Singin’ a song, still livin’ the dream — The country roots of Thompson Square
Repeat winners of the coveted Academy of Country Music Top Vocal Duo award, Thompson Square is the quintessential rags to riches tale. The “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” husband and wife team of Shawna and Keifer Thompson divulge how they spent an agonizing 13 years soldiering amidst the trenches of Nashville’s Music Row before a major record deal landed on their doorstep exclusively below.
In a neat twist of serendipity, Shawna moved to Nashville after her high school graduation in 1996 to compete in an amateur singing competition. While trying out, her future mate happened to walk into the room, and sparks ultimately kicked into overdrive as their marriage became official three years later.
Among a laundry list of temporary job positions while pursuing their musical dreams, the couple worked as bartenders, bussed restaurant tables, hosted at the Nashville Palace, and dabbled in photography [Shawna] and graphic design [Keifer]. Most folks with common sense would have given up and returned home, but the couple demonstrated remarkable optimism and perseverance.
Gigs were solo and low paying for quite some time. Occasionally when a special showcase was booked, Shawna would join her husband onstage for a George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic such as “Golden Ring” or “We’re Gonna Hold On.” The room would suddenly go quiet while everyone listened with rapt attention, and the couple knew they had seized upon a good thing. After additional persuasion from friends and industry insiders, Thompson Square was born.
Of their five Top 20 singles notched between 2010 and 2013, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” was the most-heard song at country radio in 2011 according to Mediabase. “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About”, taken from the band’s second major label album on Stoney Creek Records, Just Feels Good, received additional encouraging country radio support.
Along with Florida–Georgia Line, Thompson Square was featured on Luke Bryan’s massively popular Dirt Road Diaries tour. The hitmakers’ ambitious tour schedule was nearly scuttled when Keifer developed a very serious vocal hemorrhage that resulted in nearly 10 shows being cancelled.
While recuperating, the band’s first novel, Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?, hit bookshelves. Based on their signature song and quite naturally underscored by the couple’s winding path to love and success, the book was co-written with Travis Thrasher, best known for his Christian-themed stories featuring broken characters on journeys toward redemption.
Shawna and Keifer graciously took time away from their busy schedules to rhapsodize on topics ranging from their diverse early musical influences growing up in small town USA to the moment when both realized singing was their true destiny.
The musically inclined pair also share the story behind the fan favorite ballad, “I Don’t Wanna Miss You”, reveal why they go uncredited as album producers, whether songwriting happens on tour, the dream destination for recording their next album [Hint: it’s not in the USA], how fame threatens their sense of anonymity, and their definition of the perfect day.
The Thompson Square Interview
Growing up in small town America, what artists caught your fancy?
Shawna: Where I’m actually from is not even a town [laughs]. It’s like a little community right in the middle of nowhere. The closest town is Chatom, Alabama. Every month there would be a bluegrass festival at a park. My daddy would always take me. We’d sit out there and listen to music all day long.
Traditional country music was all my daddy ever listened to — George Jones, Hank Williams, John Anderson. When I became old enough to make my own decisions regarding what music I wanted to check out, it was still in a similar vein — Alabama, Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis.
Keifer: I’m from Miami, Oklahoma. Fortunately, the much larger Tulsa was close by. Everybody comes to Tulsa at some point or another — I remember seeing Kiss and Merle Haggard. You can’t get much more eclectic than that [laughs]. Believe it or not, my first concert was the hard rock band, Tesla. There are a lot of bluegrassers around my neck of the woods, too. Just real traditional country music fans.
I was into everything — traditional country, classical, punk rock, a little bit of rap. I can’t help it if I like it. If something strikes me, I’ll definitely listen to it. But the root of everything has always been country. That’s what my parents listened to, along with Elvis Presley. It was my first exposure to music. When I got older, I listened to my sister’s record collection — Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and all that ’80s rock. I kinda went from there.
When did you know that you wanted to be a singer?
Shawna: I was five years old when my mama took me to my first Alabama concert. I think that’s the moment when I thought, ‘Hey, that’s what I wanna do. I wanna be up there onstage and acting the fool.’ So yeah, the bug bit me pretty early [laughs].
When I got a little older, Daddy actually put a band together for me and built this stage out on some property of ours. We started our own little country music park that Daddy called Southern Style Music Park. We had a shindig every month.
Keifer: I wanted to be in bands since I was 13 years old because some of my other friends were in bands. I was really, really jealous. I knew I wanted to sing about a year or two later. But I had a problem with shyness, so I never really thought that I would do it professionally.
I think I was a sophomore in high school when I first sang in front of a big crowd. I was definitely nervous — I think I almost had an accident in my pants right before we went on [Shawna laughs]. I told the band just to play and don’t let me talk to anyone. Somehow I got through it and man, I just wanted to do more and more of it after that.
Once I graduated from Missouri Southern State University in 1996, I packed my car and headed for Nashville to follow my dreams. Shawna moved to the city right after she graduated from high school — the same week as I did. We met that very same week during an amateur singing competition. We were married three years later. We remained separate artists for awhile until we realized that folks liked us singing together.
It was an agonizingly long 13 years before we landed a record deal with Stoney Creek Records largely based on Not Far Enough , our first songwriting collaboration and ultimately an independent album of ours that is now very hard to find. During that “wilderness” era, we both recorded several albums that passed with little notice.
The confessional “I Don’t Wanna Miss You”, an uptempo ballad with shades of U2 that you often perform in concert, was one of my favorite tracks on Thompson Square. It had potential to see chart action if it had been released as a single. What is the story behind the song?
Keifer: We wrote that with our guitar player, Erik Halbig, who also co-wrote “As Bad As It Gets” on our debut long player. Basically it is about me and Shawna not wanting to be apart. No matter what happens — if you get in fights or you split up — overall I don’t wanna ever have to miss you.
Shawna: We pretty much both agree that for the most part, an album needs to have a lot of uptempo, high energy songs. When you’re a new artist, and you go out and play shows, you’ve gotta have some energy onstage. It’s really hard for people to get into a show when you’re doing slow, sappy ballads.
How would you describe the writing and recording process for Just Feels Good?
Shawna: We seized upon a cool idea — actually taking our co-writers on tour with us. Last spring and into the summer we had writers with us every weekend. We had a separate bus where it’s just three or four of us.
My husband does most of the music, and we both do the lyrics. Not everyone can write on the road, but the process works well for us. Anywhere your brain’s at. Now, if we are playing at a theme park, it can be a little bit hard to concentrate, especially one with rides and animals [laughs].
Keifer: As far as a particular theme, Just Feels Good is relevant to what Thompson Square sounds like. We did step it up a little bit regarding the quality of songs. There’s a lot of fun music on it, and I must say that it sounds more diverse than the first album.
We started recording the album in May 2012 at Sound Stage Studios in Nashville, the same place where we recorded our debut. It’s legendary — George Jones, Johnny Cash, George Strait, and Alan Jackson have all recorded there. They just did a massive renovation on it, and the sound we achieved was really sweet.
Shawna and I have talked about recording somewhere besides Nashville. Our dream is to go to Ireland for a month and just whole up in a castle somewhere and record. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to do it. And it costs a lot of money, too. We did an unbelievable 290 concerts in 2011. We backed off since then to about 250 shows. So never say never.
New Voice Entertainment, the production team made up of the core members of Jason Aldean’s band — Kurt Allison (electric guitar), Tully Kennedy (bass), Rich Redmond (drums), and singer/songwriter/engineer/multi-instrumentalist David Fanning — continued in their capacity as our official producers. Jason gave us a big helping hand when we appeared on his Wide Open tour in October 2010.
We co-produced Thompson Square and Just Feels Good. We just didn’t take any official credit [Shawna laughs] because New Voice is a new company, and it was mostly them on the first record. We’re all such good friends that everyone had a lot of input. As our career advances and we learn the ropes, we’ll probably get more involved and produce a record all by ourselves.
What is your perfect day?
Keifer: Getting to sing for a living is the perfect day [Shawna laughs].
Shawna: We just bought a motorcycle, and we enjoy riding together just to get away from the craziness sometimes [Author’s Note: The opening stanza of “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About” perfectly encapsulates the couple’s hot rod passion]. I love photography. I used to fool around with beading and making jewelry when I was home, but I haven’t really had a lot of time to do that these days.
Have you lost your sense of anonymity?
Keifer: A little bit. It’s starting to get there. (Shawna interjects, “It’s not that bad.”) It’s very flattering and sweet. That’s what you strive for. If no one knows who you are, you’re probably not doing something right. We definitely welcome that at this point.
I’m sure if our fame gets any bigger, it will just be harder and harder to go anywhere without being recognized. I can see how it would get very frustrating to someone like Britney Spears, not being able to even step outside your house. It’s not bad for us. We wouldn’t mind if our success got a little bigger. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t [Keifer laughs].
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