SCHAGHTICOKE — Some of country music’s brightest stars return to the Capital District for WGNA’s annual Country Fest, Saturday, July 9.
Lee Brice, Eli Young Band, Charles Kelley, Granger Smith and Earl Dibbles, Jr. are among the headliners for the one-day concert event at the Schaghticoke Fairgrounds this weekend. But, one of the brightest stars to hit the local stage will be that of country’s most celebrated of duos, Thompson Square.
Thompson Square is married couple Shawna and Keifer Thompson, who is rigorously pushing out their latest single, “You Make It Look So Good,” all while taking care of their five-month old son, Rigney Cooper, who stars in the accompanying video.
The two hit the charts their No. 1 hit “You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not” in 2012, helping lead the way to the industry’s top accolades, Vocal Duo of the Year (Country Music Awards, 2012; American Country Music, 2012 and 2013), two Grammys, and several nominations.
Keifer was recognized for his writing abilities, earning SESAC’s Songwriter of the Year in both 2013 and 2014. He spoke to TheSpot518 over the phone from his family’s home in Nashville to share his thoughts on what’s happening with Thompson Square, and country music in general.
Michael Hallisey: Before we begin, I wanted to congratulate you. You have a four-month old? Or is he five-months old, now?
Keifer Thompson: Five months old, now. Yeah.
KT: Thank you very much.
MH: What’s it like being a dad?
KT: It’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever done, man. We had to leave him home last night. And, during the whole show, I was like, ‘I can’t wait to go home to see my kid.’ It’s a whole different thing, and I love it.
MH: I have three of my own, so I know it really changes your perspective on things once you become a dad.
KT: About everything, you know?
MH: Yeah. Does that precipitate into your songwriting?
KT: Absolutely. On different levels, too. You know, we’re not writing kids songs and stuff. It’s just, how much better you try to be. You know, because, you’re really responsible for someone else. So, you’ve got to continue your job, and make money — make a living. So, it’s a very welcomed additional kind of pressure. It’s great.
MH: When did it hit you? Do you recall the moment where you said, “Oh my God, I’m a dad”?
KT: Right about three seconds after he was born. [Laughs.] The moment they put him into my arms, I was like, ‘This is real.’ I never really felt mature. I always felt like the kid in the room, you know? And, I don’t anymore. Right there, it all switched for me.
MH: How old are you now?
KT: I’m in my late 30s [Laughs.]
MH: In your late 30s? Okay. I’m in my early 40s. So, I know.
KT: We’re doing okay then.
MH: Yeah, yeah. So, congratulations. So, is it Rigney Cooper? Any significance to the name? Is it a family name?
KT: Rigney is a family name on Shawna’s side. Cooper is just a name we both liked. About as neat as that part of it gets. [Shawna] was pretty much raised by her grandmother, and was close to her. And, that was her maiden name, Rigney.
MH: Well, it’s a beautiful name. Congratulations.
KT: Thank you.
MH: Now, from what I’m reading, you’re working on another studio album, is that right? Are you putting the finishing touches on it? [Scheduled to be released later this year.]
KT: Eh, we’re not at the finishing touch point. You know, we kinda really hustled around, getting this single that’s out right now, ‘You Make It Look So Good.’ Make sure that it got out to get the attention it needed. Now that it’s going, we’re back in and writing and stuff. We’ve got such a mountain of collection of songs. Now, we just have to go through them and decide which ones to sacrifice, and which ones to cut. But, not sure we’re really in a big hurry to put out an album. I, personally, and Shawna feels the same way, we just want to make sure this is the best album we’ve ever put out. So far, in our eyes, it is, hands down, you know? So, we’re really excited about this project. I know every artist says that about every album.
MH: Well, that’s how you have to be.
KT: You get better as you go along, I guess.
MH: Is that how you’re feeling? You’re getting better as you go along?
KT: Oh, yeah, man. Definitely. I finally feel like I’m learning how to write songs. You have to write several hundred of them to figure it out. We’re really excited about how everything is kinda falling out.
MH: The songs that are out, that I’ve listened to, I assume — and, I shouldn’t assume, I should ask this — that you’re drawing from your own personal life. When you’re singing with your wife. First of all, how many people work with their spouses. How does that work for you?
KT: Well, none do. Really. We’re about it. It’s awesome for us, man. We just love doing that. We’re really good friends on top of everything else. And, we just have a blast singing together. It’s just the most fun we’ve ever had. To leave our solo careers behind and do this, we haven’t looked back once. It’s just been amazing.
MH: The both of you come across so adorable together.
MH: I mean that as a full compliment. My wife and I watch, we look at the videos, the vignette on the website. We eat it up. But, do you get any gentle ribbing from your buddies on how you come across with your wife, and what not?
KT: Not at all, man. Not at all.
MH: They ought to be envious as far as I’m concerned. Now, looking at the video on your website there, ‘[Stuff] Thompson Square Says,’ the two of you are playing Call of Duty. How often does that happen, do you play Call of Duty together?
KT: Well, on that particular tour, as soon as we got done with a show, we’d get a couple of games in before the band boys got back. And, we’d literally play until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning every night. [Laughs] We have a different crew and different band these past few years. They’re not really into that, and we kind of lost interest in it ourselves. But through that particular tour, that’s pretty much all we did.
MH: How much of the personality that you show on that vignette is true to real life, and how much is fictionalized?
KT: Oh, there’s no fiction in there at all. We actually ad libbed that whole thing. We had our director come over and he started the video for us, and he knew how we worked, so we really just started reenacting truths in our lives. Yeah, it was pretty easy to do. Yeah, there’s nothing written in there, for sure.
MH: That’s good stuff.
KT: That’s real reality.
MH: [Laughs.] One thing I wanted to ask, you recently collaborated with Blues Traveler. Twenty years ago, they were part of my life’s soundtrack ground up.
KT: Aw, yeah, man.
MH: So, you were listening to Blues Traveler back in the 90s or so?
MH: How was it like working with them?
KT: Well, first of all, it was really weird getting that first phone call that John [Popper] wanted to write these songs with me for their 25th anniversary project. So, that was amazing. We wound up writing two songs. Both of them made the album. It was quite an honor to be able to do that. Not a lot of people got that call, you know? We wrote a few great songs, and we’ve been asked to do their Fourth of July show at Red Rocks this year. So, we’ll be going out there next week to do Red Rocks, which is awesome. But, then, to do Red Rocks with your buddies, Blues Traveler, is even awesomer. [Laughs.] You know? So, we’re going to go out and do that. It was just kinda out of the blue, kind of cold call on their part. John’s extremely smart. An extremely talented man. So, it was fun to be able to write outside of the country box, I guess. I didn’t have to follow any sort of format. It was just rock songs, and it could mean what we wanted it to mean. So, we wrote one that’s very clear and one that’s ambiguous. It was a lot of fun to be able to do that.
MH: John’s an amazing songwriter. His intelligence certainly comes out in his songwriting. So, did you work together on songs, or did you submit your own songs?
KT: No. The three of us sat in the studio and wrote for three days.
MH: How was that? I mean, he, an amazing songwriter. You, an amazing songwriter. Did you trade how you each approach things in your respective writing process?
KT: I think some artists have formats that they follow, but I don’t really have that. Every song is different, you know? Some may start with the hook. Some will start with a guitar lick. Just a mere idea. A thought. It’s all over the map. I personally don’t have a dead set formula for writing songs. It didn’t seem like John did either. We had a song called, ‘I Can Still Feel You.’ John had the title, and he wanted to write a song ‘I Can Still Feel You.’ And, he didn’t have anything else. He didn’t have a direction or anything else to go with that. That was on one of the later dates when we were working together. So, I kinda went home and rough drafted everything out, went back to the studio, polished everything up, and wound up cutting it that day. Sometimes I do my best work when I have a deadline to meet. They’re either going to cut the song if they like it that day, or not. So, I had a lot of pressure, bringing something in that everyone was going to like, and it wound up being great.
MH: With you collaborating with John, to me it speaks to how country is king now— and has been for a few years — to the point you know see people like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith crossing over and cutting a country album. Is that something you consciously think about?
KT: I have several trains of thought on that, some I can say, some I won’t say. But, you don’t see country stars rolling to rock and pop. It’s always the other way around. It’s always rock and artists from other genres coming into country. It’s just a different point of view. In my opinion, us, along with other country artists and stars who are out there, have devoted their entire lives to country music. There was never, ‘Well, I’m going to try this because this didn’t work out anymore,’ “Or, there’s no room for me — rock’s not really our radio anymore.’ Or, whatever else. Does it change anything for me? I think it’s awesome. I love Steven Tyler. First of all, I love that man’s music, period. I’m a huge fan of Aerosmith. I grew up on Aerosmith. I think it’s really cool that he’s found another avenue to express himself via our country format. I think it’s cool from a creative standpoint. He continues to create and be great. It’s a little bit different. Yeah, there’s couple of other bands changing their format and coming over to the country format. I’m not sure what the attraction is for someone who never did country at all as to why they would want to do that. I think that it’s great if you want to create. Obviously, we’re very accepting of just about anybody who wants to come to our forte — rap, whatever. I’m waiting for a death metal group to come over to country and make a record. I’m sure it’s not too far away. I’m not judging that area at all. I think it’s cool, so long as it’s not sacrificing people’s careers that spent their lives dedicating to the craft of country music, you know?
KT: There’s only so much space that is out there. There’s only so much room for certain songs on the radio. That’s the only thing. Especially with brand new artists coming up and fighting for those slots. It’s not easy getting in there.
MH: And, you and your wife have been doing quite well getting in those slots. Now, when you say there’s something you won’t say — and, I’m not forcing the issue, don’t get me wrong — I get the idea. Now, you’re from Nashville, originally?
KT: No, I’m from Oklahoma.
MH: Oklahoma, okay. Well, now you see rap in today’s country. And, I’m mean, there’s your George Straits of the world, and then you have some who are not so country. And, I think I’ll leave it at that.
KT: But, yeah, it also matters who you ask. We could be part of that issue as well. We’re not. I mean, we can hang with anybody if you wanted to sing Haggard and Jones songs all night. There’s no one we couldn’t hang with, as far as that goes. We love traditional country music, you know. Obviously, I don’t mind. There’s a lot of people who say, ‘There’s no country music, no more,’ ‘they hate this,’ and they don’t understand why there’s rap in country music and all that crap. Honestly, I don’t care. Country music has always been ever changing. It’s relative. I mean, I consider us to be pop-rock country. We’re not traditional country people, anyway. But, you listen to our music 20 years from now and it’s going to sound like Ray Price, probably. You know? [Laughs.] Who knows what it’s going to be like in 20 years. It’s forever changing. I mean. I don’t know. I’m down with all of it, you know? I think it’s great. There’s a massive influx of influences in country music. Honestly, everybody when they’re kids, wants to be in a rock band. And, our show is not what you would imagine a typical country show would be. Much more of a rock crowd. We love the high energy and loud guitars and run around stage and that kind of stuff. It is what it is. They looked at Garth Brooks like he was this metal guy. And, he’s the biggest thing, ever. You listen to his early records that everyone was acting like they were Twisted Sister songs and it sounds so traditional compared to what’s going on now. And, I go back to some of our earlier stuff and it’s the same kind of thing. I mean, there’s so many haters out there hating on the new country music, and the new sound and the rap and that sort of stuff. And, I can’t. If I said I liked it, I’d be a liar, for one. But, I’d also be a hypocrite because my playlist it ranges from Eminem to Bob Marley, to Violent Femmes and Merle Haggard. It’s all over the map, I mean, we listen to everything. I love all forms of music. All genres of music. I’m into the beat. I just love music, period. Country music is a breeding ground for everyone to come to and try their own thing. You can get away with a heck of a lot more than you could 10, 15, 20 years ago, now. I think it’s exciting because we’re doing a little some of that outside the box, that 15 years ago, business wouldn’t have been that grand. It’s exciting, man. But, haters are going to hate. It is what it is.
MH: Well, that’s the thing. As an artist, you always have to push the envelope. You can’t grow as an artist if you don’t go outside your comfort level and experiment.
KT: It’s people who, when the rest of the world looks at them like they’re crazy, those are the people who change the world. You know? The nutbags of the world are the ones who change the world. The one’s who don’t care about what others think. Everybody wants to think that they’re that brave, but, they really aren’t. When you blend in, no one notices you. If you want to be noticed, you’ve got to do something that’s a little out there, do something a little crazy. There really isn’t anything wrong with that.
MH: I was meaning to ask you earlier, I came across “Trans Am.” I was watching the video and listening to that. You and I come from the same generation, so I’m watching this it looks like the same model as the one in “Smokey and the Bandit.” Is that the association that you had?
KT: Yeah. The ’77 is the iconic Trans Am… We wrote that song relatively quickly. It was just one of those fun songs that we thought would be fun to perform live. … It wasn’t a big hit. Not all of them are going to be hits. But, that was a song from me to Shawna. We wrote it like that. We lacked that in our shows. We said, ‘What the hell, we’re going to write it.’ So, we wrote it and we play it every night. And, we love it.
MH: That’s awesome. Do you have a ’77 Trans Am?
KT: I do not. I do not. If I was to have a Trans Am, it would be a ’68 or a ’69. I like things that nobody else has.
MH: Well, you have a pretty amazing life that nobody else has, so that’s got to be cool.
KT: Yeah. I’m extremely happy with our lives and proud about what we’ve been able to accomplish. I’m very, very blessed. I’ll be honest with you.
MH: For those of us up here who have yet to see Thompson Square live, what can they expect to see?
KT: You’re going to see six people on stage having a blast. We pretty much have one goal every night, and that’s to have fun. If it ceases to be fun, there’s no point doing it. I feel that our band and crew is just one big family. Every one’s a music nerd. Everybody just loves each other. It’s definitely a brotherhood out there. So, we have a lot of fun on stage. It’s loud and multi-faceted, I guess. It’s not just, ‘Hands up in the air, Hell yeah!’ all night. It’s very up and down. We’ve got some mellow moments and stuff. But, when you come to a Thompson Square show you expect to have some of that love song stuff, you know. That’s part of our life and what we do. And, as singers, we love to sing. You can’t really stretch out and sing unless you have songs like that. We love the show. It’s up-tempo. And, it’s live!
IF YOU GO
• What: WGNA Country Fest
• When: Saturday, July 9
• Where: Schaghticoke Fairgrounds
• How much: $35 General admission
• Info: wgna.com
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.