To the everyday country music fan, Verlon Thompson is not a household name.
But within the music community of Nashville, Thompson is a songwriter and guitarist almost without peer.
His songs have been recorded by singers such as Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood and Kenny Rogers, and he has played guitar on the albums of many others. After two decades as Guy Clark’s guitarist and songwriting partner, Thompson is winning fans as a solo act. At the ArtsCenter Sunday, Thompson will perform his own songs and share stories gleaned from more than 30 years as a Nashville insider.
“My buddy Guy, who I’ve traveled with for 20 years, is cutting way back now due to health reasons,” Thompson said by phone from Nashville. “So I’ve turned up the heat on my solo stuff quite a bit. Luckily, I’m really staying busy and things are going well.”
Country music has been Thompson’s passion since he was a boy, growing up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. Six months after arriving in Nashville in 1981, he landed a songwriting deal with Loretta Lynn’s publishing company. He wrote for Lynn for over a year, even though she never recorded one of his songs. But the job allowed Thompson to sharpen his songwriting skills. He left Lynn and was hired by CBS Songs (later EMI) and had some 200 to 300 songs recorded over 15 years.
Country music boom
Thompson happened to arrive on the scene just as country music was about to explode with new talent who would need songs to record.
“A lot of (the new acts) were about my age – Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, T. Graham Brown. Those people are my class. We all got record deals. I had a record deal on Capitol Records. Some of the others had hits, so they would look to me for material. It was a very lucrative time for songwriters in Nashville.”
As the country boom faded, Thompson founded his own publishing company and record label. He recorded four albums with Suzi Ragsdale, daughter of Grammy-winning artist Ray Stevens.
The songs he writes these days are personal, meant to be shared with his audiences and not for today’s harvest of country stars.
“I saw the end of that exciting songwriting period,” Thompson said. “I chose to concentrate on writing songs that I could use in my show, which is more troubadour, story-telling – I try to take people on a journey. Those aren’t the songs I had been writing for the marketplace. These are different songs.”
Thompson also toured and wrote with Clark such acclaimed songs as “The Guitar,” a concert favorite that showcases Thompson’s exceptional skill with the six-string. It was Clark who convinced him to pick up the pace of his solo career and play to the same audiences that Clark enjoyed.
“Guy really changed my life by showing me this type of performing approach. … He said, ‘Man, come go on the road with me and I’ll show you that you don’t need a record label or a bus and all the headaches that go with it. There are wonderful little rooms and theaters all over the world where people will come to see you if you’ve got the songs and the stories to go with them.
“So I went on the road with him and the first month I was sold on it. I thought, ‘What have I been doing? This is what I want. I want to be able to see people and look in their eyes and reach out to them.’
“I’m certainly happy now. Sometimes I look back and say, ‘I wish I had concentrated on my solo career from the beginning.’ But it’s been such a great ride. Guy and I have had so many incredible musical moments. And the truth is, I might not even be where I am now if I hadn’t gone with Guy. So I try not to dwell on it. It’s been good either way. It’s nothing but good.”