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Thompson Brothers overcome handicap

By Robert Loy, September 1996

Andy Thompson, lead guitarist and vocalist with the Thompson Brothers Band, laughs when asked where they got the name "Cows on Main Street" for their first CD.

"People ask us where we're from," he says, "and when we tell them we're from Massachusetts, they think it's all big cities up there. But Norwell, where we're from, (halfway between Boston and Plymouth) is a pretty small town; there's only about a hundred kids in every graduating class. We really did have cows on Main Street. It used to make us late for school sometimes. "

There's certainly nothing standing in the way of the Thompson Brothers now. Andy and brother Matt ("vocals, drums, percussion and all unnecessary noise") along with childhood friend and honorary Thompson Mike Whitty ("vocals and largemouth bass") are on the road touring in support of "Cows on Main Street," which is not a full length CD, but a six-song EP.

"Well, actually that was RCA's decision more than anything," Andy Thompson explains. "There's a lot of people and a lot bands putting out a lot of albums these days, and if the first album doesn't take off, they're dropped from the label. I think RCA wanted to get people, regular people - instead of record companies - to start bugging the radio stations to play our stuff. So they put out an EP and set us out on the road to develop a fan base and an awareness of who we are before they started pushing anything to radio. It seems to be working pretty good so far."

The Thompson Brothers have come a long way in a relatively short time, an especially amazing feat when you consider that these lads are from underprivileged backgrounds.

You see, the Thompson Brothers grew up without country music.

"It's true," Andy admits. "There really weren't any country stations in the area that we could pick up when we were growing up. It was kind of weird. My dad is from western Massachusetts, and they had country on the radio up there. He was into Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, and then he moved east. When we finally could get a country station he was the first one to listen to it. Andwe just thought it was great. It was the first time we ever got into the swing of a current music, stuff that was coming out, we were really into John Anderson. Mike and Matt and I thought he was so cool. We thought country music was cool."

So cool, in fact, that they put together a band and started playing dances, parties and clubs. They played some in Rhode Island and Vermont, and a lot in Massachusetts - many of the same venues

that Jo Dee Messina was playing at that time too. (For a while, Andy played guitar in a band that featured Messina's sister on bass.)

The Thompson Brothers were making a name for themselves in New England, but these guys were serious about music careers, and it was a foregone conclusion that they would migrate southward.

"We always knew that Nashville's where you had to be. I went to school at Northwestern for a year until those other two guys graduated, and then we all came to Belmont University together."

The Nashville-based school has a well-known music business program. "Some of the guys from Little Texas went there, and Trisha Yearwood and a lot of others," Thompson says. "It's where Vince Gill has his celebrity basketball tournament."

Of course, a lot of bands head to Nashville. Good bands. Bands nobody has ever heard of because they can't get the right person's attention. What do you do to get that attention?

Whatever you have to do.

"We were in Nashville for about five years," Andy says. "We did a lot of work in studios, working the midnight shift, moving machines and cleaning up, anything we could do to get free recording time. A friend of ours was an engineer at Javelina studios, and one day RCA had a listening party there for Jon Randall. They needed a tape to test out the P.A. with, and our buddy said, 'Hey, put this tape in there.'"

Somebody from RCA heard it, thought it was a college band on an independent label and wanted to know where he could buy the CD. Our friend told him we were looking for a deal, and that's how it all got started. It's one of those stories that you hear, and you think that kind of stuff never really happens, but it happened to us."

The result was, of course, "Cows on Main Street," a tight, rocking album with masterful harmonies, sort of like Dwight Yoakam in a good mood or the Everly Brothers with an edge. "Cows" includes two live songs.

"We got together and talked with the folks at RCA, and they said that they wanted to capture what we do in our live shows. So we suggested doing live versions, and they just smiled and said okay. I think that's what they had in mind anyway. They were recorded at the Country Rock Cafe in Athens, Ga., a club we played at a lot and had a good strong following there."

One of those live songs seems an unlikely choice for a modern country record: Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man."

"When RCA came out to hear us," Andy says, "we didn't really think anything was going to come of it. We were kind of fed up with not getting any attention, and we just decided we were going to do what we wanted to do. If they like us, fine; if they don't that's fine too. We've always loved that song and we started playing it in our live shows. When we were putting the CD together, RCA said 'You gotta put that Neil Diamond song on there.' "

There's also a Steve Earle song ("The Rain Came Down"), but the other four are all written or co-written by one or more of the Thompsons.

"I think it's important," Andy says, "that we do songs that we like and songs that we write. I think our sound is pretty unique compared to a lot of stuff that's on the radio these days. And it's tough for us to find songs in the usual way, I mean from a regular publishing company. So we like to write them ourselves or write with other established songwriters."

To their surprise, radio's response to the Thompsons has been favorable: "We didn't really think we were going to get any play, but they're starting to do some in Chicago. They play us some in Boston on the "Edge of Country" (WKLB radio) show. I think radio is slowly loosening up and becoming more open to more kinds of country music."

What's next for the Thompson Brothers? Videos maybe?

"They were talking about doing one pretty soon. It's not really up to us, but we know TV is important. We did a spot on TNN's "Prime Time Country" and it is amazing how many people come up to you and say, "Hey, I saw you on TV."

Another CD? Definitely.

"We're looking for a producer. We're supposed to start recording it in the next couple of weeks. We've got the songs, and RCA likes all the songs. They've been so supportive. You need something, you call them up and they're right there to help you."

The Thompsons have a lot that sets them apart from other bands - songwriting skills, a strong work ethic - and those harmonies.

"That's something that we've always done, even before Mike started playing with us. Matt and I would be in the basement doing harmony. Mom was in a barbershop quartet, so it runs in the family, I guess. And we grew up listening to old Everly Brothers records, so that probably had something to do with it. And I mean, we've got three guys up there, we might as well all be singing."

And they probably will be singing for a long time to come.