Country duo Thompson Square expects emotional show

What: 2013 Sunfest Music Festival featuring Thompson Square, Jerrod Niemann and more

When: Saturday, 1 p.m.

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Where: Cowichan Exhibition Grounds, 7380 Trans Canada Hwy., Duncan

Tickets: $65 (additional costs for VIP and reserved tickets)

Information: sunfestconcerts.com

Nashville duo Thompson Square is taking the stage Saturday as one of the headliners at Duncan’s Sunfest Country Music Festival.

It won’t be the first visit to the area for Shawna and Keifer Thompson, the husband-and-wife pairing at the helm of Thompson Square. But it will likely be one of their most emotional.

Years before the pair had a record deal — and long before they officially named themselves Thompson Square — the two singer-songwriters were under the tutelage of Al Martyn, a Victoria businessman who maintained a second residence in Nashville.

Keifer remembers meeting Martyn for the first time. The native of Miami, Okla., was playing in a trio at Nashville bar Second and Goal when Martyn and some of his Victoria friends walked in the door.

They weren’t hard to miss. “They were the only guys in the bar,” Keifer recalled with a laugh.

Keifer’s bandmates were dismayed at the low turnout, and soon left the stage in frustration. Keifer kept playing. “I was by myself for a little, and I sang a song that I guess struck a chord with Al. He came up and put 20 bucks in my [tip] jar and asked for it again.”

Just like that, another $20 bill went in the jar. “I played the song a bunch that night,” Keifer said, laughing at the recollection.

When the set was over, the two strangers got to talking.

“He came to me and said, ‘Man, you really need to be doing this for a living. Why aren’t you?’ I had a full-time job, which he told me to quit. I said, ‘I just can’t do that.’ He asked me how much I made, and I told him. Right there, he wrote me a cheque for what I made in a year, and I went and quit my job.”

Therein lies the beginnings of Thompson Square, featuring Keifer and Shawna. The group has become one of the biggest success stories in country music today, with back-to-back vocal duo of the year wins at the annual Academy of Country Music Awards the past two years. Last year, the group’s second album, Just Feels Good, reached No. 4 on the sales charts. Soon after, their single If I Didn’t Have You went to No. 1 on country radio.

Martyn made quite a significant impact on the group during its early days, forming a publishing company with Simon Gillies, who at the time was married to David Foster’s daughter Amy, in order to break Keifer’s original songs to a wider audience. “He literally changed our lives,” Shawna said of Martyn. “We could talk all afternoon about him. He was literally that big of a man in our lives.”

Sadly, their time with Martyn was brief. He died in his sleep at his Saanich home on Dec. 22, 2004, just days before the group was due to visit him in Victoria.

Martyn’s family called the couple in Nashville to relay the news, urging them not to change their plans.

The couple made their way to Victoria in search of healing, Keifer said.

Having visited Martyn in Victoria earlier — he had set up impromptu gigs for the duo at Logan’s Pub and the Clubhouse in the Strathcona Hotel — Shawna and Keifer were like family to Martyn’s social circle.

Gerry Laing, the legendary bartender at Big Bad John’s, was with Martyn in Nashville the night he met Keifer. Laing and his wife Mary Ann felt it was only right to have the Thompsons and members of Martyn’s family over for Christmas dinner. Days later, an emotional set by the duo at the Strathcona Hotel became a wake for Martyn, Keifer recalled.

“We played a song and everybody broke down crying. It was one of the hardest songs I’ve ever had to sing. We barely got it done. But it was a very special moment.”

Al’s younger brother, TomMartyn, and a coterie of the extended Thompson Square family, including the Laings and Wayne Winger, who met Keifer at his fateful Nashville bar performance, have been invited to the show Saturday as guests of the group.

Last year, the same invitation was extended to the crew of Vancouver Island supporters when Thompson Square played in Vancouver with Lady Antebellum. A bunch of them went over and heard Keifer dedicate a song to Al during their Pacific Coliseum performance, Tom Martyn said.

His older brother would have loved it. “I wish Al was around to see how it turned out for them. He would be so proud and thrilled.”

Keifer Thompson seconded that sentiment. “It went right where Al said it would. He believed this would happen, more than probably we did. I wish he could be here to see it. Something tells me that he knows.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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