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Here's what you should know about Richard Thompson: voted one of Rolling Stone's Top 20 guitarists of all-time, he grew up listening to traditional Scottish tunes and mid-century jazz, and as a teenager joined the British folk-rock outfit called Fairport Convention.

Fairport started in the '60s by performing cover songs. Yet even when he was 18, the impatiently inventive Thompson was dissatisfied with performing others' work. So he learned to write songs.

He's become one of the best storytellers in music. Here's one example from Thompson's 1994 song "Beeswing" about a wanderer for whom "even a Gypsy caravan was too much settling down."

<i>She was a rare thing / Fine as a beeswing / So fine a breath of wind might blow her away / She was a lost child / She was running wild, she said / As long as there's no price on love, I'll stay / And you wouldn't want me any other way.</i>

Combine lyrics like these with Thompson's guitar style — ranging from tender for ballads to incendiary on his rock songs — and you have a performer who deserves a place among rock's royalty.

And let's not overlook Thompson's distinctively British wit. When asked where he lives, he says: "London for the weather, L.A. for the culture." When fans yell out requests at his shows, he'll quip something like: You don't think I know what to play next?

Thompson became better known on this side of the pond in 1982, when he and then-wife, vocalist Linda Thompson, released "Shoot Out The Lights." With heartbreaking lyrics about a couple in crisis, the album sounds like a husband and wife fighting to the death of their relationship.

Yet the songs, including "Don't Renege on Our Love" and "Wall of the Death," were written "a year to two years before we split," he said.

"I suppose if they (the songs) were presaging something, it was unconscious or subconscious. We were not consciously charting our demise. It's only after the fact that you can look at it and say, 'Oh, it's a divorce album — look what these people were going through.' "

After the divorce, Richard Thompson rebuilt his career as a solo artist, hitting new heights on his 1988 album, "Amnesia" with its riveting song "Can't Win" about the emotional wounds parents inflict on their kids.

"Amnesia" and the next disc, "Rumour and Sigh" demonstrate the range of Thompson's work, from personal songs — "the names were changed to protect the guilty," he said — to imaginative story-telling.

Even in fictional character sketches, "there's always a bit of you in there, a bit of your life experience," Thompson said, through there's often much exaggeration. "You tend to write about people who are going through extreme circumstances, just everyday life doesn't show heroism or how people reveal their humanity. You have to have shipwrecks, you know, and mining disasters."

Released in 1991, "Rumour and Sigh" gave Thompson a moment of fame with the song "I Feel So Good" about a convict counting down the days to his release from prison. The album shows the panoramic range of Thompson's subjects, from the adolescent who thinks he can be a good lover because he "Read About Love" to the disheartened husband who has to beg for his wife's touch in "Why Must I Plead."

Thompson's best albums improve with age. Repeat listenings reveal ever deeper layers of emotion and musical subtlety. He has a knack for humanizing the fringe and downcast characters who live on the margins of our society — just listen to his lyrics from "God Loves a Drunk":

<i>Will there be any bartenders up there in Heaven?

Will the pubs never close, will the glass never drain

No more D.T.'s and no shakes

And no horrors

Very next morning you feel right as rain

O God loves a drunk, the lowest of men

With the dogs in the street and the pigs in the pen

But a drunk's only trying to get free of his body

And soar like an eagle high up there in heaven

His shouts and his curses are just hymns and praises

To kick-start his mind now and then

O God loves a drunk, come raise up your glasses, amen</i>

Onstage, even when he performs solo, Thompson sounds like he's playing two guitars at once.

"I was frustrated that guitarists couldn't do what piano players could do — (play) separate things with the left hand and the right hand," he said. "Through a style of finger-picking — playing bass and melody lines at the same time — I'm able to cover more ground. It's also come from playing in a band and then going out to do solo shows and trying to fill in the gaps."

After recording "Mock Tudor" in 1999 for Capitol Records, Thompson elected to leave major labels to manage his recordings.

"It's much nicer to be in control of the production of one's own records," he said, and "not have to answer to anybody else. It's a bit more local, a bit more down home. I hope I can continue to do it that way."

Thompson wrote the instrumental soundtrack for "Grizzly Man," the 2005 Werner Herzog film about a man who thought he'd become friends with bears. As in some of Thompson's songs, the film didn't end well for the main character.

Now 65, Thompson has been performing for almost half a century, but he has no desire to hang up his ax.

"I'd love to keep playing" for another 10 or 20 years, he said in 2009. "It would probably be nice to tour a bit less, but I can't think of anything I'd rather do than to keep touring and just die on stage — that would be fine."