On the third Tuesday of March, Don Vernon Thompson passed away and went to his final resting place. The lifelong farmer and rancher was 87.
“If love could have saved him,” his family wrote about the lifelong farmer and rancher, “he would have lived forever. Everybody loved him.”
I can’t say I knew the man but I was touched by him after watching Sweet Dreams Do Come True, the documentary about his son, the songwriter Verlon Thompson.
The elder Thompson, along with beloved wife Darwettia and their son’s wife Demetria, is among the many voices in Brent Simonds’ film which won Best Documentary Feature at the Red Dirt International Film Festival and Best Music Film at the Franklin International Independent Film Festival. It is now available to stream on Amazon Prime. The strong screen presence of the reflective soft-spoken man from Binger, Oklahoma makes it easier to understand the values that shaped his son who loved baseball and music but chose the latter.
Verlon Thompson like his father is similarly unassuming. He took a different path in life, emigrating to Colorado before he made a turn and found success in Nashville. Over time he has amassed a trove of writing and performing credits. His songs have been performed by a plethora of household names including Suzy Boguss, Kenny Rogers, Jimmy Buffett, Guy Clark and a long list of other luminaries.
Thompson is like the accidental star of his own documentary. In the film he tells how he once took a call from producer Jon Randall while shopping for light bulbs at Home Depot. Randall was making a record with Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson. Would he mind if they did a version of “Bad Angel”?
It recalls an earlier episode when Thompson first moved to Nashville and took a job working in landscaping. One day Thompson had to be interrupted from digging a hole by his manager as someone saying she was Loretta Lynn was on the line. It really was Lynn and Thompson soon took a job as a staff writer at her publishing company.
Sweet Dreams is paced by Thompson’s recounting his life in song and verse. A gathering at a concert in a small in Bloomington, Illinois anchors the narrative. As those who come in and out of his life recall Thompson, his guitar strands play in the background giving the story a lively feel.
Simonds is a professor of mass media and communication at Illinois State University. He was attracted to Thompson while listening to his album Live at Ivey’s. It occurred to the teacher of documentary storytelling that Vernon had already written the script for a biographical music film.
“If I could capture some of his performances, interview the people close to him, and visit the places he vividly describes,” he remembers thinking, “I could create an interesting blend of concert film and biography.”
Thompson is often associated with Guy Clark with whom he wrote “The Guitar.” The film explores how the song came to be. In fact, it was Thompson’s friend Jack Secord who brought them together. Secord was a student at a songwriting class that Clark and Thompson taught at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch.
“I know another Okie you should meet,” Secord told Simonds who also hails from Oklahoma.
In the immediate days after Clark passed away three years ago, Verlon Thompson spoke of him on almost must mystical terms. Thompson gathered with SiriusXM host Alamo Jones, Bobby Bare, Sean Camp and biographer Tamara Saviano for an extended conversation and tribute.
There is always one more Guy Clark story to tell and Verlon Thompson had one to tell. It was about the night he thought he would die alongside Guy Clark. As Thompson recalled, they were playing on the front porch of an old saloon. A huge thunderstorm lay ahead. “If I get struck by lightning,” Thompson thought to himself, “so be it.” He’d die playing “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” with Guy Clark.
“Bring it on,” he said to himself. But it never came. Clark stared at the storm, and it backed off.
In the documentary the voice of Guy Clark comes across like that of god. But it’s the advice Clark provides to Thompson that is the pivotal moment in the story.
Thompson recounts his rise to being a solo star. He had a band. He had a label. He even had a hairdresser if you can believe it. But something was missing. That’s when he turned to friend Clark. In his Guy way, Clark told him to shut up and stop whining. Then he reminded him that there were little rooms all over the country and the world to be played. “The key is, you’ve got to have songs. You’ve got to walk in with a satchel full of songs.” It freed him up and was the breakthrough he needed. He could thank Guy Clark for changing his musical life.
“I wanted long-time fans of Verlon’s to learn things they did not already know,” Simonds told me. “More importantly, I wanted to introduce people to his great talent and then find themselves rooting for him as they followed his journey.
Thompson, who received scenes of the film as Simonds assembled them, was emotionally taken back. “I talk about and sing about these things all the time, but to see them take shape visually is an emotional reminder of what a blessed life I’ve had,” he wrote to the director. “I’m most thankful for seeing my family and friends get the credit they so truly deserve. That really makes my heart swell.”
This June the film Is being shown in Texas at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Thompson and Shawn Camp will play before the screening in a “sundown concert” and take the stage the following night. Rodney Crowell will also play.
One of the values of the film is the enduring record it provides of Thompson’s life and roots growing up in Oklahoma. We get up close to the land and dirt of Caddo County where he grew up. We see a museum for Binger’s most famous resident, Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench who fueled the dreams of young boys like Verlon and his brother that they too could be baseball stars.
“I know I’m doing a lot of songs about Oklahoma but every time I do I get to go home,” Thompson says at one point during his performance.
Home was the farm he told his father he’d one day leave. He was thirteen when he had the conversation. It could have been tense. But Don Vernon Thompson saw there was a place for his son beyond Binger. He told his son he knew he loved music and wanted him to give it his best shot. And when Thompson left the Marines after high school and asked his father for advice about pursuing music, he gave him some sage advice: “You’re not getting any younger.”
The elder Thompson stuck with the land he’d known all his life. As he opened the drawer of his tool chest, the rusted reflected a life’s work. He reflected that driving his son all over so he could play music probably took time away when he should have been working. But there was a satisfaction that underscored his smile. “I wouldn’t take nothing for it now.”
It’s just one of the reasons why Verlon Thompson had tears running down his cheeks when he saw the film. “To see and hear my friends, heroes, and the love of my life say such things is overwhelmingly emotional,” he wrote to the director. “The only thing wrong with this is that I’m not worthy.”
I’m sure Don Vernon Thompson recognized his son’s humility. But I’m sure he took exception with the statement.