Josh Thompson was making a comfortable living pouring concrete in Wisconsin, but something was missing.
“The normal life just won’t do,” Thompson said in October, as he prepared to head to a solo show outside Boston, and then rejoin the Rowdy Friends Tour with Hank Williams, Jr., Jamey Johnson, and Colt Ford. “I had a great job, with union benefits and all that. My family’s up there, and it’s where I hunt and fish.
“But I still longed,” Josh continued, “to be somewhere that when I’d go to work, it didn’t seem like work. It didn’t seem like that was it.”
He was so good at pouring concrete that even after he moved to Music City and snagged his first publishing deal with Ash Street Music, he poured concrete part-time to make ends meet. Back home in Wisconsin, he earlier worked on a three-year project building Miller Park, the home of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Josh Thompson is also very, very good at writing and singing country songs that reflect his own workingman’s background. That kind of blue-collar, guy’s country music – similar to that of Zac Brown and Easton Corbin – has helped bring mainstream country radio back towards its 1970s place where male listeners could enjoy it just as much as their lady friends.
“I think the blue-collar style of music is extremely important. For me, it’s what turned me on to country music,” Thompson says. “That’s what the core country listener and consumer is, they’re working men and working women that get up early in the morning and go to work and pay the taxes and pay the mortgage. They’re regular Americans.”
One of the best aspects of Josh Thompson and Zac Brown is that they not only sing about regular Americans, they look like regular guys. Music Row and country got so obsessed this decade with reality shows like “American Idol,” and the perceived need to reach female listeners and consumers, that lots of artists got signed more for their looks and for their sounds.
Radio also became too ballad-heavy, with songs that glorified the women, but had little in common with country’s blue-collar, truck-driving, factory-floor roots.
As a result, many longtime listeners fled the format. Songs like Thompson’s current Top 15 Columbia Nashville hit single “Way Out Here,” which name-checks John Wayne, Johnny Cash, and John Deere, are bringing them back in droves.
The concept for the song, Thompson says, came when Josh and co-writers Casey Beathard and David Lee Murphy were just sitting around a table, shooting the bull.
One of the guys said, “it’s nice way out here.”
“Well, writing is such a bipolar mess, as I call it,” Thompson says with a smile. “Sometimes you come in to the writing session with an idea, or just a melody. In the case of that song, we weren’t even starting to write yet, just talking.’ ”
Country radio has jumped all over the single, which is also the title track for Thompson’s debut Columbia Nashville album. The album has already spent time in Top 10.
“My greatest compliment has happened a couple of times at the shows,” he says. “Fans come up to me and say, `I listen to your songs on the way to work, and it puts me in a better mood. They make me forget the 10 hours I’m about to put in on the job.’ ”
His 2005 move to Music City was a gutsy one.
“My first impression is, `Who the hell designed this town?’ The first thing you do is get lost,” he says. “It took me about six months to figure it out, and I still get lost. But I did the songwriters nights at 12th& Porter and everything. That was okay, some nights were better than others. But that was also a great place to meet other writers.”
Unlike many other Row stars, Thompson didn’t get his start in music until quite late.
“I didn’t get a guitar until I was 21. I got one for my birthday, and I learned the cowboy chords,” he says.
The passion for music began much earlier.
“I have always been in love with music. It has always controlled my life since I was a little kid,” he says. “Merle Haggard and George Jones were two of my favorites. I just like the honesty in their music, no matter how brutal and awkward the stories were. They were making themselves vulnerable, telling the truth.”
Not long after moving to Nashville, he was signed at Ash Street Publishing. That deal lasted two years.
“I got a job pouring concrete here right away. My draw wasn’t enough that I could live off,” Thompson said. “So I would write Mondays and Wednesdays, then work Tuesdays and Thursdays, often working until 10 at night to dump out a couple trucks.”
These days, he’s able at last to spend full time on music, and country radio and blue-collar country fans are reaping the benefits.
Story by Phil Sweetland
Photos by Christian Lantry