Verlon Thompson brings a career of hit songs to Tybee Post Theater
By: Jim Reed – DO SAVANNAH
You may not recognize singing guitarist Verlon Thompson’s name, but if you’ve enjoyed country and modern folk music at any point in the past few decades, you may just have a few of his songs in your record collection.
That’s because the prolific songwriter has seen an impressively broad range of artists in those genres include their own versions of several of his tunes on their own albums, often to great fanfare. Randy Travis’ “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me,” Kenny Rogers’ “If I Were You,” Barbara Mandrell’s “You Know What I’m Not Talking About,” Trisha Yearwood’s “You Say You Will” and Jimmy Buffett/Alan Jackson duet on “Boats to Build” — all were originally penned by Thompson.
And that, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Suzy Bogguss had a top 20 country hit on the Billboard charts with his “Cross My Broken Heart.” Back in 2011, Dierks Bentley, Jamey Johnson and Miranda Lambert scored a Grammy nod for Vocal Collaboration on Thompson’s tune “Bad Angel.” In 2010, the International Bluegrass Music Association even nominated “The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle” for Song of the Year. That’s a track Thompson co-wrote with Sam Bush and the iconic Texas balladeer Guy Clark (whom Thompson has routinely recorded and toured with for years now).
But, here’s the thing: if any artist could lay claim to offering up the most authentic versions of Thompson’s songs, it would surely be the man himself. After all, he wrote ’em!
On May 13, for only the second time in his lengthy and acclaimed career, this highly skilled and captivating stage performer will appear in our area. Thompson graces the stage of the recently reopened, 200-seat Tybee Post Theater for an intimate evening of words and music that should be of great interest to all who appreciate finely honed acoustic songcraft.
I caught up with Thompson a few days ahead of the show for an extended chat.
I’ve known many serious, career songwriters in my life, and to a one, they’re a special breed of folks, with perhaps more steely-eyed determination and drive to create art than just about any people I’ve ever met. What sort of personality traits or similarities have you come across in your decades of crossing paths with fellow songwriters?
VT: Well, I think most of the writers I know have a love for words and the artful use of language. In my case, it might have been the result of growing up out in Oklahoma around great storytellers. Most of the characters out there tell tall tales as a way of life. They don’t really practice as such, it’s just an everyday occurrence. Picture two old cowboys, pickup trucks parked side by side, elbows hangin’ out the windows, and you’ll get the picture.
What sorts of sacrifices have you had to make to live the life of a professional, performing and recording songwriter?
VT: As far as the sacrifices I made or make … I really never dreamed of — or wanted to be — rich or famous. I just wanted to be happy. Music has always made me happy, so I haven’t really noticed the sacrifices much.
There’s something about being raised or living in Texas that has spurred some of the finest and most indelible folk, country and blues songs ever written. You’re from near there, in Oklahoma, and for ages now, you’ve worked alongside the great Guy Clark, who many feel personifies the notion of a Texas troubadour. What is so especially inspirational about that part of the U.S. that lends itself to conjuring up compelling and memorable stories or songs?
VT: Again, I think there is something about that wide open, spacious part of the country that precipitates the telling of tales, lies, stories, etc. The life of a cowboy, a rancher, a farmer … Those occupations allow a good amount of time for pondering, considering, and just daydreaming in general. Add the fact that these old boys and gals might not see another person for days or weeks on end. When they do finally get together, they’re ready to share all their thoughts and theories and made-up lies. It’s entertainment. Same thing happens with sailors and the sea.
You have an impressive command of your instrument. What drew you to the guitar? Did it come easy to you, or did you struggle with it initially? Do you play any other instruments?
VT: Well, thanks. I’ve never heard it put that way. I’m not sure if I control the guitar or it controls me. My mother was — and is — a mandolin player. She plays a little guitar as well and taught me enough chords that I could back her up while she played mandolin. The old folks used to call it “second.” She would say, “Verlon, I want you to second me on ‘Boilin’ Cabbage.’”
My grandpa bought me a Sears catalogue guitar with the stipulation that I’d learn to play his favorite song, “Red River Valley.” It came easy and I never did struggle. It’s never been work to me. Some days I’ll play for five or six hours just for pure enjoyment. It’s medicine, it’s therapy, it’s a friend … All those corny things you hear guitar players say. It’s true.
The guitar is my main instrument but I mess around with most all of the other stringed instruments. My latest adventure is with the steel guitar — and it might be the death of me. That thing is not an instrument, it’s a science project! I sit down and try to learn a few things on the steel, and before I know it, I’m cross-eyed and hunch-backed with a two-day beard! It’s really a fantastic but incredibly challenging instrument.
How old were you when you first began to compose your own songs, and what form did those early tunes take? Were they reminiscent of any particular artist you were fond of? When you look back on those early attempts at songwriting, do any of them stand the test of time, or do they seem more like rough sketches for the types of songs you’d later come to craft?
VT: I wrote my first songs when I was in the third or fourth grade. Merle Haggard had just emerged and I was mesmerized by his music. I was trying to emulate him when I wrote perhaps the only prison song ever written by a fourth-grader. It was called “Why Didn’t I Listen To My Momma.” It’s actually not bad. Pretty funny to think of a fourth-grader singing a prison song. My mom made me a harmonica holder out of a coat hanger. With that thing around my neck, I would play guitar and sing this prison song and blow some lonesome harp. And yes, in a very primitive way, it shows a hint of how I work today.
You’ve said that “having a song covered is what I live for.” Besides the obvious potential for financial benefit if the cover were commercially released, is that more because of the implied compliment in such an act — that someone else would feel enough of a connection to one of your creations that they would feel compelled to share it with others?
VT: No, no. It’s not the financial rewards. Although I do appreciate getting those royalties, it’s exactly what you said. It’s the fact that one of my creations has moved someone and compelled them to want to recreate their own version of it. Many unknown artists have recorded or performed my songs and those versions are just as flattering and sometimes more so than those of the big stars.
Many regard Guy Clark as one of the finest songwriters of his type this country has ever produced. As someone who’s worked intimately and traveled extensively with Guy, is there any one aspect of his talent or personality you value highly, but which may be underestimated or simply unknown to the average fan?
VT: Perhaps it’s the fact that Guy is not what I call a “natural” musician. He has to work really hard to learn to play one of his own songs and has to play it often or it goes away. Some players can play it differently every night, or in a different key, or a different groove with a band, etc. Guy pretty much does it the same every time or he gets lost. I’m not saying that’s a negative thing. It just speaks to his work ethic and how he overcame something that might have caused someone else to give it up. His work ethic is the thing.
How much of your own personal life experiences go into your songs? Are most or all of them rooted in your own reality, serving a biographical or confessional nature, or do you prefer to merely use your own memories and experiences as springboards for flights of imagination that wind up becoming the songs themselves?
VT: All of the above.
What’s the single biggest misconception people tend to have about singer-songwriters?
VT: That we “sell” our songs. We don’t. We own them forever and license them for others to use. At least that’s the plan. I heard that Willie Nelson once actually sold a song for $50. Years later, after it had produced a million dollars in royalties for someone else, he was able to buy it back. I can’t imagine what it must have cost him.
What can folks expect from your show at the Tybee Post Theater? How will it be structured, and what sort of material will your present?
VT: I’ll be taking the audience on a journey. It’s my life story in song. The first half of the show is meant to capture their imaginations and pull them into my world. The songs themselves are specific to me and my life but in the end, the audience feels like I’ve been telling their story as well. It’s not the usual “songwriter plays his hits” kind of show. It’s more like theater.
Have you ever visited our neck of the woods before — whether on a tour, or simply as a tourist? If so, what do you recall about Savannah or Tybee Island?
VT: I played a show there a few years ago and loved it. Some folks were nice enough to let me stay a few days in a little cottage on the island and I felt like a new man when I left. I had this idea of hiding away there to write an entire project. The place made me feel like I was Hemingway.
IF YOU GO
What: Verlon Thompson
When: 8 p.m. May 13
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave., Tybee Island
Cost: $20; all ages