginia town
I’m gonna tell you, son,
It’s the same red blood as your own,
Down in Virginia mud
Down in that red Virgina mud …

Hey now, what’s that sound whispering in the wind
Maybe you heard what you thought you did,
It’s the phantom cavalry of Mosby* and his band,
Riding hard into the wind.
You turn around and they’re gone,
Yeah, You’re entering an unknown zone.

Other songs include:

  • “You Can’t Talk Like That”, a more conventional-sounding country song of defiance toward an old flame.
  • “Twang This”, a rockabilly hymn of resentment toward a social-climbing antagonist, featuring lead guitar from Thompson.
  • “One Guitar”, a wistful-sounding song about finding refuge from the confusion and tumult of the modern world.

Thompson also revamps some traditional songs, including “Molly and Tenbrooks”, a song closely identified with Bill Monroe.  In a catchy version of “Goin’ to Lynchburg”, Thompson switches the major key to a modal one.  The song features a clawhammer banjo solo from Thompson, a two-step drum beat, and some nifty high sustain, heavily-amplified slide guitar solo from his son Colin.

But the tour de force of the album is Thompson’s reworking of “Ol’ 97”.  Thompson changes the melody from major to minor, while Garrick Alden on electric guitar and Ricky Simpkins on fiddle trade solos at breakneck speed.  The song perfectly captures the picture of a train racing downhill  toward hell (the hero of the song, after all, gets scalded to death by engine steam).

Thompson said this about Collected.:

“I wanted this to be the album you’d play in the car when you’re driving down Route 66 with the windows wide open.”  It portrays a simple feeling, but the statement is more complicated than that.  Most people don’t listen to music with the windows wide open – they roll up the windows to avoid the wind obscuring the sound (not to mention avoiding the possibility of road rage from other motorists).  And Route 66?  As fabled as it is in American folklore, it’s pretty much obsolete – parts of it don’t even exist anymore.

Perhaps Colonel Mosby and his men aren’t the only ghosts roaming the landscape.

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About Phillip Barnett

Phillip Barnett is a software geek with multiple, conflicting musical fantasies. He has played jazz piano, folk guitar and klezmer clarinet (not all at the same time - that would look ridiculous and would probably hurt his back).