An old entertainment adage suggests that celebrities remain locked forever at the emotional age they were when they first became famous.
Josh Thompson already appears to be the exception to the rule. Following the release of his debut album, 2010’s Way Out Here, Thompson kicked into a whirlwind pace that would challenge the hardiest of souls. He began selling out clubs as a headliner, demonstrating an early connection with Middle America. And he mixed those high-energy gigs between dates as an opening act for Brad Paisley, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church and Hank Williams Jr.
The pace – and his first sampling of stardom, including nominations for an American Country Award and a CMT Award recognizing the best new live act– could have been enough for Josh Thompson to get carried away with being Josh Thompson.
It’s been clear since the release of Way Out Here that Thompson did indeed have it together. In that project, he established many of the same working-class themes and images that continue to populate his writing, and he found a ready audience. “Beer On The Table” and “Way Out Here,” his first two singles, reached the Top 20 on the national country charts, and another of the album’s tracks – “Blame It On Waylon” – became a key link as he began attracting rabble-rousing crowds of blue-collar believers.
As an opening act on Paisley’s H2O World Tour in 2010, Thompson found thousands of people coming out to the venues in the afternoon for his side-stage performances. Those fans had clearly bonded with the music. They were singing the songs – the hits and the album cuts – word for word, seeing themselves in the images and the tone of his music.
“Life definitely isn’t easy for a lot of people,” Thompson surmises. “I think if there’s one thing people can cling to it’s their beliefs and their way of life, and I think people need that simplicity in country music especially: this is what we are, we aren’t going to apologize for it, we work for what we have and don’t try to take it.”
Much of that fan base found Thompson through his steady radio play; others bumped into him via videos on CMT, GAC and the Internet; still others first heard of him because their friends were so passionate about this new guy who had captured the essence of their lives – the hardships of living paycheck to paycheck, the importance of commitment to God and family, and the need for a little weekend partying.
Thompson’s music embraced the contradictions that everyday Americans live with – the opening line of “Way Out Here” unapologetically links violent guns and non-violent Jesus – but paradox is an undeniable fact of life.
“The thing that drew me to country music – guys like Merle Haggard, in particular – was how vulnerable he was, how vulnerable he sounded and how vulnerable his lyrics were and how it matched the music,” Thompson says. “You believed what he sang because he sang it with conviction. He sounded like he lived it, because he did.
“People need to hear who you are and hear you admit your faults and see you vulnerable – that to me is what I think makes an artist great, or at least the kind of artist I was drawn to.”
Those artists are fairly classic: Hag, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Sr. and a wealth of Southern rock bands, including the Allman Brothers. Thompson was attracted to those acts during a Wisconsin childhood that was all about building strong foundations: his father was an industrious cement worker who remained married to Josh’s mother for more than 40 years until his passing in 2006.
Following his dad’s example, Thompson went into the cement business, pouring concrete for driveways, patios and basements in his teens and moving up the ladder in the work force fairly quickly. He’d sung around the house rather obsessively as a kid, but he never bought a guitar until he was 21 years old. He learned the instrument by playing chords from his favorite songs by ear, and a quick six months into the process, he wrote his first song, “I’ll Pull You Through.”
“It’s horrible,” Thompson cringes.
But it was a starting point, and he soon discovered he could not stop.
“That first song led to another song, and 20 songs, and pretty soon I was running to
my truck during a work day to write something down,” Thompson recalls. “Around song 30 or 40, I figured there’s a reason that I’m writing so much and it’s becoming an addiction for me. That’s when I started really thinking at the age of 22 that maybe I should move to Nashville and see if I can do something with it.”
Thompson made the move in January 2005 and had a publishing deal within eight months. It wasn’t a full-time gig – he still poured concrete during the day – but it gave him even more motivation to write. And he began touring on weekends, too, traveling hundreds of miles in a cramped van with a band to play a mix of original songs and covers.
One of his originals, “Growing Up Is Getting Old,” became the title song for a Jason Michael Carroll album, which established a rapport between Thompson and Sony Music Nashville, where he signed his first deal. Thompson continued to get cuts as a songwriter on other projects – “Church Pew Or Bar Stool” is a stand-out track on Jason Aldean’s double platinum album My Kinda Party, “A Man Don’t Have To Die” on Brad Paisley’s This Is Country Music, and “Tough Goodbye” on Gary Allan’s Set You Free– and other acclaimed songwriters took note. And he’s crafted songs with the likes of John Anderson, Bobby Bare and Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson.
“It’s something you never thought in a million years would be possible, and here it is you’re doing it,” Thompson says. “Those things just really meant the world to me. I could die happy!”
Not that he’s in a hurry for an ending just yet. Thompson has only begun applying some of the tenets he picked up in the writing sessions with his heroes. And he continues to build on the lessons he learned on the road, where he paid close attention to the acts that he toured with after the release of Way Out Here.
“When I first started to do shows, it’d be like do a song – dead space – do a song – dead space – and that got to be really redundant,” Thompson concedes. “Watching these headliners, their band is all one unit and they are never stopping the music. That’s one thing I picked up from Eric Church and from Brad Paisley both, that I absolutely love – I always keep the music going, find a way to put the show together that makes sense so that you could always be rolling.”
In the past few years this road warrior has been on the 2010 Jagermeister Country Tour with Eric Church, Brad Paisley’s H20 Tour, and the 2011 Jagermeister Country Tour with Dierks Bentley. In 2012 Josh headlined the Jagermeister Country Tour and then joined Gary Allan, Justin Moore, and Rodney Atkins on the Country Throwdown Tour and spent the early part of 2013 on Rodney Atkins’ “Most Hits for the Money Tour.”
After parting ways with RCA in July 2012, Josh signed with Show Dog-Universal Music in August. He is currently in the studio working on his new album and his highly anticipated single, “Cold Beer With Your Name On It” will be released summer of 2013. A constant road warrior, Thompson will soon be announced as one of the acts on a major fall tour.