Okay, okay. So it must be totally disconcerting when a musician walks into an interview expecting to discuss his art…and ends up fielding questions about his hair. However, Josh Thompson is a pretty good sport when it comes to explaining why he chose to chop off his famous ponytail, which can be seen on the cover of his latest full-length, “Turn It Up.”
As it happens, Thompson has no explanation deeper than he had been thinking about making a change. (Hey, even Willie Nelson cut off his famous braids a few years ago for basically the same reason.) “I’d been toying with the [idea of a haircut] for awhile,” he notes. “I’d mentioning it more and more over the last few months because it had always been my plan to cut my hair at some point. I was gonna shave … You know, was gonna get the clippers out and rrrrrr!”
He didn’t quite go that far, but he did cut a fair amount off, which he donated to the Locks of Love charity. At any rate, the new look suits Thompson, whose charming, breezy mannerisms are well put to use on his no-nonsense, straight-up brand of country, which includes lots of good old-fashioned references to beers, cars, girls, and other tried-and-true inspirations. Songs such as “Wanted Me Gone” are foot-stompers worthy of a top-volume sing-along.
Thompson started off his musical path growing up in Wisconsin, where he began listening to country at an early age, starting off with the classics. “When I was 15, I was just starting to dig into Merle Haggard, because I heard a song called ‘Mama Tried,'” he explains. “I absolutely fell in love with it and started digging into his records and everything he’d written and started digging into who he was influenced by.”
Thompson’s parents also liked country, so he explored their music collection as well. “I had the rebellious stage; you know, sought out rap and hip-hop and rock music, but it didn’t take long until I came right back to country. The lyrics, the emotion that just kind of – I couldn’t get that anywhere else.”
At age 21, he learned to play guitar while working for his family’s construction business.”I was having a problem picking up chicks and I thought playing a guitar would do it,” he jokes. “Kidding…I had always wanted to play the guitar. I was listening to ‘Ride Me Down Easy’ by Bobby Bare. Like literally on repeat for two weeks. I just loved it. It was just something about it. I wanted to play that song, and so I got a guitar for my 21st birthday. I really sat down and actually focused on how to learn to play the songs that I love.”
“It wasn’t after about six months into playing guitar I wrote my first song, and that was pretty much it for me.”
Although he liked working in the family industry (where he specialized as a concrete finisher), music continued to beckon, and Thompson made the decision to trek to Nashville. “In the beginning it was really rough. I didn’t know anybody,” he admits. “I found this house that was like rent by the day…I didn’t know anything about the town, I had never been and I had never driven around it – and it’s extremely confusing. I didn’t have a job or any contacts.”
Luckily, it turned out that another boarder in the house happened to also be from Wisconsin and was happy to help a fellow Badger out. “He took me around to some of the ‘writer’s nights’ and places where you get started,” Thompson recalls. “After a couple of weeks, I had some friends and some places to go and a day job.”
As many fledgling Nashville performers start out, Thompson began working in earnest as a songwriter. By 2010 he’d landed a record deal and released his debut, “Way Out Here,” as well as notched songwriting credits for Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley, and others. He had a full set written and ready to go for his sophomore LP; however, in 2012 he parted ways with his label, resulting in the material going unreleased. He eventually picked up a new deal and began recording a completely new project (what would become “Turn It Up”), but fans continue to ponder what became of the “middle album” that never was.
Thompson admits the blip was aggravating, but confirms that one day he thinks he will put out the lost material. “That was definitely a frustrating process, because I made a record that I was pretty proud of. Of course, I wanted it to see the light of day and, and I would say chances are that it will. It just depends on when it is I put it out.”
In the meantime, he’s busy with his current state of affairs, and is cognizant of how he’s grown as an artist over the past few years. “I’ve grown the most probably with songwriting and right next to it would be performing,” he says. “Hundreds of shows later and hundreds of songs later and life… just things that help you kind of shape who you are a little bit more.”
Thompson may be continually growing artistically, but he’s also got solid roots that aren’t about to change anytime soon. He realizes that his home state of Wisconsin doesn’t immediately spring to mind when considering country music pedigrees in general, but he’s quick to defend the Midwest and its genuine love for the genre.
“I guess [people] just don’t expect Wisconsin to be a country music hotbed so to speak,” he says. “But the Midwest really has got probably more country music focused outdoor festivals that last like three or four days, just non-stop parties. Really, just people put them together as an excuse to not shower and drink for three days and sleep in a tent,” he laughs. “But they are very passionate about country music.”