Verlon Thompson: I’ve fallen but I can get up
Verlon Thompson has never been much for ladder-climbing.
An Okie in Nashville, somewhere along the way he thought he’d be a big-deal recording artist. Somewhere further along the way he thought otherwise, and that’s the way he still thinks. Thompson likes it when other people record his songs, mostly because it makes him a little money that he can put toward making the kind of music he really loves.
When he’s not hanging out around Nashville, he’s traveling around the country (or the world) with songwriting legend Guy Clark. Those two get along, and Thompson’s soulful guitar picking and heartstrong harmonies help Clark to twist the knife.
Anyway, it came to pass that on November 19, 2002, while bottom-line-oriented Music City folks were writing radio schlock or lunching together at the Longhorn, Verlon Thompson was doing some chores around his house. The day before, he’d finished up with an eleven-song album that he recorded by himself.
“I’d been locked in my little studio for days, messing with stuff,” he says. “I decided to do some chores, and it was a last-minute thought to go clean the gutters.”
Then came the downfall.
“I stepped off the roof, back onto the ladder, and it sort of moved a little bit,” is how he remembers it, sitting in a publishing office and gesturing with hands that are attached to scarred wrists. It’s hard to say just what Jesus’ wrists looked like after the crucifixion, but it’s a safe bet they looked more like Verlon’s than like yours or mine.
“Next thing I knew, I was headed face-first, straight down, like a nose dive. I hit the ground and heard what sounded like two rifle shots, and that was both wrists snapping. I hit on my head and rolled, and crushed a vertebra in my back. My immediate thought was, “Uh oh, this could change my entire life.”
Days before that, Thompson might not have minded changing his entire life. He was, admittedly, burnt out, and more than a little anxious about his place in the music world.
“I was getting kind of cranky about the whole deal,” he says. “Part of it was my age. I starting thinking, ‘I’m getting on up there, and I’m really not in a position where I can relax.’ That was starting to kind of play with my head a little bit.
“But I had a lot of time to think while I was laying around, trying to recover from all this. I realized, this life I had been living was pretty damn great.”
He’d suffered some heavy knocks before, though none so literal. The son of a would-be musician (He compares mom Darwettia to Loretta Lynn, and says she could have been a star had she not prioritized family over career), Thompson moved to Nashville in 1981, hoping to hit it big. He took publishing jobs, got some songs recorded (among his favorites is Suzy Bogguss’ 1988 version of “Cross My Broken Heart”), and hooked up with Clark for the recording of the master’s 1989 gem, Old Friends.
A year later, Thompson released a solo album on Capitol Records. That seemed like a cool thing, at first.
“I’d dreamed of that, and it was my goal from as far back as I can remember,” he admits. “But I got to see what that part of this thing is all about, and it made me realize it’s not really what I wanted. If I hadn’t tried, I’d still be wondering what that would be like. Believe me, after I was finished with that, I didn’t wonder at all.”
That’s when the figurative ladder-climbing halted entirely. Since then, Thompson has concentrated on working with Clark, and on gaining a small but devoted following of his own. People record his songs sometimes, and if they don’t, then he’ll up and record them himself.
His new album, the one he finished just before the fall, is a rootsy set that emphasizes his deft musicianship, his sandy, folksy vocal drawl, and a way with words that’s clever but not cutesy. Called Everywhere…Yet, the album contains a bunch of good songs, performed by an awfully good musician. Thompson calls it “my little homemade offering,” but it’s a good deal more substantial than that.
By late winter, Thompson had recovered enough to get back on the road, and he says his guitar playing may actually improve for all the inconvenience and suffering.
“Playing turned out to be the best therapy, even though I had to struggle at first and find new ways to make some of the chords,” he says. “But I think this thing has had the same effect on my playing as it’s had on my mind. I focus more on the moment, and I think I’m playing and feeling a little more relaxed. I’m getting more music out of less motion these days.”