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This must be the place: ‘And live the way I said I would, but somehow never did…’

Tailgate talks with Verlon Thompson. Garret K. Woodward photo Tailgate talks with Verlon Thompson. Garret K. Woodward photo

As I awoke in my hammock, I could see the branches and leaves swaying above, sprinkling small bits of the early morning light down upon me. For a moment, I didn’t know if I was still dreaming. Heck, for two moments, I didn’t remember where I was. But, it soon dawned on me, I was back at Suwannee, this time for the “Spring Reunion.”

Tucked away in rural north Florida, the festival grounds are more than legendary. It’s a place of magic, of curiosity and childlike wonder, shared melodically between folks on both sides of the microphone. And, almost like clockwork, I tend to find myself there when I’m, well, trying to find myself. 

Sometimes you just wonder, “Is what I’m doing actually worth the time? Does anybody even care about the work put forth? Is this my true path?” Now, first and foremost, what I do is what I love, wholeheartedly. Writing, interviewing, traveling, etcetera. It does something within my soul that I can’t really explain, except you know it when you feel it, this buzzing within your billions of cells — a vibration of happiness, gratitude and one-ness with the cosmic universe. 

That said, there are times where the internal fire is getting low, in need of some logs thrown on it to keep the warmth, to keep the blaze bright and glowing. So, as I rolled into the Suwannee, I was feeling a little off-center, a tad in the “What does it all mean?” camp. 

And just when I felt myself falling into the trappings of that mindset, I found myself sitting backstage on a tailgate with iconic Oklahoma singer-songwriter Verlon Thompson. Someone who has literally seen it all, I suppose. At 64, Thompson is one of those folks you’ll always remember, even if you just met him once. His music, attitude and vibe is totally unique and completely captivating. We cracked a beer and talked about life, death, getting older, his longtime friendship/collaboration with the late Guy Clark, the grand scheme of things, and so forth. 

“The playing is the payoff. When I get a roomful of people and an hour or two to do my thing, I get refueled and recharged — it’s very much a spiritual thing,” Thompson said. 

And as we got to talking about Guy Clark, Thompson spoke at length about his dear friend, with Thompson being at his bedside when Clark left this earth in 2016.

“It makes you look at your own path, where you’ve been, where you’re going and how you want to get there. Suddenly, there’s a magnifying glass on everything that happens,” Thompson said. “It really drove it home, the fact that when it comes down to that last breath, all you’ve got are those memories, those moments and those feelings that you’ve shared with people. That’s all you’re going out with, man — there’s nothing else. It just makes you reflect, makes you want to do good, act right, be nice and love people.”

After our chat, I shook his hand and thanked him for taking some of his time to talk with me. He looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “Well, it was a great talk. You ask great questions and it was really comfortable. I can tell you really love what you do, and that you truly care about this music. That says a lot, and it’s important. And now we’re friends.” I walked away with several new logs on the fire.

Come Sunday afternoon, Thompson was scheduled to take the Porch Stage for a short 45-minute set. A few ominous clouds and a stiff breeze soon flowed into Suwannee. About halfway through his solo set, heavy raindrops splashed down on the audience, sitting and standing in the dirt, now muddy rain puddles. Thompson stopped midway through a song and said, “Heck, how ‘bout y’all come back here and we’ll finish the set where it’s dry?” 

Thompson then turned around and headed backstage into the large barn. Security stepped aside for the wet masses huddling into the building saying, “It’s your stage, Verlon. Do what you want,” to which the crowd roared with joy. 

Around the end of the intimate performance, Thompson was now surrounded by people, all silent and hanging on his every word. He launched into his song “I Love You More Than Anything.” A sing-along soon erupted, the words echoing out of the barn and into the festival grounds, “I love you more than anything/I love you more than everything/It’s the stars that hang up in the ding-dang sky/It’s the folk tunes/It’s the butterflies.”

Thompson plucked his last guitar string. The audience gave a standing ovation. I clapped and gave a head nod to Thompson. He nodded back. Walking out of the barn, I looked up into the cloudy sky. Feeling the raindrops hit my face, I smiled in gratitude. 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all. 


Hot picks

1 Legendary banjo player Raymond Fairchild will be part of a special bluegrass jam starting at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at Elevated Mountain Distilling Company in Maggie Valley.

2 Frog Level Brewing (Waynesville) will host Darren Nicholson (bluegrass) at 7 p.m. Friday, March 30. 

3 The drama “Mass Appeal” by Bill C. Davis will hit the stage at 7:30 p.m. March 30-31 and 2 p.m. April 1 in the Feichter Studio at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville. 

4 Nantahala Brewing (Bryson City) will host Shane Meade & the Sound at 8 p.m. Friday, March 30.

5 Acclaimed painter Jo Ridge Kelley will host a relaxing afternoon of painting colorful tulips, wine sipping, laughter and creativity from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at Bosu’s Wine Shop in Waynesville.

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