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The power of song

Thom Shepherd rides into Olympia Dec. 17

Thom Shepherd remembers a song that changed his life. Maybe that will happen for you when you hear Shepherd in Olympia. Photo credit: Matchless Exposure

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It's all about the power of a song.

That's what singer-songwriter Thom Shepherd learned when a song changed the course of his life. He'd moved to Nashville after college with the idea of making it as a touring performer, but after a few years without any breakthrough successes as a staff songwriter, he went back to working a day job. He kept at the writing, though, remembering the advice he had gotten from an old songwriting mentor Charlie Monk.

"Charlie challenged me to stop trying to write a hit and just write about something that I really cared about," recalls Shepherd, who performs in Olympia at the Rhythm and Rye Dec. 17. "And I thought, well, I love old cars, and I've always heard people tell stories about finding a great deal on an old classic covered up in a barn."

"Riding With Private Malone" tells the story of a returning serviceman who lucks into a great deal on a '66 Corvette, which turns out to have been the dream car of Private Andrew Malone, who had left a note in the glove box for the future owner of the car in the event he didn't make it back from Vietnam. In the song's supernatural final verse, the car's new owner is seen being pulled from a fiery car crash by an unknown soldier. Recorded by David Ball, the song tugged the heartstrings of the Nation's country music fans in the months following the terror attacks of 2001, hitting the top of the charts in December of that year, and in the opinion of USA Today, connected with the post 9-11 emotions of Americans more than any other country song.

Not long afterwards, Shepherd was invited by Armed Forces Entertainment to do a tour to entertain the troops. He suspected the invite was related to the success of "Private Malone", but the timing was just coincidental.

"The folks that invited me didn't know the song," Shepherd recalls, "but when I got over there, the people I was playing for sure knew it." In fact, Shepherd was once approached by a soldier who told him "Private Malone" had inspired him to enlist.

"He asked me how that made me feel," Shepherd laughed. "I said ‘Responsible!'"

"The impact of performing that song live was awesome," Shepherd said. "Probably more of an impact on me than on them." The power of the song is evident, he said, when he runs into people all these years later who remember its lyrics but have no idea who the original recording artist was.

He went on to do three Alaska tours and six overseas tours to 17 countries with Armed Forces Entertainment and the State Department over the next several years, and along the way wrote a couple of other military-inspired songs, including a salute to servicemembers and their families called "Thanks to You", a song that closes many of his live performances, and the comic "Djibouti" (written and first performed in Djibouti and rated PG for exactly the reasons you would imagine).

"Those trips were the most interesting and rewarding of my music career," said Shepherd. "I really hope I have the opportunity to do more."

In recent years, though, Shepherd has added another demographic to his fan base. Invited to perform at the Six String Songwriters Invitational in New Orleans several years ago, Shepherd got online to research the event.

"I've played quite a few songwriter festivals before, but looking at the pictures - I saw everyone was in shorts and flip flops and Hawaiian shirts," he said. "I knew this one was going to be different."

The difference was an audience full of Parrot Heads. And the worldwide network of devotees to singer Jimmy Buffett and to tropical music and lifestyle would embrace Shepherd's music and become some of his biggest fans. Shepherd, though now based in Texas, regularly travels to perform in the Florida Keys and at Parrot Head events around the country.

Shepherd said he hasn't set out to write songs targeted to Parrot Heads, but the Margarita and Corona-drinking and boating crowd is a natural constituency for songs like his other chart-topping country hit "Red Neck Yacht Club" and for his latest album 12 Pack, a collection of 12 songs, all but one of which - the single "Little Miss Everything" - are drinking songs. And his experiences with Parrot Head events have led to a couple of Radio Margaritaville hits, including most recently the Key West-inspired "Always Saturday Night", included in the 12 Pack collection.

"That song just came about after doing a gig in Key West," he said. "Some of my favorites songs that I've written have just come from my experiences in the last few years, when I've had the good fortune to travel around to exciting places and meet really interesting people."

Thom Shepherd is the host of the Live From The Red Neck Yacht Club radio program on Beachfront Radio, WNYShore Radio,, PirateCoveRadio,, Radio A1A, KXAX in Livingston, Texas, and now available on the Stitcher app. His complete tour schedule and discography are available on his website, and his most recent album 12 Pack and singles "Always Saturday Night" and "Little Miss Everything" are available for download on i-Tunes, Amazon, and other digital music outlets.

THOM SHEPHERD, Thursday, Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m., Rhythm and Rye, 311 Capitol Way, Olympia, 360.705.0760, tickets available at, the Rhythm and Rye, Morgan Hill Law Office and Rainy Day Records 

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