Take a look at Allen Thompson's record collection, and you'll see names like the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, the Black Crowes, and the Band -- groups that feel more like musical communities than straightforward rock bands.
The same sense of community anchors the Allen Thompson Band, a rootsy outfit from Nashville, TN. Thompson's country-soul vocals and earthy, literate songwrit
ing may anchor the group's latest album, "Salvation in the Ground," but this isn't a solo project. It's collaboration between all six members.
"Ever since I began building a band," Thompson explains, "I've always wanted a communal situation in which everyone gets an equal say and no one's input is more important than anyone else's. I kept myself from doing that for a long time, because everyone says you're not supposed to do that... but it became increasingly evident that the harder I tried to be a solo artist, the harder it was to do the songs justice. I wasn't standing out. I wasn't really standing at all."
Thompson got a leg up by adding a strong rhythm section and a 4th harmony vocalist to the 3-piece string band he'd been touring with since 2009, eventually rounding out an electric six-piece lineup in early 2011. The group set up shop in East Nashville, a blue-collar neighborhood east of the Cumberland River, and began fleshing out Thompson's songs, which sampled equally from country, roots-rock, southern soul, and Appalachian folk music. Lower Broadway, with its neon lights and crowded honky-tonks, was just a 10-minute drive from the band's practice space, and Music Row -- ground zero for Nashville's conservative-minded music industry -- was almost as close. Still, as far as Thompson was concerned, those areas might as well have been in another country.
"After a few false starts in the business, I've finally learned to stop writing for an imagined audience and start writing for myself. If you get caught up in making things sound a certain way -- if you try to force your music to sound like someone else's definition of a musical genre -- then you're setting yourself up for failure. You should follow the muse, not force it to follow you."
Thompson began writing music as a teenager in Roanoke, Virginia. His parents split up when he was very young, and Thompson spent most of his childhood bouncing between different homes, staying with a combination of relatives and school friends. Music was a source of stability, a way to connect with each home he visited.
"If I was staying with my grandparents," he remembers, "we'd listen to country music, old folk tunes, and World War I songs. We'd watch "Hee Haw" every Saturday. With my mom, I'd listen to a lot of soul music. With my dad, it was southern rock and '80s country. And then my friends' families showed me all the tunes they were into. It was fascinating to learn how different types of popular music touched different types of people."
Years later, music is still the glue that bonds Thompson to the people he loves. It's the brickwork for his own community, with "Salvation in the Ground" -- the Allen Thompson Band's best song cycle to date -- acting as the cornerstone.
"I don't have a single relationship in my life that doesn't have its own special soundtrack. That's my goal with the Allen Thompson Band: to write our soundtrack. This music is family music. There are husbands and wives in the band, and we're part of a larger community of husband-and-wife bands. We're creating our soundtrack together. I spent a lot of time not trying to do that -- trying to be a certain type of artist instead -- and the music didn't sound as good as it should have. Since I've started creating music in this family environment, the response has changed. And the songs are better."
Maybe salvation's in the people, too.