It may be a cliché, but it is true; John and Michelle Thompson have been making beautiful music together for over twenty years. Though the cast of supporting players in their band, The Wayside, has changed many times, their original vision, to craft songs that speak hope and truth to a hurting world with musical authenticity and spiritual passion has remained strong. It has taken them to bars, clubs, theaters, colleges, festivals and churches as they endeavor to blend the best elements of American country, rock and roll and alternative musical styles with lyrics that were “salty and sweet; darkness and light,” according to one of their mentors and heroes.
A Life In Music…
The Thompsons served as worship leaders in Aurora Illinois where they met in 1989. Between band practice and worship rehearsals the couple built a friendship and then a marriage on a foundation of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs… with a side-helping of classic rock and country staples, and original songs delving into the struggles of life. But strangely, in twenty years of writing and recording they have never released a collection of sacred music. In 2010 that changes with the debut of Spiritual Songs.
“I guess I just never respected the supposed divide between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ music the way others did,” explains John. “We have always been equally as passionate about playing in clubs or churches. We love to take songs that religious people think of as ‘secular’ and find some truth in there. We also love bringing old hymns and gospel songs into bars – and have often been surprised at how well they go over. But for some reason we just never got around to creating an album that represents our take on gospel and worship songs.”
“People have been asking us for a project like this for years,” Michelle adds. “Finally we have gotten to a place where we could really make it special. I hope it was worth the wait.”
The project came to life when the two enlisted the recording help of producer and engineer Stephen Leiweke to record their version of “These Thousand Hills,” a worship song they have been performing since its original release in 1989 by the Atlanta band Jacob’s Trouble. It was a special request by their good friend Pat O’Malley who was battling cancer. “We just wanted to capture the song the way we had been doing it for years,” John explains. “It was a favorite of Pat’s and he requested it be used at his memorial service when that time came. We decided not to wait, but to record it right away so he could enjoy it while he was still with us.” The recording process was quick and simple. “It was basically us, with some good friends, in a room making music that we loved. Our friend Matt Slocum (Sixpence None The Richer) came over and added a beautiful cello part to the simple acoustic track we had recorded. The process of recording was so enjoyable, so simple, and the results so encouraging, that it set the tone for what would become The Wayside’s first full length studio album in nearly ten years.
“When we walked away that night,” Michelle remembers, “I remember sitting in the car and realizing that this was the record we were supposed to make.”
Spiritual Songs was recorded just a few blocks from the Thompson’s home, with the musical assistance of several long-time friends. Kenny Hutson and Jake Bradley (Over The Rhine,) have known the Thompsons for well over a decade. “Kenny actually played pedal-steel guitar and mandolin on our Farm record ten years ago,” John adds. “We had known them in other bands over the years, but when we realized that they lived in the same neighborhood as us we knew they had to be a part of this.” Drummer and percussionist Ken Lewis (Ben Folds, Vince Gill, Sixpence None The Richer, Carly Simon, Chris Tomlin, JD Souther, Trace Adkins, Temptations) was also recruited, and Slocum returned to add another cello track. The Thompsons were also thrilled to recruit several members of their own small group community which meets each week at their home. “There is so much talent in that group,” Michelle adds, “that we knew we wanted them to be a part of this project. They are so much a part of our lives, and really the main reason we moved to Nashville.” Several members formed an impromptu choir on a two tracks, and fellow Aurora transplant Erin Lee added a third part harmony to “Because He Lives,” a song the band had been performing for years.
One significant departure on Spiritual Songs is that none of the songs are original compositions, though the two have written many since the move. “We thought about including a couple of our original songs,” John explains, “but when we got down to it we decided to go with songs that have become important to us personally, even though we didn’t write them, and songs that we have been leading in worship services over the years.” The resulting track list includes favorite hymns, (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,”) gospel songs, (“Because He Lives,” “Nothing But The Blood of Jesus,” “These Thousand Hills,” “Psalm 51,”) and the obscure traditional “Blessed Is The Name of the Lord Forever,” a gem discovered by John on several Bob Dylan bootlegs from the early 1980s. “I first heard a recording of Dylan performing that song years ago, and immediately created an arrangement of my own. We’ve used it at churches, bars and festivals and people always love it.”
A couple of the selections defy easy categorization, including the Kris Kristofferson classic “Why Me, Lord?,” and a previously unreleased Kate York composition called “You Took The Blame” which John discovered through his current work as the Creative Director at EMI CMG Publishing. “The first time I heard Kate’s work tape of that song, I fell in love with it. We have used it as a congregational song at our church in Nashville several times and just love the lyric and the melody. We’re so excited to be able to introduce people to a brand new worship song on this project.”
Musically the two intentionally kept things very stripped down, replicating the tone, instrumentation and vibe that they have tried to craft in their performances over the years. “It all started with my old classical guitar,” John says. “Then we just let the band learn the tunes, feel them internally, and interpret them in whatever way they felt made the most sense. When you have musicians the caliber of Kenny, Jake, Matt and Ken, its fun to just throw the songs into the room and see where their instincts take them.” Hutson managed to find spaces for electric guitar, parlor guitar, lap steel, pedal steel, mandolin and Dobro, while Bradley filled the low end in with upright and vintage electric bass. Ken Lewis brought a full array of drums and percussion flavors. All three core musicians fully engaged in the creative process, suggesting parts and feeding off of each other’s energy. The result is a rich blend of Americana Gospel, with the best elements of country, blues and traditional gospel all working together in the mix.
For The Wayside, selling albums is never the main priority. “Between the economy, the various wars going on in the world and the general uncertainty of the ‘American Dream,'” John says, “it seems that the message of these songs has never been more important for people to hear than it is right now.”
Michelle agrees. “We’re feeling the same pressures as everyone,” she adds. “We’re all bombarded with so much information – and little of it is very encouraging. These songs may be simple, and often quiet, but behind them there is a loud voice reminding us of the things that really matter, and that God still has us in the palm of His hand. These songs minister to us, and we hope to everyone who hears them.”
John and Michelle Thompson, aka The Wayside, are available for concerts in all types of venues, including clubs, theaters, coffee houses, colleges, churches, homes and arenas. They also love to speak and teach and are currently booking events for 2010. For more information email: TheWaysideSings@Gmail.com. To hear the new album, Spiritual Songs, in its entirety, visit www.TheWaysideStore.com. For additional photos, upcoming concerts and more information visit www.TheWayside.info.