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On and off stage, collaboration drives Thompson Square

Shawna and Keifer Thompson
Shawna and Keifer Thompson

There have been a lot of married duos in popular music, from Johnny and June Carter Cash to Richard and Linda Thompson, Ike and Tina Turner to Sonny and Cher. Add Keifer and Shawna Thompson to that list, but put them in the “stable” column: As Thompson Square, the couple has broken into the country mainstream with two Top 10 charting albums and several American Music Awards.

They’ve been married 13 years and have been performing together even longer. Their decision to collaborate stemmed from the separation anxiety that resulted when they tried to embark on solo careers.

“I just hated being away from her, and she didn’t like hearing, ‘We had so much fun on the road,’ when she was at home doing gigs,” he said during a recent phone interview. “We just didn’t like it, and our relationship was more important than the music and everything else.”

They combined their love of traditional country music with various rock and pop influences – “Our iPods are all over the map,” he said, citing Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana and Bruce Springsteen as some of his favorite non-country artists.

“Everyone wants to be in a rock band,” he said. “What’s really cool about country now is you can have that energy onstage and still be a country artist. You can step outside the lines a little bit. It’s a great time for that.”

Thompson Square released its self-titled debut album in 2011, and it was a hit almost immediately: It debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard charts and peaked at No. 3 on the country charts, and the lead single, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” went platinum twice. Their second and most recent album, “Just Feels Good,” had even more chart success, and the song “If I Didn’t Have You” was a No. 1 country radio hit.

Part of the reason for their success, Thompson said, is that the songs feel much more genuine when he and his wife are on a stage together. No surprise, but it’s far easier performing live with his spouse than with another equally talented vocalist.

“It’s not only easier, but it’s a hell of a lot more believable,” he said. “There’s times where we’re up on a riser singing ‘If I Didn’t Have You,’ and – this is going to sound weird – but when you’re singing it to the person you’ve committed your life to … and she’s singing it back to me, sometimes it still gets us.”

And unlike the contentious musical couples of years past, Thompson said he and his wife are at their happiest when they’re making music together, and he said it translates to their performances. “Music is our lifeblood,” he said. “I don’t know if we could survive without it. Maybe we’d be in an insane asylum somewhere.”