"They say a good song will make you pull over and listen and be late for work. I try to get people to write a song good enough to make you quit work," says songwriter Verlon Thompson. He should know. People like Kenny Rogers, Del McCoury, and Trisha Yearwood have performed his songs.
It’s like music camp for adults
“They say a good song will make you pull over and listen and be late for work. I try to get people to write a song good enough to make you quit work,” says songwriter Verlon Thompson.
He should know. People like Kenny Rogers, Del McCoury, and Trisha Yearwood have performed his songs; and he is the frequent sidekick/guitarist for the great Guy Clark.
“You just gotta try to write about something that’s real to make them stop and listen. To get someone’s attention, you have to do something unique; but at the same time, you have to work with the universal themes we all live with, which is basically love, life, and death.”
This is the guiding principle Thompson will use for the songwriting workshop he will host as a part of the Songbird Music School and Songwriter Showcase held on July 6 and 7 at Birdman Coffee & Books in St. Francisville.
Lynn Wood organizes this event out of her love for music. “It’s the most fun thing to be around like-minded people. It’s like music camp for adults,” says Wood.
Thompson and his fellow instructors—David Hinson, bass; Mark Raborn, banjo; Patrick Sylvest, dobro; Heather Feierabend, voice; and Alan Morton, mandolin—offer students of all skill levels, from the complete novice to the practicing musician, a chance to hone their songwriting and playing abilities.
The weekend workshop offers morning and afternoon sessions on Saturday, including a lunch at the Birdman, followed by a concert by Thompson. Sunday features one more session followed by a group jam and then a concert where, as Wood puts it, “Everyone can show off what they’ve learned if they want to.”
Wood gave a shot at the mandolin during the first year of the workshop. “Most of the people have played some kind of instrument before except for the mandolin people. They have me and a couple of others that had never played a stringed instrument before. The mandolin was a good one for us to start with.
“The people taking bass had played other instruments but the bass was new to them, and they learned a great deal. Same thing with the dobro; it’s just a very different instrument to play. And now the banjo, Mark Raborn is an amazing banjo player and he’s got a lot of followers, so he got a big group of aspiring banjo players.”
The biggest hurdle in making music is often not learning the technical aspects, but letting the song come out of you. Thompson can help grease the wheels of inspiration.
“I had a guy once that came to my class,” Thompson recalls. “He could barely strum a guitar, just two or three chords. He kept sitting in my class and he never did much. One day at lunch I got him over to the side and said, ‘I realize you are a beginner, but you are here wanting to write a song, and I want to know what you want to get out of this.’
“He commenced to tell me this great story about how he lost his wife and he had all this stuff he wanted to say but he couldn’t tell anybody. He was sitting in the hotel swimming pool one night because he travels all the time, and he had some sort of a vision; and he knew what he wanted to say but didn’t know how to put it in a song.
“We always have a student performance, so I said, ‘Here’s what we’ll do. Just get up there and strum your guitar very lightly; I don’t care what chords you play or when you play them, and tell that same story you just told me,’” remembers Thompson. “The way he told it was mesmerizing. ‘Just look out at the crowd and tell that story in your speaking voice; don’t try to sing it.’ Come Sunday night, he did it; and people applauded and screamed for him. There he had a song. It wasn’t your two-verses-and-a-chorus that rhymes, but it was a song and a performance that touched people.”
Verlon Thompson has a way of bringing that out in any material. I saw him open for Guy Clark once at the Red Dragon in Baton Rouge, and he launched into Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John”—one of the all-time corniest country songs there is—and made it a resonant, beautiful thing. It made me rethink what it is I like in songs; is it the song itself, the performance, or some nexus between the two?
“I sang that song because it was shortly after they pulled all those miners out of the ground in Colombia,” says Thompson, “and I’d been watching that in the hotel before the show. Guy had the same reaction. He told me, ‘Man, I always thought that was a corny song until you did it.’”
“When you pull the production back and listen to the actual song, it’s a wonderful story about a heroic guy that saved all these other miners; and it was exactly what was going on when I sang it. We were all glued to the TV watching it happen,” says Thompson.
Thompson explains that he does a little bit of talking and a whole lot of listening to see what his students are showing up with.
“Then I try to doctor their song; look at what’s lacking, or sometimes it’s just rearrangement or editing or just changing the presentation. Presentation is a lot of it. I focus on their work instead of mine. I want to take what they’ve got and turn it into something legitimate, something that will make someone stop and say, ‘That is a good song.’”
Details. Details. Details.
Songbird Music School July 6 & 7 Birdman Coffee & Books 5695 Commerce Street St. Francisville, LA (225) 635-3665 facebook.com/SongbirdMusicSchool
For registration call (225) 721-1296 or email email@example.com. Mail registration check to: Lynn Wood, P.O.Box 1504, St. Francisville, LA 70775.Confirmation will be emailed upon receipt of payment. Non-refundable $100 deposit is due by June 6 to guarantee a spot.