Randy Thompson,
Further On
(Jackpot, 2008)

According to the promotional material, Further On is Randy Thompson's third album. That's news to me. I hadn't heard him, or of him, before now, or if I had, the name did not last long in my imperfect memory. In any event, I learn I was indeed missing something. This is an exceptional album, deep, durable and built for repeated listening.

I will add that this is not mainstream Nashville country music. Maybe that's because Thompson lives in a tiny town in rural Virginia and insists on what he calls "a real Virginia feel." It's a nearly perfect integration of rock, country and -- most interestingly to me -- Appalachian folk music. Though every cut here is a strong one, the one likely to catch your attention first -- just before it blows you through the wall with its sheer energy and exuberance -- is the electric-slide-driven rock arrangement of the traditional "Goin' Down to Lynchurg Town." The slide player, by the way, is Thompson's son Colin, at the time of recording a mere 15 years old. This kid is going to be fun to watch in the years to come. Filling out the sound, along with Thompson on acoustic guitar and banjo, is the multi-instrumentally gifted Garrick Alden, working wonders on lead electric, bass and drums. This is one killer arrangement, an awe-evoking coming together of the venerable and the creative.

Another traditional piece is "Ol' 97," to which Thompson contributes an impressive new melody while leaving the lyrics -- about a real-life train wreck near Danville, Virginia, on Sept. 27, 1903 -- intact. He offers a hard-rockin' arrangement of Steve Gillette and Linda Albertano's often-covered "Molly & Tenbrooks," a rewriting of a folk ballad (sometimes called "Old Tim Brooks") about a July 4, 1878, horse race in Louisville, Ky. There's also a version of Utah Phillips's bitter and affecting "Rocksalt & Nails," recorded long ago by, among others, the country-folk singer-songwriter Steve Young, to whom Thompson dedicates the album.

One more stellar moment is the title song (not to be confused with the Carter Family's "Farther Along"), an affirmation of faith and hope in a graceful, elegant, old-time voice. In the liner notes Thompson says that the lyrics "were written by my grandfather Wesley Sober. They were found on an old yellowed piece of paper after he died."

The five wholly Thompson-composed songs are all in a confessional voice, the sort of thing that a lesser writer could easily render tedious and narcissistic. But Thompson writes with intelligence and insight and sings with blunt emotional force, bringing to mind both the material and the approach that the late Waylon Jennings handled so effectively in his prime. Beyond that, Thompson further endears himself to me when in "Songbird" he quotes a line from the Anglo-Celtic folksong "Once I Had a Sweetheart," proving he knows a thing or two about where it all began.

Thompson deserves far more attention than he's received so far. Let's hope Further On changes that soon.

review by
Jerome Clark

17 May 2008

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