Verlon Thompson is a singer songwriter originally from Oklahoma. He was the sidekick & long time writing partner of Guy Clark, another great songwriter. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Verlon at the Suwannee Spring Reunion on March 24, 2017 at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL.
Tom Wickstrom: The first time I saw you perform was with Jim Lauderdale in the Music Hall at the Fall Roots Revival here last year. The both of you play off each other really well. How long have you and Jim been playing like that?
Verlon Thompson: We started doing it here at the Suwannee Spring Reunion maybe 10 or 15 years ago. They just happened to pair us together. It was supposed to be a song writing workshop and Jim’s got that crazy wacky sense of humor and at the time I didn’t know him that well. I was so gullible that I believed what he was saying and next thing you know it turned into this funny guy/straight guy routine and we just kind of let it happen.Several years ago we got into this thing like we were fighting. It was totally made up on the spot, but we played it so well people really thought we were fighting.We made up this story about how Jim & I were going to do a reality show.Jim would get all the music gigs and I would stay home and do the laundry. It would be mostly about me since Jim would be gone playing music. The story got bigger and bigger and turned into this thing. Last year we created an apology as part of the story. People keep coming back expecting another episode in the saga.
TW: Your last CD was “Amplified”. What new music projects do you have coming up?
VT: Most of what I know I learned from Guy Clark. He never really planned a record, he just waited till he felt like he had a group of songs that represented a piece of his life’s work that he wanted to preserve and that’s kind of like what I’ve been doing. I’m about ready I think. I’ve got a group of songs I’ve been going over and whittling it down to an album’s worth of songs.
TW: Did you play any new songs today?
VT: The last song of my set about my travels with Guy Clark was a new one. Another one is about Sue Cunningham after she passed. A lot of it is stuff that sprouted and grew right here in the Amphitheater. Songs. People. Friendships. It’s crazy how much this festival has impacted my life.
TW: I didn’t know Sue Cunningham, but met Frank (Sue’s partner) last Fall here and wanted to ask you about Hickory Fest and Sue Cunningham and that special relationship you had.
VT: I actually wrote that song about Sue with Frank. The day of her memorial service we went back to the house. There we were sitting without her. Of all things, we decided to write a song right there on the spot. It’s called “I Love You More Than Anything”. It’s sort of a spiritual kind of out of body experience we were writing at because we were both in the middle of, (pause) I mean we had just come from her memorial service and we were sitting in her kitchen where her and Frank lived. She’s not there and its just Frank & I and we both had this urge, this need to write a song for Sue. It felt like we were visited there by Sue. Again it was another one of those friendships developed here. Sue would get up and play fiddle with me. I met Frank before I had met Sue, so he brought Sue into my life really.
TW: Has your songwriting process changed over time?
VT: I think I’ve sort of made a full circle. I started writing song when I was really young. I was a kid. I wrote a lot of songs about what was going on around me. That’s all I know. Some of those songs were pretty good when I was like 18 or 19. They started taking on a real weight. In my late 20’s I moved to Nashville and got a job as a staff songwriter for Loretta Lynn’s company. At that point it became a job and I had to write and create songs for people who were on the radio and I did that for over 15 years. I realized one day when I woke up that I didn’t want to go to the office anymore. What was I doing with an office? Secondly, why did I dread music? It’s my life blood. Something was not right there. I took a hard look at things and decided I wasn’t going to do that staff writing thing anymore. I gave up my position and started traveling more & doing my own shows. I realized that none of the songs I was creating wasn’t from my heart, but from my mind/my head/my brain. I made a definitive switch in directions and made up my mind to write songs that were written for a reason and for whatever reason it is, it has to be something to move me enough to write about it.
TW: Ever get political in songs?
VT: Not much. I’ve got 1 old song of mine that is not as much political. It’s called “The People Of The Earth” and it’s basically saying: “Listen. We are the people of the earth. We’ve got to live on this ball together” and I go into a little bit of…There’s a couple of lines about people living in countries where they’re looking down the barrel of a gun and that kind of stuff. I try not to get real political because it doesn’t help anything.
TW: Your career has come full circle. Now you’re the front man. How does that feel like? I’m really enjoying it.
VT: Well, I’m enjoying it too. When I was travelling with Guy Clark, I would still do shows on my own, but not near as many because Guy travelled so much. I’d travel with him for 2 months, then I’d do a couple of shows somewhere then I’d get back with Guy again for 2 or 3 months. I would never gain any momentum. i always did it. I loved doing it. When Guy passed, what else was I going to do? I was playing as much as I could and hoping the phone would still ring. Would people always think of me as Guy’s sideman, but luckily it’s snowballed and I’m really thankful for the way it’s working out.
TW: On the “Works” CD, I loved “The Ballad Of String Bean”, “Joe Walkers Mare” & “El Toro”, but I came across “Big Bad John”. Every other song on the CD has a songwriting credit to you except that one. What is the connection or story to that song?
VT: It was just one of those things that happened. I was playing in Baton Rouge one night and that afternoon in my hotel and turned on the TV and they were pulling those miners out of that hole in Chile where they pulled one guy out after the other. I just sat there watching that and that song “Big Bad John” popped into my head. I think I was actually tuning up my guitar and I just started playing it. That version, the talking version because the original was more of a novelty production. It was almost like a cartoon, but I always thought the lyrics were so great. The guy grabs an oak tree and lets out a groan. He’s the only one left down there alone. It’s just a great story. That night when I left the hotel and went to the gig. Everyone else had been watching it all day long. I said: “Here’s a tune for all the guys they’ve been pulling out of the hole all day” and I played that version of that song. Guy & I were both playing that night. He always let me do a few songs in the middle of his set. I did that song and Guy said: “God, I always thought that song was hokey but man that is a well written song”. I said yeah man nd I was working on the “Works” CD and decided to put it on there. It’s different.
TW: “The Guitar” gives me chills every time I hear it. What’s the story behind it?
VT: The story I tell on stage a lot is about the guitar itself that I play. Guy was in his workshop building a guitar and I was down there talking about this particular guitar that I was trying to find. It was a model, a Bourgeois Country Boy. At the time they were somewhat hard to find. I was complaining about how I couldn’t find one and Guy just looks up from his work bench and goes: “I think I have one under my bed”. Sure enough he had this Bourgeois Guitar that the distributor had given him in hopes to get Guy to endorse those guitars. Turns out the neck was too skinny for him, so he brought it home and shoved it under his bed. It had been laying there for 4 or 5 years. I told Guy it was exactly what I want. Guy said: “Just take it. I want you to have it”. I said: I’ll take it. It’ll always be in my custody but it will always be your guitar”. That’s the story I use to intro the song.
The story about the song is interesting because we wrote that when Guy & I were teaching at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio. We wrote it in a class with 9 other guys. We walked in that day and Guy said: “I ain’t no teacher. You want to write a song? Let’s write a song”. There were 11 of us and someone looked around the room and said it should obviously be about a guitar because we all had a guitar on our laps. By the end of the day, we had that song. Guy & I both thought that since it’s part of the class. After we left we didn’t think about it. It was an okay song. We stuck it in a drawer and about 2 years later I got a call from 1 of the students who asked if we had music to that song. He couldn’t remember how it went. I said: “I don’t know. Just make up your own music”. But it got me thinking about it so I reached into the drawer and pulled out the lyric. I laid it down on the table and just started playing those chords. I started speaking the words just like I do it now and when I finished, I had chills. It was better than I had thought. I called Guy up and told him I wanted to come over and play this song. He had forgotten about the song as well. I sat down and played the chords and spoke the words and Guy went: “Man, I’m putting that on my new record”. In 2 days we went in and recorded it for his record. If that student hadn’t called me back and reminded me, it would still be in that drawer.
TW: Final question. What has music taught you about yourself? VT: (Long Pause) Well, I guess maybe I would say that music has taught me or shown me that I have a power. Sort of a mystical or magical power that I don’t know how I got it and I don’t know exactly what it is but I know that I have it. Every time I go up there and play and people respond the way they do. I’ve seen live changed. I’ve seen tears cried. I’ve seen people brought back together. These songs have done so many things that I don’t think I could do if I was just Verlon Thompson with no guitar & no songs. It’s revealed an inner power that I don’t think I would have stumbled upon without it. The only time I haven’t played music is when I spent 4 years in the Marine Corps. They keep you pretty busy. I took my guitar all over the world wherever they would send me. I was playing but I wasn’t playing that much. Those were some of the emptiest years of my life as far as just my heart and soul. I felt like I was just going through the motions and it wasn’t necessarily the marine corps military life either. It was because I knew there was something inside me I was supposed to be pulling out and working with and I wasn’t doing it. The first thing I did when I got out, when I got discharged, I went straight to Denver Colorado and started playing in every honky-tonk ski town. I put together a band and made a record. That’s how it all started and I’ve never liked back. I’ve just never really had a plan, but I had complete faith that if I go out and play music, it will take care of itself and it has. I have never had a long range plan or knew what the next step is. I just go play and follow where it leads.
TW: Thank you very much for your time.