Cyndi Thomson revisits her perfect sanctuary with rare Tifton benefit performance
Country chanteuse Cyndi Thomson infiltrated the collective consciousness like a shooting star. Dropped in the late summer of 2001, Thomson’s premiere record My World became the best-selling debut album by a female country artist since LeAnn Rimes’ Blue five years earlier. Three Top 40 hits were lifted from My World — “What I Really Meant to Say,” “I Always Liked That Best,” and “I’m Gone.” Debut single “What I Really Meant to Say” climbed all the way to number one, placing Thomson in elite company.
Possessing a charismatic girl next door vibe, the emotionally charged singer experienced constant touring and all the trappings that follow over-night stardom. Thomson’s personal contentment was fulfilled when she married producer-guitarist D.J. Goodman and had two children, Bella and Hayden.
Professionally it was another story by October 2002. In a shocking move that mystified listeners, a couple of weeks shy of her 26th birthday the former beauty queen voluntarily abandoned her Capitol recording contract and commitments at the height of her fame.
Thomson diligently cultivated a low profile, immersing herself in a “lost weekend” that bested John Lennon’s five-year sabbatical in the late ’70s. Repeated attempts were made to resuscitate her recording career with Capitol — tackling bluegrass or swamp rock was forbidden — and nothing came of it. Thomson’s songwriting oasis serendipitously never ran dry, as she co-composed the Top Five “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” for Gary Allan in 2006.
New music was a long time coming. Eschewing major labels, Thomson unleashed the five-song This Time EP in mid-2009 on her own Solitaire Records. This Time indicated a back to basics approach with more emphasis placed on lyrics — largely written by Thomson — underscored by acoustic guitars. The response was overwhelmingly positive among deep-rooted fans, but the absence of social marketing and publicity firms pushing This Time hindered its commercial impact.
The petite brunette quietly added the “Slow Me Down” digital single to her catalogue two years later. A subsequent three-song EP — My World: The Acoustic Sessions — materialized in 2015. Six months later press releases announced that Thomson had signed with George Jones-Alan Jackson-Zac Brown Band producer Keith Stegall’s just-launched Dreamlined Entertainment Group record label and intended to distribute a sole single, “Sippin’ Wine on the Water.” But Thomson had a change of heart and reneged on the deal for undisclosed reasons.
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but maybe these little bitty musical steps will lead to her second full-length album, as it’s been a staggering 17 years since My World was on its way to achieving gold certification by the RIAA.
The generous-hearted songbird has played benefits and one-time-only club gigs usually near her adopted home of Nashville but has yet to mount a full scale tour. On July 31, 2010, Thomson admittedly returned to her hometown of Tifton, Georgia, with a suitcase full of butterflies for an unforgettable, nearly sold-out Habitat for Humanity benefit held at the historic Tift Theatre with close family members in attendance. Incidentally, Thomson was present for the grand reopening of the 612-seat South Georgia venue in 1992.
Thomson commanded the stage for a 90-minute, intimate concert expertly balancing selections from My World, This Time, and her unexcavated archives. Backed by her husband on acoustic guitar and vocals, drummer Jay Coyle, guitar-fiddle-mandolin extraordinaire Matt Raum — both from Nashville — and Tifton’s own Vann Thornton on keyboards, the songs were stripped down to their bare essentials, creating a sublime window into the singer’s heart and soul that left fans aching for more.
A heretofore unknown master raconteur, Thomson actually stumbled into Dolly Parton and Martina McBride on two separate occasions in Nashville bathrooms. If you’ve never caught the sultry “I’m Gone” balladeer live and in person, hang tight for a most thorough review of what you’ve been missing.
The Ultimate Cyndi Thomson Concert Review
With temperatures soaring over 100 degrees, an ominous lightning storm almost derailed many concert-goers’ attempts to get to the show on time, but providence came to the rescue. For the 250 or so who braved the extreme weather, it was a night to remember.
The Stellas, a married country music duo from Ontario, Canada, opened the show with a 30-minute set. The pair’s 2009 audition for CMT’s short-lived Can You Duet? prompted judge Naomi Judd to yell, “Show’s over! Give them the contract now!” The Stellas eventually earned a fourth place finish.
With only their voices, an acoustic guitar, and occasional percussion on display, they quickly set the acoustic vibe for the evening. Their harmonies were especially memorable on a dazzling version of the Everly Brothers’ devastatingly classic single “Love Hurts.”
Let’s hope the duo didn’t have to drive back home after the gig, but a bright future is definitely on their horizon. About a year after the Tifton show the Stellas’ self-titled debut appeared on the major label EMI Music in Canada. Check out a 4-song EP featuring selections from the album.
Chris Beckham, a local morning disc jockey on WTIF 107.5 and editor of the regional magazine Our Town, was master of ceremonies for the main event. Not your typical concert experience, Mr. Beckham asked the singer to discuss her career and life throughout the evening.
And she is a great storyteller. From the moment she walked out, the quintessential South Georgia girl seemed comfortable and happy to be in front of a live audience, although she admitted being nervous.
One gentleman let out a big, “Woo hoo!,” prompting Thomson to remark, “Keep doing that, because it will make me feel comfortable. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a big band show, and I’m excited that it’s here.” She went on to thank her mom and dad “for cooking all the good food.”
The first song of the evening was “I Couldn’t Stay Away From You,” an unreleased selection. Introducing her little five-year-old daughter from the stage, the songwriter mentioned Bella had never seen her mom live before.
“On my way out the door today with my mom, Bella was in her pajamas and blanket,” Thomson engagingly recalled. “She told me to have a great show on TV. I said, ‘I’m not going to be on TV, and you’re going to come and wear your ice cream dress that I ironed’. Bella just replied, ‘Oh’ and rolled over and pulled up the covers.”
There were a few slight stage monitor problems between songs, but these irritations only seemed to make the artist strive to engage her audience more. As she admitted, the Tift Theatre was the “perfect place for me to come and get my feet wet again.”
“I Always Liked That Best” was one of Thomson’s big hits, and Beckham prompted her to share a jewel about its official music video. “When we shot it, Capitol wanted a guy in the video,” said Thomson. “They actually suggested my fiancé at the time, who’s now my husband. I was thankful for that, so when we shot it and saw the end result, I had to race it home to my daddy before it got on CMT.
“I remember coming in, and Mom and Dad were sitting in the den. We put it on, and I didn’t know if we should talk about it. Dad didn’t say anything — it was probably kind of sexy for him. I’m just his baby so it was really hard. I had to let him approve the video, but I don’t think he really did approve, but boy was I scared.”
Beckham then encouraged Cyndi to recall a celebrity encounter that was both weird and memorable, to put it mildly. “Martina McBride kept ‘Like It’s the First Time’ for a long time,” said Thomson. “She would listen, but it’s like shopping in a store where you find a shirt you like. You ask the clerk to hold it, you think about it, and you come back and get it.
“I was just hoping to get a cut by Martina McBride, so one night I went to an artist-driven charity wine dinner. There were a lot of artists there. I went into the bathroom, I walked into the stall, and there’s Martina on the toilet. I immediately froze. I didn’t do the proper thing, which was to shut the door. Instead, I just stood there and stared at her sitting on the toilet.
“Finally I exclaimed, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry’. I’m still looking at her, and she had to shut the door for me! Later, she came out of the bathroom, and I was very embarrassed. Martina laughed, trying to reassure me that it was no big deal.
“She told me I needed to write a hit song for her. I thought, ‘Wow, she knows I write.’ I responded, ‘Well, you’ve been listening to a song of mine. Maybe you’ll cut it’. Martina then asked me to sing it for her. I immediately thought, ‘I’m not singing for you.’
“At this point we’re walking back to dinner, so I finally sang a little bit of it for her. She told me it was a good song. So after all that, Martina still said she was thinking about cutting it. I reckon she still is…”
After performing “Like It’s the First Time” from This Time and the unreleased, rockin’ “Sippin’ Wine on the Water,” Thomson prefaced the title cut of her debut album by admitting, “A lot of My World was definitely about Georgia. It was important for me to put that into my music. The title cut basically established what I wanted Georgia to sound like so anybody not from there could understand their way to it.”
Beckham entered stage right shortly thereafter, mentioning that Tony Brown, Elvis Presley’s pianist during the final few years of his life and later the president of MCA Records in Nashville, considered Thomson to be one of the pre-eminent singers in country music.
Another strange restroom story involving a famous country music singer soon ensued, with the talented artist admitting it was her favorite story, hinting that “Everyone’s wanted to meet this person, and I usually get asked if I have met her…
“There are rehearsal halls in Nashville with big rooms where artists store their instruments. You can also sound-check or perform for your manager/agent. One night I was there late with my band, and no one else was renting any of the other rooms…at least I didn’t think so.
“Anyway, I went into the restroom. I’m just going to tell the truth…I was sitting on the toilet tee-teeing. I heard these little heels come into the bathroom, and I heard this voice. I thought, ‘Uh-oh,’ and she picked the stall next to me. So she’s tee-teeing. My mind went into overdrive. I thought, ‘I’ve got to meet her. Should I wait until we get out? Should I wash my hands first?’
“The lady in question was Dolly Parton! We both came out of the stall, and I tried to act cool. I washed my hands, but I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!’ Her friend, Judy Ogle, had come in with her — they’re both very little — so I smiled at them in the mirror. Dolly then washed her hands.
“We walked out of the bathroom, and I thought, ‘I would be foolish if I didn’t say hello to her.’ So I told her how much I loved her, and she actually knew who I was. I couldn’t help but say how much I enjoyed Steel Magnolias  and ‘Trudy’s Christmas Quickie,’ the hairdo Dolly’s character was known for. Wasn’t I such a creepy person?” [laughs].
The master of ceremonies, Chris Beckham, picked up on a topic very dear to Thomson’s heart when he asked her to shed light on her songwriting process. Thomson noted, “I learned pretty quickly that I needed to tell my stories. And I didn’t know whether I was a storyteller until I sat down with the right people and started crafting my ideas.
“I just found that I loved the process so much. I’ve been writing since 1998, but not as much as I used to because I have two little ones. When we started writing for the second record, it was hard because I felt a little rusty. Nevertheless, the first song we wrote for this record ended up being my last song to turn into my publisher.
“The man I’d written it with, Tommy Lee James, did not want to sing it, so I told him to just put it on his demo session. I didn’t think it was a girl’s song. On the day we’d driven in to write the song, I asked God, ‘Please give me an idea’. Miraculously, the title popped into my head.
“So we get there, we write it, he demos it, and fortunately, someone at the publishing company was up late listening to songs that had just been turned in. He ran it over to the studio to someone he thought would be perfect for it — Gary Allen — and I couldn’t have agreed more.”
Thomson was referring to the hit 2006 song “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful.” Listening to her expressive voice and Thornton’s glimmering piano notes truly revealed a heartbreaking, classic country song.
“I’m Gone,” another well-known, bouncy song from her debut, followed. The singer referred to it as “one the label made me put on the record. At the time, I thought, ‘I’m not so sure about it.’ Regardless, it ended up being a single. And in a way, it ended up being prophetic.” She had to encourage the crowd to clap at several points because “it makes it sound cool,” but many people preferred to sit on their hands.
The million dollar question on many folks’ minds finally occurred. Beckham asked Thomson why she abandoned her career. Thinking a bit, she thoughtfully replied, “Well, it was a crazy life, one I’d always dreamed of having. Honestly, no one knows what that’s like until they’re swimming in it. The dream started here in Tifton, and I wanted it more than anything.
“Everything was very imbalanced, and no one expected it to do as well as it did. There were too many people in the pot as well as a lack of communication, and I was running across the USA constantly. Somewhere in there I needed to be able to brush my teeth or wash some clothes.
“I was in the back of my tour bus one night. At this point I had been crying all the time, waking up in the middle of the night, hitting my head on the bunk, not knowing where I was. It started scaring me because I thought, ‘This isn’t what I dreamed music to be.’ I knew if I didn’t walk away I would never come back, and it was the hardest decision I ever had to make.
“I didn’t leave for my family — I left because it was between me and God. It was a true test, and I’m not saying I won’t ever go back, because I have the itch again. I have two beautiful children, and my marriage is very solidified. I miss it, but it was wild.
“I’ve been biding my time because I know what it takes to do that job, and you have to want it more than anything. I want it, but not more than anything. I want a lot of things to stay the same, so I’ve got to find a way to make that work. I did a little 5-song acoustic record that I decided to do mainly for me. Honestly, I recorded it to put my toe in the water to see how it felt again.”
Before the fiddle-laced, still-unreleased “Get Me Back to You,” the songwriter explained why a second Capitol album didn’t happen. “I always wanted to make a bluegrass record, and I expected Capitol would allow me to make a bluegrass record,” revealed Thomson. “But they just looked at me sideways. I thought it would be fun to do something different, because as a musician you aren’t always one thing.” As the song concluded, she let out a big “Yee-Haw!,” adding “So there, record company.”
Treating the audience as good friends, Thomson felt comfortable enough to admit her backing musicians “had our first rehearsal as a whole band this morning. We come from all places, so it’s been a little bit maddening. But it’s come together.”
In an interview several days later with Thornton, he recalled he was “so shocked and humbled when I got the call last Friday. Cyndi must have run out of options [laughs]. It was tough trying to learn the songs while doing band camp 12 hours a day.”
“I had a connection with Cyndi in that I was her junior high band teacher. She was terrible at clarinet so I talked the chorus teacher into taking her. I knew she could sing, but I never had a clue how much talent she had!”
The singer then addressed a common question fans have — what is her favorite song? Although she didn’t explicitly state why she chose “If You Were Mine” from her first album, perhaps she originally wrote it about her future husband. Regardless, the mandolin and acoustic guitar created a beautiful soundscape under her strong, longing vocal.
Beckham posed the final question of the evening when he asked Thomson what’s next in her career. Grappling a bit for an answer, she had no specific plan, but she candidly admitted, “I just want to sing again, since I do miss it. I was letting this be the test. I’ve met with people I respect in the industry to see if I can dive in. Like my husband says, you just have to move forward to know if it’s the wrong thing, and so I think I’m going to keep moving forward.”
As cheers immediately greeted her reply, “Sanctuary” was up next, the penultimate cut on This Time. Thomson relayed, “My cowriter, Tommy Lee James, wrote this with another person, Pat Bunch. We were talking about songs for ‘This Time’, and Tommy played it for me one day, and I just wept the whole time.
“I thought, ‘Why didn’t Tommy write that with me?’ But it wasn’t meant for me, and I think it’s the ultimate love song. It’s not a typical one — it’s more of the real side of love. We sing all the fun things, the sweet things, but this is what it really is.”
Featuring only her husband’s acoustic guitar, her performance was identical to the studio version, and lines such as “Place of rest, I lay my head against your chest” easily backed up her claim.
Thomson’s problems with former label Capitol Records came front and center once again as she confirmed why she composed “You Can’t Swim in the Mississippi,” another unreleased tune worthy of an official release. “I like swampy music, my record label didn’t, so I wrote a swampy song,” said Thomson. “The guy I wrote it with did the demo without my knowledge, using his own vocal, and then later gave it to Capitol.
“One day I showed up at the label, and they said, ‘Come into the boardroom, we’d like to play you something’. After listening, the label reps told me they liked it, but I was thinking, ‘Didn’t you say no swampy music?’”
“What I Really Meant to Say,” Thomson’s best-known song, had to be featured somewhere, and it became the penultimate song of the concert. Thomson humorously preceded the performance by divulging, “Someone at the meet and greet kindly asked me if I would be doing it tonight. I told him I would be doing it for the rest of my life, even when I’m in Branson, Missouri, in my ’70s. I’m thankful for this song, because it’s definitely been a blessing in my life.
“It is a true story about a terrible break-up I had. My husband is here, and it’s always so weird to talk about these things, but he’s pretty confident in our relationship. So, one night when I got home, I pulled out this yellow notepad, and I wrote at the top of the page, ‘What I Really Meant to Say.’”
After the performance, the artist and the band left the stage amidst a rousing standing ovation, but only temporarily, as an encore soon commenced. Asking if her little girl had fallen asleep or was busy playing a video game, the songwriter was gracious in thanking everyone who attended.
The bridge of “The Best Is Yet to Come,” with prominent organ and mandolin, was the perfect finale to a special evening — “It’s been a long, long time, since the sun came back…beautiful days are up ahead…I can’t let myself forget…the best is yet to come.”
“Better Things”, a standout R&B song on Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, awaited concert-goers as they made their exit. Although appropriately chosen, the bouncy soul number likely surprised more than a few folks accustomed to only country.
In the future, perhaps the songwriter will consider revisiting her hits in the studio as her acoustic, unplugged versions hold considerable merit [on September 25, 2015, Thomson followed suit by dropping the three-song My World: The Acoustic Sessions digital-only EP]. And it’s a shame that Thomson is letting so many unreleased tunes gather dust in her archives. “Sippin’ Wine on the Water” has hit potential if given a full band treatment.
Thomson seemed overjoyed to be in front of a live audience again. She called the show a test of sorts, and if that’s the case, she passed with an A+. Of the new songs performed off of This Time, the delicate rendering of the title cut along with the confessional ballad “Til I Get Over You” both received well-deserved applause, a feat which hopefully encouraged the singer to keep pursuing her songwriting muse.
Although she may not desire to command the country charts today, she is still an artist with something to say. That can’t be denied, and anyone who gets an opportunity to see this talented singer-songwriter should not pass it up.
[Author’s Note: On February 26, 2017, nearly seven years after Thomson last conquered Tifton, the singer-songwriter and her acoustic-pickin’ husband returned as part of the “South Georgia Strong” tornado benefit held before a sparsely attended but enthusiastic crowd at the UGA Tifton Campus Conference Center. Ably tackling “I Always Liked That Best,” “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful,” “Sippin’ Wine on the Water,” and “What I Really Meant to Say,” also part of the evening’s multi-artist lineup were country artists T. Graham Brown, John Berry, Buddy Jewell, and Ray Scott].
Cyndi Thomson at the Tift Theatre, Tifton, Georgia, July 31, 2010, Setlist
- “I Couldn’t Stay Away From You” [unreleased]
- “Hope You’re Doing Fine” [My World, 2001]
- “I Always Liked That Best” [No. 21 C&W, My World, 2001]
- “Like It’s the First Time” [This Time EP, 2009]
- “Sippin’ Wine on the Water” [cancelled 2016 A-side]
- “My World” [My World, 2001]
- “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” [No. 4 C&W 2006 for Gary Allan, written by Cyndi Thomson and Tommy Lee James]
- “It All Goes By” [unreleased]
- “I’m Gone” [No. 31 C&W, My World, 2001]
- “Slow Me Down” [2011 digital single]
- “Get Me Back to You” [unreleased]
- “This Time” [This Time EP, 2009]
- “If You Were Mine” [My World, 2001]
- “‘Til I Get Over You” [unreleased]
- “Sanctuary” [This Time EP, 2009]
- “You Can’t Swim in the Mississippi” [unreleased]
- “What I Really Meant to Say” [No. 26 POP, No. 1 C&W, My World, 2001]
- “The Best Is Yet to Come” [unreleased]
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