NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Shawna Thompson was ready to quit and go home.
Nearly 15 years of chasing, of singing in dives and dreary showcases, of near misses and soul-sucking jobs and tears and worried sleeplessness had pushed her to the edge. It was time to give up on Music City because surely it had given up on her and her husband Kiefer.
"I told him my heart can't take it anymore," she said.
It was one of those relationship moments, the kind they sing about as the duo Thompson Square. One was wavering and the other wasn't ready to give it up. It had happened before, but this time she seemed so sad, so ready to go back to Chatom, Ala., in defeat.
"We were right there on the cusp. And I said, 'I swear, this is the last time I'll say this: Give it one more year. Something's going to happen. I feel it in my bones,'" Kiefer Thompson remembered.
He was right, this time.
"Two months later we got a record deal," Kiefer said.
The rest has happened in a kind of a dream state for the Thompsons. Not long after signing that deal, they released their self-titled debut album and their first single, "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not," went to No. 1. They've been on tour with Jason Aldean, are headed out with Lady Antebellum, and have received a slew of award nominations, including in the new artist of the year category at Wednesday's Country Music Association Awards.
Suddenly, they're getting a taste of everything that eluded them for so long. They've got the key to a world they just knew existed, but could never gain access. A new friend who owns a car dealership even gave them a tricked out Chevy Tahoe LTZ recently.
"It's just weird," Kiefer said. "I didn't think people gave away cars. It takes years to pay those things off."
The Thompsons are eating at a diner as they retell their story. It's creeping up on 11 p.m. and they're fried after a 15-hour video shoot that started at seven that morning. The 33-year-old Shawna is turned in her chair, leaning into 37-year-old Kiefer as he does much of the talking for both of them. They're surrounded by people, but they're very much alone together as well.
The decision to merge their personalities into one act was the key to their success — it just took them a while to realize it. Shawna came to town at 18 with a development deal. Kiefer, an Oklahoma native, moved here two weeks after college with a strong feeling things were going to work out. They hit town the same week and met at the place where everyone went to sing and get noticed.
"I went up and asked her to play pool and she sharked me because she didn't tell me her dad had a pool hall growing up," Kiefer said. "She schooled me and pretty much couldn't get rid of me at that point, and we haven't been apart any time since then."
There were stretches though where things weren't in sync. She might have a high, while he was at a low. He might score a gig as a guitar player and hit the road while she might be stuck at home, arranging topiaries at a craft store.
About seven years ago they decided they wanted to attack it as a team. They would succeed together or fail together. No one would break them up.
And for a long time, it looked like they'd fail together. By the time their friend and future manager Shawn Pennington called to say he'd be bringing a couple of record execs to their next showcase in 2009, they were pretty much done. Shawna had given Kiefer his year, but it still seemed futile nonetheless.
They didn't even bother to leave Pennington and those executives on the guest list, forcing them to pay $10 apiece.
"We figured they're not going to like us anyway, so we'll get 40 bucks out of it," Kiefer said.
Six weeks later they had a record deal with independent label Stoney Creek Records, and all those things that had left countless A&R people unimpressed before were suddenly strengths.
The album, produced by members of Aldean's band in the collective called NV, has that contemporary, arena rock-ready sound with guitars up front and sing-along lyrics. There's a dash of 1980s metal mixed in with sounds of Bruce Springsteen, Merle Haggard and Etta James.
But "Thompson Square" also highlights the interplay between two people in love — the fun and romance, the fights and heartache. You can hear it in the lyrics and in the music, a blend of the sounds they both love.
"With them especially, the one thing we noticed is if you're looking at the act and you're a fan, you believe them," said Tully Kennedy, a member of NV. "They're a husband-wife duo. It's not fabricated. ... What they have is real and that sort of comes through when they're performing and I think that's why their fan base and radio have embraced them."
- Thompson Square