By Lynn Oldshue
Music duo Thompson Square has sold millions of records and their first single, “Are you Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” was the biggest country song of 2011. They have been nominated for Grammys, won Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards and still play for thousands of people many nights of the year. But Shawna and Keifer Thompson’s dream home is in Fairhope, Alabama. The small town on Mobile Bay is where they want to set root, raise their son Cooper, and connect to local music.
Shawna grew up in rural Chatom, Alabama and Keifer grew up in Miami, Oklahoma. They met shooting pool in a Nashville bar.
“I think I asked her to play pool before I said hi. She played and she beat me,” Keifer says.
“I didn’t tell him my dad owned a pool hall when I was a kid and I am really good. It was so cute because he tried to show me how to hold the stick and was being flirty and I thought I am going to kick his ass,” Shawna says, laughing.
“She didn’t kick my ass, but she did win. We are both competitive.”
Shawna’s dad taught her how to shoot pool and play music and encouraged her to move to Nashville. He was a musician and built a country music park with an outdoor stage and dance floor on their farm. Shawna grew from singing on the farm to playing local honky tonks, charity benefits and the VFW. In high school she was the lead singer of a local band that played at festivals, including Bayfest in Mobile.
“We recently did a show with 30,000 people and the monitor board died on our first song,” Shawna says. “It was a massive stage and we couldn’t hear anything during the whole set. That is where the days of playing back home in honky-tonks with horrible monitors and all you can hear is a blaring guitar pays off. You can’t hear your voice so you learn to trust yourself. No matter how big you are, you will still have nights like that because it is live.”
Keifer moved to Nashville after college. He could sing, just not while playing the guitar. Meeting Shawna helped him find his voice and Porter Wagoner’s bass player, Danny Davis, taught him how to play guitar by the number system.
“I was a bad musician when I got to Nashville and I am not sure why I took the chance and moved there,” Keifer says. “In high school I thought if I could be the fastest runner or hit the hardest in football, I would be the best. I didn’t grow up singing so I thought singing the loudest and being super country would get attention.
“That wasn’t my voice and Shawna taught me to sing softer and with control.”
He got a job at the Nashville Cowboy boot store, where he got Shawna her first real job selling costume jewelry there. They started playing together on Broadway, Nashville’s entertainment district of honky-tonks and bars, and made $20 a day for a four-hour shift, plus tips. Fifty dollars each was a good day, and the pickle jar used for tips was usually empty and smelled like pickles. They were broke for a decade but they “chose to be broke.”
“I found my voice and who I am as an artist when Keifer and I played acoustically on Broadway,” Shawna says. “He played in a band and sometimes I sang with them, but when the two of us played the songs we loved artistically, that is where we found our sound for Thompson Square.”
After they signed their first record deal, they quit the gigs on Broadway, but the deal fell apart and no one would hire them back because “there is always someone new who will play for free.”
“We were no longer good enough to play for $20 a day,” Keifer says. “We almost went bankrupt and lived off credit cards. I had insomnia for three or four years and broke out in cold sweats because I didn’t know where our next dollar was coming from. I had extended us beyond belief, but I knew Shawna was one of the best singers in Nashville and something was going to happen, I just didn’t know when.”
They took turns being the optimist, or the one breaking down.
“I talked her off the ledge a few times, but in the fall of 2009, she came home from work and I had gone through a 12-pack of Coors Light and a pack of cigarettes in the garage. And I don’t smoke,” he says. “I told her I am done, let’s wrap it up. Twelve years is enough, but she said to give it one more year. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have bought a PA system and played Moose lodges the rest of our lives.”
Keifer tries to block out the low points of those years. “I buried it so deep that it is never coming out,” he says. “However, some things were easier when there was less pressure and all of our friends were poor.”
Having nothing drove the hunger to make it in music.
“Some of the best times of our lives were Halloween parties in our thousand-square-foot house and people were dressed up in costumes and peeing in the yard,” Keifer says. “None of us had anything and nothing else drives you that hard. I don’t want to go back and live through it again, but once you start this, it becomes a business.
“We are still hungry for the music, but there is a different hunger when you don’t have anything and you can’t get that hunger back again. It is also hard to see people more talented than you are who are just as broke, but they never make it. That could have been us.”
They hit bottom when they maxed out the last $3,000 on the last credit card to pay for bartending school, then worked behind the bar together (they have worked together at every job they have ever had). In Music City, money is better for bartenders than musicians. They made $400 a day and held on.
A few months after Shawna said to give it one more year, they played the last show they had left, and turned it into a showcase at Third and Lindsley. They invited all of the labels but Broken Bow Records was the only one to show up — the only label they needed. They soon played an official showcase for Broken Bow at 12th and Porter and the line was around the block.
“We were stunned so many people came to see us,” says Keifer. “After being on the bottom, we didn’t value ourselves enough. We are still like that to an extent. After the show we went to a big dinner with the label and during the meal they introduced us as their newest act. We tried to be cool, but Shawna squeezed my leg under the table.”
A month later, they heard “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?” and knew the song would be a hit.
Within a year they went from beyond broke to overnight success with the huge hit single that has been played more than 17 million times on Spotify.
“I don’t know what we were expecting, but it was less than a year from being almost bankrupt to having the biggest song of the year,” Keifer says. “Nothing prepares you for that. We were almost $70,000 in debt. After we signed, the bank loaned us $10,000 and by the time we made our first dollar. We had spent $9,900 of it. We finally started making money in music and we paid off credit cards and student loans first.
“It was a whirlwind when ‘Kiss Me’ took off,” Shawna says. “We played 250 shows a year plus travel days and didn’t have a chance to enjoy it. Now we are slowing down and enjoying life and creating and performing.”
They say reality changed before and after their No. 1 hit. It started with the drive to get a writing deal, then wanting a record deal, a single and hit singles. Then there were singles that weren’t hits.
“We had a run of six hit singles, then our last three singles weren’t hits and we wondered what we were doing wrong,” Keifer says. “Are we not as good as we once were? We started our career out with the biggest song of the year and there isn’t much higher to go than that. We aspire to be as good or better with what we do, but when it doesn’t show up on the charts you question everything.
“You pay attention to what people love about you and want to give them more of that, but it is easy to get into a trap of what is selling right now. That is when you lose your soul and identity,” he says. “We can’t sing about tailgates even though we have probably spent more time on tailgates than anyone singing about them. We sing our songs so often and we have to sing them each time with feeling. Sometimes you don’t know how to sing or play a song until you have played it a thousand times, but the songs have to come from us. Our songs have to be our favorite songs.”
One of their favorite songs is “That’s So Me and You.” It is the moment in their show where everything slows down and it is just the two of them sitting on stools and singing to Keifer’s guitar.
Next thing you know
We called Tennessee our home
And that Sooner sun and those ‘Bama stars
Seemed so far away
We worked day and night
In Broadway’s neon lights
Didn’t know singing for tips in a pickle jar
Would change our life
And oh, it sounds a little crazy
Well maybe, but we didn’t care
‘Cause what happened there
Was a dream come true
And oh, it’s sounds a little funny
We didn’t have no money, but we had us and a lot of love
To hold on to
That’s so me and you
“I write songs with Shawna in the room because most of them are about her and she can tell me if she doesn’t like them,” Keifer says. “‘That’s So Me and You’ is the story of us, and one of my favorites that I have written. Every once in awhile we will play it and the picture I have in my mind is just the two of us and how far we have come to be playing there together that night.”
“If we added a fourth verse It would be about Cooper and becoming parents, and less about the times of macaroni and cheese and tuna fish,” Shawna says.
“Cooper was born a year ago and I feel like we are just getting started,” Keifer says. “There are so many new emotions. As a songwriter you want tragedy or something bad to happen to trigger a song, but we have had it so good together, we don’t have that to write about.”
After taking a few months off with Cooper, they are working again and creating the music they want to make and what feels like who they are today.
“We are influenced by so many people — Merle Haggard, Etta James, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan. That comes out in our music, but the main thing is an introspection of who we are as a couple. That is what our fans expect from us.”
“Once you have established a brand, even if that brand is you, there are other parts of you that you want to reveal but fans might not understand or care,” Shawna says. “We are figuring out how to cross lines and step out of the box. We want to rock out and party with different styles and not sing ballads all night. We are country people but we love pop music and we like to mix pop melodies and rock guitars in with country, but our favorite part of the show is still breaking it down acoustically.”
“Probably the songs we love the most are the ones where we are most creative and those are the songs you will never hear,” says Keifer. “That is part of being a commercial act.”
Radio is still important and has been good to Thompson Square, but the industry has changed over the past five years and it is more competitive with new acts. Keifer and Shawna know they won’t always be on top, but they want a slow, steady growth and a long career.
“We have to continually change and evolve,” says Keifer. “We evolve with what we listen to. We listened to Twenty One Pilots this morning and I am obsessed with that band. I want to see them live.”
There are many influences on Thompson Square’s music, but none is bigger than Merle Haggard. Both listened to him growing up and played his songs during their shifts on Broadway. They played two of his songs, “You Take Me for Granted” and “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room” on the Haggard tribute album, Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard.
“Haggard is the reason I started writing songs before I left Oklahoma,” Keifer says. “I listened to the inflections in his voice and the jazz influence of his melodies and how complicated his music was. He is above anyone else for me, and when he died it was like losing a father figure.”
“We met him several years ago and he invited us on his bus. It was surreal,” Shawna says. “I don’t get starstruck, but I couldn’t speak. All I could do is stare at him and take in every wrinkle in his face. He had tiny feet.”
“It was strange to meet the unmeetable. I asked him his writing process and he looked at me with piercing blue eyes and said, ’I just look at the grand condition and try to say something to surprise myself,’” Keifer says.
Haggard agreed to write with Keifer, but he passed away before it could happen. Keifer says Haggard didn’t make writing appointments because he wrote about life as it came and said making an appointment may cause him to miss an experience that he would write about.
“I am becoming more like that,” Keifer says. “Now we don’t write unless we feel inspired. I don’t want to sit down and make something up. We don’t owe anyone songs anymore.”
Fairhope has become a place where they are inspired to write. They spend almost two months a year there, in their Mediterranean-style home on a golf course. They bought the house after Shawna’s dad died of cancer in 2012. They want to be closer to family and Keifer has family here, too.
“My dad’s death was a slap in the face and I wanted to come back home,” says Shawna. “Nashville has always been about work and never felt like home. We love Fairhope and there are artists and painters and a massive music vibe down here without the pressure.”
“I didn’t think I would like it here, but we have gotten to know our neighbors and some guys at the gym. We are becoming friends with people outside of music,” says Keifer. “We want to raise Cooper in a small town so it is time to plug in here and build some roots. By the time he goes to school, we may be in a place where we can just play weekends and be home during the week.”
A flood destroyed their Fairhope dream house a few years ago, and after they rebuilt it they hung pictures for the first time. Today the walls in their music room are lined with commemorations of No. 1 songs, prints of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis and a Tribute to Merle Haggard album poster that he signed, “Thank you for your part on such a great record!” A painted portrait of Hank Williams Jr. hangs in a bathroom, and in the living room hangs Shawna’s dad’s bass guitar.
“Putting up pictures and making holes in the walls was big deal because we have never fully moved into any house we have owned. I wrote a song about it,” Keifer says.
“In Fairhope, we eat at Dragonfly twice a week and I ride my motorcycle to the beach,” he says. “I love being by the water, and one day I want to get into the local music scene and learn how to play the piano that we bought for this house. Most importantly, Shawna is happy here and this is home.”
Shawna also has a new hobby with her booth at Southern Antiques and Accents in Fairhope. “We have extra stuff and Keifer has been on me to get a hobby. I opened the booth and picked up two hobbies in the last few weeks because he also bought me a Cricut paper cutting machine. Cooper’s birthday is coming up and I am using this paper-cutting thing to make decorations.”
Kiefer says he watched Shawna grow from a talented girl who had never had a job into a strong, independent woman and mother who doesn’t need him as much anymore. “She is blowing me away. We also have a strong relationship with God and we lean on that,” he says. “Things are still hard and there are days when I want to forget it all, but I see us as a couple who has God at the forefront of our lives and I am so thankful for what He has given us.
“We are thankful for every bit of this, especially our fans. The relationship with fans is the security in this business, and they touch our lives, too. One of our fans was the brightest light I have ever seen. She made us coffee mugs and blankets and had Christmas ornaments made for us before she passed away.”
At every show, someone tells them their music saved their marriage or it is the reason they are together. Girls say they want a love like that.
“Our fans and our love for music each other,” says Shawna, “that is why we do what we do.”