Illinois State University School of Communication Professor Brent Simonds knows his just completed documentary of Nashville singer/songwriter Verlon Thompson tells a compelling story.
“It’s a sweet story about a really sweet man who has monstrous talent, especially when it comes to playing acoustic guitar,” Simonds said of his film "Sweet Dreams Do Come True."
Simonds is also a musician, with guitar being his instrument of choice. You may have seen him in various band lineups in Bloomington-Normal, including Cross The Dog and the duo One Non Blonde. He said access is key when planning a documentary.
“Mutual friend Jack Secord of Bloomington had introduced us,” said Simonds. “He had attended a workshop by Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane fame. I think it was the early 2000s at his camp in southeast Ohio, and Jack was in his class.”
Secord had been dogging Simonds for a few years to meet Thompson. They finally connected in 2011 at an annual acoustic guitar jam Secord hosted at the Davis Lodge on Lake Bloomington. The year prior, Simonds produced a mini-doc of the event, which Secord passed on to Thompson. Their common Oklahoma roots sparked a deeper connection.
“I knew he was from Binger, Oklahoma, it’s about 2-3 hours from where I grew up. But what you have to understand, is that every young man in Oklahoma knows about Binger, because that’s the home of (baseball legend) Johnny Bench. Of course we hit it off after that,” said Simonds.
And Simonds knew a story about Verlon Thompson would resonate. As a songwriter, Thompson has penned songs recorded by country stars including Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, and even Jimmy Buffet. But Simonds was also attracted to Thompson’s live performances, which in audience size is a 180 from those stars.
“He doesn’t fit well into the arena thing. You really need to see Verlon up-close and personal. And he’s a storyteller, not only in the song, but with the stories he tells around those songs,” said Simonds.
That realization is when the light bulb went on. At the time, he was listening to an album recorded from a house show.
“As I was listening, I realized he’s already written a script for the film,” said Simonds. “He has all these songs that are autobiographical, to an extent I don’t think any other songwriter has. Basically he tells his whole life story in songs, and he tells those stories that wrap around those songs.”
So he set out to capture several live performances and interview the people and places he describes.
“Man this would be an interesting mix. This isn’t just a biographical documentary, it’s also a performance film,” Simonds realized.
The film does center Thompson in various performance settings, including the Coffee Hound in downtown Bloomington. But in addition to showing Thompson spinning yarns and performing, Simonds incorporated other voices into the stories Thompson was telling, including family, fellow musicians, songwriters, and other friends he made along the way. Simonds utilized many of those voices often telling the same story.
“I teach documentary storytelling, so it’s sort of a technique,” said Simonds. “So basically if you’ve had several people who have lived the same experience, you interview them individually about those events and you get a much fuller picture. Sometimes they coincide, sometimes you can have people tell opposite stories and have a point-counterpoint.”
“Sweet Dreams Do Come True” has been a labor of love for Simonds, who said he was touched by Thompson's humility.
“I got an email from him the other night after he had seen the trailer for the first time,” said Simonds. “It had footage of family and close friends sharing their memories of him he hadn’t heard yet. He sent me an email that said ‘man I’m sitting here with tears rolling down my cheeks. I’m not worthy of this.’”
Simonds is currently working with the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to help defray costs from producing "Sweet Dreams Do Come True."
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