Cowboy Keith Thompson

Big, bold, and brassy Southern soul music is jumping out of the speakers in the office/studio/spare bedroom of “Cowboy” Keith Thompson’s Rosebank neighborhood home. He stops the playback and clicks on another track, filling the room with a Hammond B3-driven mambo beat that would have completed the ambiance of the quintessential 1950s swingin’ bachelor’s pad. Next he switches to a sultry, jazz-blues version of the Doors classic “Light my Fire.”
     Thompson continues to work his way through samples from the eight albums he’s produced and released on his East Side label, Inglehood Records. Meanwhile, down the hallway in the living room, local photographer/bass player Jared Manzo is with legendary Nashville harmonica player and session man Charlie McCoy, shooting the cover for Inglehood’s next release. Cowboy Keith’s son, Cash, steps into the office to report on the Pokémons he captured in his most recent walk around the neighborhood. It’s just another Sunday morning in Cowboy Keith’s Inglehood Studios. 
     “I’ve produced records with BR5-49, Cameo, and the Crush Boys,” Thompson says. “I’ve traveled all over the world running sound for artists, and the only thing that really makes me go, ‘Yes! This is great!’ is the stuff we started doing two years ago.”
     The stuff that Thompson is referring to is the mix of soul, blues, jumpin’ jive, jazz, and more that he has recorded, mixed, and released, all from his small, mid-century home in East Nashville. A fixture of Nashville’s local music scene for almost 20 years, Thompson’s Inglehood Records is providing an outlet for heartfelt passion projects from some of the East Side’s hardest working musicians. 
     Born in Camden, N.J., and growing up in nearby Maple Shade, Thompson found his way to the great American cowboy myth through an unusual path — from a song about French marine conservationist and explorer Jacques Cousteau’s renowned ship the RV Calypso.
     “When I was little, my sister had a John Denver record that had the song ‘Calypso’ on it,” Thompson says. “It had that real high, soaring singing on the chorus, almost like yodeling, and I thought it was really cool. I asked my dad who else did this kind of music, and he handed me ‘Cool Water’ by the Sons of the Pioneers. I thought it was amazing, and that got me into cowboy music.”
     Thompson’s love of western warblers eventually led him to rockabilly and then on to traditional country music. Moving to Philadelphia when he was 18 in 1988, he became a fixture in Philly’s local rockabilly and retro-country scene, performing, organizing hillbilly-themed revues at local clubs, DJing events, hosting a local radio show, and eventually his own Sunday morning TV show, Cowboy Keith’s Cartoon Corral.
     “We were on the air on Sundays at 7 a.m.,” Thompson says. “We lasted one month before being canceled. The kids hated us. They wrote in saying we sucked and they wanted the GoBots back. So that was the end of that!”
     Although Thompson began his musical career as a performer, and still performs occasionally, his experiences soon directed his attention toward another aspect of the music business.
     “I got into running sound at clubs and gradually realized that I should put the guitar down and push buttons and move sliders instead,” he says. “I began to focus more on sound engineering and production. I worked both in the studio and at concerts, but I really loved the live sound best because of the immediacy of it. When the audience thinks it sounds great, you know it right then, that’s the greatest feeling.”
     Working as a live sound engineer, Thompson toured with such acts as El Vez, Delta 72, Rocket from the Crypt, and Go to Blazes, in addition to running sound at several local Philadelphia venues. It was a 1997 Lucinda Williams show in Philly that pushed his career south to the Music City.
     “Kenny Vaughn and Duane Jarvis were working with Lucinda at the time,” Thompson says. “They told me I needed to come to Nashville and work for Lucinda full-time. I moved, but it didn’t work out. She cancelled the tour. I worked at the Ryman for a while and engineered a few live shows. I had worked with BR5-49 when they played in Philly, and things were really taking off for them. In 1998, they got a sponsorship deal with Jack Daniel’s and I came onboard with them full-time. They’re my family. That’s how I became entrenched in Nashville and decided that this was home.”
     Thompson continued to work with BR5-49 through the group’s breakup in 2006 and has returned to his position behind the sound board for several reunion shows. He also produced the group’s 2004 album, Tangled in the Pines, even though he had given up on studio work for the most part at that point in his career.
     “I abandoned studio work when I moved to Nashville,” he says. “It had gotten to a point where I hated the subjective nature of studio recording. Too many people can tear your work apart after you put your heart and soul into it. Some people would say, what about the money? But I didn’t care about that; if you put the money before music then you’re just a factory, and where’s the joy 
in that?”
     Over the past 10 years, Thompson has built a reputation as a first-class sound man, working regularly with former Chicago lead man Peter Cetera, actress and singer Lynda Carter, and The Original Blues Brothers Band, which he also manages. It was through his association with The Blues Brothers Band that a new door opened in his career.
     “Tommy McDonnell, who sings with The Original Blues Brothers Band, mentioned to me that he’d never recorded a record,” Thompson says. “I told him to come to Nashville, and we’d do it. In January 2014, we cut it in Joe Pisapia’s studio. I wasn’t even thinking about recording at my house yet. Laura Mayo came in to sing a duet with Tommy as just a placeholder until we could figure who we really wanted, but she blew us away. I thought the band was so good, and we had so much fun, why not do a record with Laura, too?”
     For that first record, Thompson recruited local players James “Hags” Haggerty on bass, Martin Lynds on drums, Micah Hulscher on piano and organ, Joe McMahon on guitar, and Randy Leago on saxophone. As the prospect of more records beckoned, the idea of forming an East Side version of such legendary house bands as the Stax Rhythm Section, the Muscle Shoals Mudders, or the Music City Four proved appealing.
     “It just went from there,” Thompson says. “I started calling them the Inglehood Rhythm Section, and then Randy Leago asked me if he could call the horn section he formed the Inglehood Horns. There was just some sort of magic in those five guys, and I wanted to keep it going.”
     Over the last 19 months, the assembled musicians along with several special guests have cut eight more albums. The process has been a natural one as each project seemed to flow into the next.
     “The whole thing mushroomed,” Haggerty says. “We’d do one record and someone would be on the session, and it was like, why don’t we do a record with them? One just followed the other. There’s definitely a ’60s jazz-soul aesthetic running through it because Cowboy’s making the kind of music that he’s really passionate about.”
     Although Thompson was used to mixing and editing recordings at home, primarily as an extension of his road work, using his house as a recording studio was a new experience. It’s a feat he’s accomplished through the skills he’s acquired from years of live recording in varied venues.
     “It’s fantastic what Cowboy is able to do with sound,” Lynds says. “He’s really, really good, and he knows what different instruments are supposed to sound like. He can just stick his head in the middle of the drums, listen and is able to put the mic in just the right spot. The equipment he’s using is pretty bare bones, but his talent is what makes it sound so good. Joe Pisapia has a great studio, but he hears these records and says, ‘How’s he doing that?’ It’s just Cowboy’s house, but he’s figured out how to capture the right sound.”
     In addition to keeping the technical aspects low maintenance, Thompson also serves as the consummate host, bringing a homey and casual feel to every session.
     “We get there in the morning and he’s got coffee and kolache from Yeast Nashville,” Haggerty says. “Everyone looks forward to catching up with each other. We’re laughing and having a good time, then everybody sits down and we just do it. It’s really cool music, and we all just want to make it great.”
     The combination of experienced, top-notch musicians, a tight focus on the music, and a welcoming atmosphere has made the Inglehood sessions a special and fulfilling experience that is reflected in the music.
     “The first record was cut in two days,” Thompson says. “We spent another two days overdubbing vocals and boom! We were done. Now we’re cutting a record in one day. Charlie McCoy cut his whole record in six hours. I mix and tweak things as I go. It’s fun to watch and exciting to be able to make records this way. I definitely steer the ship but I try not to put constraints on people. I let people stretch out and do their thing. The reason they’re here is because they’re the right musician for the job. I foot the bill for everything. No one does it for free, everyone gets paid. The artist gets a hundred copies to start and they don’t pay for anything. I’m making fives of dollars, but it’s a lot of fun.”
     Beyond the pure joy of recording great music with great musicians, Thompson also sees Inglehood as a way to shine the spotlight on the neighborhood that welcomed him almost 20 years ago.
     “I just want people to be aware of the quality of musicians that live in this neighborhood,” Thompson says. “There is a 10-piece horn section on Charlie McCoy’s record and all of them live within three blocks of me. The core of this community and what made East Nashville a cool neighborhood are these musicians and people like them. Many of them have lived here 20 years or more. They are the foundation and fabric of East Nashville, and I just want people to hear what we’re doing.
     “People ask me how East Nashville has changed, and for me, it hasn’t. I’m still seeing my friends and making music with them. I made this neighborhood my home. This is where I got married (and divorced). It’s where I’m raising my kid. It’s become home and it’s important to me. The neighborhood’s success has changed a lot of the landscape, but I see things like Moe Sweeny hanging on to his place in 5 Points (The Performing Artist Co-Op aka the ‘Purple Building’) and I see The 5 Spot returning to its roots with great residency shows early in the evening and it shows the old guard is still here and we still contribute.”
     For Thompson, that sense of community, of working with neighbors to build something bigger, better, different, or unique is the true heart of East Nashville-ness and something that he’s tried to manifest in each Inglehood Records release. 
     “What made East Nashville great is that everybody is welcome,” he says. “Everybody can come, but you need to bring something to the party, don’t just come and graze on the food and beer that other people brought. For me Inglehood Records is about showing the integrity, talent, and history of the music that is born out of East Nashville, from when the A-list Music Row people lived here until now. People rallied together and made something great, and we can still do that.”
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