Thom Oliphant

by Amanda Flinner

It's hard to spot talent when it's covered in barbecue sauce. Back in 1998, Thom Oliphant was a music video director about to score his next gig with a new country trio. When he first laid eyes on the Dixie Chicks, they were playing the University of Texas alumni barbecue for a crowd more interested in the brisket than in what was happening onstage. Hardly a gig you would expect from a group on the cusp of stardom.

"I'm standing there watching people in a barbecue line while these girls play," he remembers in amazement.

Just weeks later, the Chicks scored a massive hit with "There's Your Trouble," followed by "Wide Open Spaces," which landed Thom a CMA Award for Video of the Year.

After directing and producing hundreds of genre-spanning music videos and countless commercials, Thom transitioned into the role of executive producer and showrunner for CMT programming like Crossroads and Can You Duet? and Fox's The Next Great American Band. He also co-founded My Country Nation, a digital channel that celebrates the country lifestyle and offers fans an inside look at some of the industry's hottest stars.

When Songfacts came calling, Thom was happy to revisit his past life as a music video director, sharing memories of perching country stars on skyscrapers, finding abandoned castles in the Thousand Islands and working with the legendary B.B. King.
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): I'm so surprised going back and re-watching some of the videos that they're as long ago as they were.

Thom Oliphant: I know, crazy, right?

Songfacts: I vividly remember watching these and it's just crazy.

Thom: You know what, it's funny, because with me, it's like a whole other life ago, too. Because I've had a son since then, and so much is different and so much is the same. But it's interesting now and again to think about it and reminisce.

Songfacts: You started out studying finance. So when did that idea of filmmaking take over?

Thom: [Laughing] Yeah. Well, I think everybody kind of hits a place where they realize they're not going to be that guy. I kind of realized that probably wasn't going to be me. That's the short answer to it.

But the longer answer is when I was in college in Texas in the 1980s, for some reason it was at a time when the nuances of the market, the stock market and the bond market, something happened. A bunch of money guys in Texas made a whole bunch of money and decided to invest in the film business and do a bunch of independent films in and around Austin and Houston.

I'd grown up in Nashville, Tennessee, where I am now, and I'd been in bands when I was in high school. There was a college radio station here called WRVU that was a big underground college station. It was full of music that you could really only find on college radio stations at the time: Southern music, Southern alternative music, REM, Jason and the Scorchers, and those sorts of bands. I was a huge fan of that, and we played with them in some of the gigs that I did when I was in high school.

So when I got to college at Baylor, I worked at the radio station there. Over the course of the first year, I became the station director, like the program director, which chose what the station sounded like and what bands you would play.

I spent a lot of time in Austin and Houston listening to music, and met these folks that were starting in on these film projects. They were making some of these straight-to-video horror movies, none of which you'll ever find. So I started working on the crew, and it was a great summer job. It was a way to make more money than you could make working at a record store, waiting tables or something like that. That was when I was a sophomore in college, and I became a double major and kept working in movies for the next couple of years and just fell in love with that world. I went to grad school and ended up on Los Angeles working around the music video and commercial business.

Songfacts: Were you already established in commercials before you started music videos?

Thom: No. What happened was a friend of mine from those Texas days had ended up in Los Angeles and he had gravitated toward the post production world in commercials. There was a big company out there called Red Car that was just killing it. They also had a music video production company, so I worked there as a PA, doing some post stuff and some office stuff. They had huge directors; they were doing Madonna videos and the big 1980s, early-1990s videos.

I was just looking for my moment to do something other than PA. I became friends with some guys that had a production company and they were making a big syndicated show about music called The Road.

At the time, it was the most expensive music show ever made. Now I think it's been eclipsed. It didn't last very long. But those guys moved the show to Nashville because it was centrally located and it was a show about live music and being on the road. That was an easy place for them to be.

So I shot documentary footage with most of the artists that were featured on that show. It was people like Reba McEntire and Luka Bloom and Shawn Colvin: some who were super well-established and some that were just coming into their own during that period of time. Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith. These are some chestnut names, some of these folks.

So I did that, and through the process of that year-and-a-half to two years, ended up back in Nashville and I'd made some personal relationships with some artists. It was an easy transition into music videos. Took a couple of years, but that's where I first started doing them, as kind of a personal connection. It started with a personal connection and then got more conceptual as I did more.

Songfacts: Am I right in saying that Martina McBride's "Wild Angels" was your first video?

Thom: It wasn't my first one, but it was the first one that got noticed. It was probably the 10th or 11th.

Songfacts: And what do you remember about that one?

Thom: Well, I remember that I really liked the song at the time. A friend of mine who subsequently became my business partner was another director named Steven Goldmann. He became a huge country video guy, and we were partners for about 10 years. We weren't partners yet, but he was doing some really cool Martina stuff.

She picked really good songs and she had a real good open mind to the kinds of things she would wrap her videos around. At the time there was a ton of videos that were just like "see and say" kind of stories. You know, "I drove my car down the street," then there's a car down the street. If you look at the videos of that time, they're really transitional. They're going from an old style of doing them into things that were a lot more image driven.

I was just 24, 25 at the time, so I didn't know any better, really. With Martina, I remember having a conversation about wanting to do something in New York, and she wanted to do something that felt a little bit like the Wim Wenders movie Wings of Desire.

It was all in black and white, and there was a whole lot of stuff with a guy outside of a building. I think she was really into that image, but I don't think she had seen the movie.

We started looking and we found this building in New York called The Clock Tower, which was down on the lower side, sort of south of SoHo getting down into Wall Street. The building's still there.

It was just a perfect location for it - it felt like you could do a lot. We put a crane up on top of it and flew it around, and it was just a really fun day of playing with big toys. It was a nice budget and it was a great crew. The director of photography was a guy named Jamie Rosenberg who at that time had done some Sting videos and some really nice stuff. It was really my first experience with pro crew guys at that level as well as post production guys who edited it subsequently at that level. I thought it turned out really well.

Songfacts: Was that the same building that you had Amy Grant on for "Takes a Little Time"?

Thom: Yeah. Because that came around not too long after, and I was like, "Let's just go back." There were so many places in the building that we hadn't had a chance to really explore. Plus, her thing was all about time for that song. I thought it was great, because it has that giant interior clock space in that room, and I figured we could spend most of our time in there. So it doesn't look like we were copying ourselves too badly.

It was a good building to work out of, too, because the access was easy, and the crew base there in New York at the time was always really great, and they were really familiar with it. It was mostly empty, so you weren't making anyone mad. You weren't displacing people that lived there. It was an easy place to work.

But it's up there, it's pretty dangerous. There's nothing to keep you from stepping off the side of the building. For every shot of somebody, from Martina sitting on the side to the extras, there's three guys with safety harnesses crouched behind the ledge making sure that those people are attached to a bungee cord. [Laughing]

Songfacts: And I've read Amy said a couple of times that she's afraid of heights, so that must have been interesting for her.

Thom: Yeah. Such a nice woman. I mean, a really, really, really classy artist.

Songfacts: Do you remember coming up with that concept of the magic camera with the pictures that morph and change?

Thom: Yeah. I'd kind of geeked out on really old cameras, and there was a guy in New York that I had met who could retrofit these old '40s cameras and make them work for 4x5 Polaroid film, which is an expensive hobby, but a cool hobby. So some of that came out of that hobby. On a lot of things I would shoot, I would shoot 4x5 stuff, too, and I kept these picture books of journals. I was writing notes, and sometimes I used those pictures as scouting pictures.

Amy saw one of those one day and thought that was pretty cool. So, let's just make that come to life, that'll be our thing. But what if everything the guy photographed turned into the alternate version of that reality and it came to life in a picture?

Those were some of the ideas we were trying to play around with on that one.

Songfacts: Did you like trying to incorporate those types of story elements versus straight performance?

Thom: It depended. If it was a really complex trick, then it was great to try to accomplish that - if it was an effect or trying to shoot somewhere that was very difficult to shoot. That was a little bit more about how I shot commercials. Those were tough places to go and shoot.

But for videos, with three minutes, that's a pretty decent amount of time to fill with just a cool setup or two. I think that was also at the time when there were a lot of photography guys that were trying to cross over into it. One of the things they had a hard time with was being able to tell a visual story. Not always a linear story, but just make sure that the videos went somewhere instead of just being a series of cool setups with great lighting.

I always tried to have the great setups with great lighting, but also have at least enough stuff around it that built up to some sort of takeaway. Doing some sort of storytelling was really the easiest way to make an impact.

Songfacts: There's always that argument: some people say they don't like watching videos because they can't separate the video and the song anymore. What's your opinion on that?

Thom: Oh, I think it's hard. It also works in reverse. When you're working pretty steady, you have the opportunity to ride on a bunch of other things. I mean, for every one I got, I probably didn't get 15 songs that I heard and spent a lot of time thinking about writing treatments for. Some of those songs became huge hits. There was some 'NSYNC stuff that I missed out on that would have completely changed the trajectory of what I did. Things like Matchbox Twenty. So I hear those and I think about the ideas that didn't happen. But it's hard to think about those songs and like them, because they didn't choose you in this popularity contest. [Laughing]

Songfacts: But then you had your Dixie Chicks videos that were pretty huge. Did you have a lot more time on "Wide Open Spaces" considering all the touring footage that was included?

Thom: That was maybe the second or the third video I did with them. After the first one, we got along so well, we started to go out on the road with them and shoot concert stuff. They were just starting the process of trying to build that library of their live work. This is right before they hit big. That song probably moved them from big clubs to arenas over the course of that year, so we were just out documenting.

So a lot of that stuff was shot without a clock ticking. You're on a bus and we would shoot some stuff, and then it all was woven together with a couple of big days of shooting out around Denver. It made it look like it was all about the same time, but it wasn't.

Songfacts: Did the awards do much for you in the way of opening doors? After your win for "Wide Open Spaces"?

Thom: Busier. A lot busier. I mean volume-wise, I went from maybe one video a month to four, maybe five, after "Wide Open Spaces" won. I went from 12 to, like, 60 in a year. So it meant a lot.

Songfacts: Then you got back together with them for "Without You."

Thom: Yep. They went away for a while and they came back. They had just done that cover where they were naked on Entertainment Weekly. They wanted to do something around that, so I did the naked video.

Songfacts: Was that co-directed by Adrian Pasdar?

Thom: Yeah. He and Natalie Maines had just gotten engaged, so he and I worked on it together. We built a big, white box and then we put a black curtain on the front so they could be in there without people staring at them. He was the one who spent a lot of time on the inside of that curtain, let's say. He was their comfort zone.

Me and my team ended up shooting it, cutting it, and working around the edges with him, because I don't think he had done anything like that up until that time. He's a nice guy.

Songfacts: You also had some extras in that video, too, though.

Thom: Yes, and those scenes I did. It was a two-day thing. So you had a day of him and the girls, and then me and the extras. Then we took it and cut it.

Songfacts: While that one was at the top of the countdown on CMT, you had a few videos competing against each other. One of them was "No Place That Far" by Sara Evans. What can you tell me about that video?

Thom: It was her first or second video. She was very, very scared, nervous.

She was good, though. She's a beautiful woman and her voice was great. Some of the stuff that came after were much bigger hits that went to directors like Peter Zavadil. I think she was just coming into her own and finding her voice. A lot of artists find that before they find their image. I think she was still kind of searching for that.

We shot that in the woods. There's a park near Nashville called Cedars of Lebanon State Park. It was a cool spot.
Sara Evans is also the star of My Country Nation's Simply Sara, a reality webisode series that follows the country singer's life on and off the stage.
We looked at a bunch of different places. She wanted to do a fantasy storybook idea, and I was thinking of the book called The Polar Express. The forests always looked like they were really tall and you could run straight through them and never hit a branch, and this place looked like that.

I think it was the wintertime that we shot that, and we weren't able to go out West to a redwood forest based on schedule or budget or whatever the circumstance was. But we were able to shoot there, and it doesn't look like there's any season in particular, but the forest is really huge. I don't remember too much about that other than looking far and wide for the right location.

Songfacts: She shared it on VEVO a while back and said that it was a really good memory, standing in the woods with Vince Gill that day.

Thom: That's cool. And Vince is a gentleman. I've done three or four things with him, and he's a good guy. It's funny, it's not until situations like this that you think about the people that you've had repeat business with over the years. Vince is one of them. I don't think of him as a highlight necessarily, because I don't necessarily think I worked on his big songs or his big videos, but he's been around and he's been a good guy. He's been a guy that when you run into him he's always really warm.

Sara's the same way. She's a big part of what I'm doing now. So we're in touch pretty consistently these days.

Songfacts: What is the casting situation like when you have to do that fast of a turnaround?

Thom: Well, there are agencies that help us manage that turnaround. They have vast resources of people that are trying to break into the business as models or actresses. As long as you're pretty specific about it, you can pull off a pretty decent list of options via casting calls or take a look at pictures. There's a number of different ways these days to get the right people cast in videos.

Songfacts: One director I talked to said he felt like that was where he made his money, because he hated the casting process and shooting the video was the fun part.

Thom: That's right. That's a good point - I think we all have that. I was never particularly fond of editing - we probably all have our parts of the process that we'd rather avoid. Casting was one of those, too. I wasn't intimately involved in a lot of those.

It's very strange. Commercials were easier to cast, because there is a concept, there are lines, there is a written script. Auditions, people can sing and you go, "She's got a great voice, let's do it."

For a music video, sometimes it's just looks. It's very hard to sit there for an awkward five or six minutes to say, "Okay, you look great, I like your look." There's only so many times you can say that and sound sincere.

Songfacts: Do you remember coming up with the medieval theme for Jo Dee Messina's "Burn"?

Thom: Yeah. She liked "No Place That Far," the storybook side of it. This is how I remember it: Sometimes with artists like Jo Dee who were kind of on a roll at the time, you end up getting a call and they say, "Okay, here's 'Burn,' it's our next single. Let's do a video. Jo Dee has a couple of ideas. Oh, and she's available two days in the next six months, and it's in Upstate New York." [Laughing]

So then you go, "Okay!" So then you listen to Jo Dee, she says, "I like that storybook thing, can you work on that?" And I say, "Sure. So let me just get this straight, you're in Upstate New York?" "Yeah." "Okay."

So you start looking at potential places that might be cool up there. That was shot in the Thousand Islands, do you know where that is?

Songfacts: I don't.

Thom: In the St. Lawrence River between the United States and Canada, the northern part of New York, the St. Lawrence River goes from Lake Erie all the way to the sea, basically. It's a huge river. It's like the Mississippi.

In Upstate New York, there's a number of islands up there, and they're called the Thousand Islands - it's where Thousand Island dressing came from, because at the turn of the century, there were summer resorts up there, and people like the Vanderbilts and the Astors bought these little islands in the middle of the river.

They built humongous homes, and a few of them are like Vanderbilt-era castles. This was one of them. The guy had built this castle for his wife. His wife had died and he had never lived in it. It was this abandoned castle on the middle of this island, and we shot there.

That was one where the situation came first, but the location kind of drove the concept.

Songfacts: Right, that makes sense. I always wonder if people ever see a location first and then that spurs the idea.

Thom: Oh, yeah. All the time. I'm not sure you'd ever shoot in the Grand Canyon unless you fell in love with it first, you know. It's hard to shoot in. Really hard.

Songfacts: Speaking of shooting locations, where was the video for "The Thrill is Gone" shot?

Thom: Oakland. Also a situational video. You had B.B. King and Tracy Chapman doing this duet. This was a label marriage between me and those guys, but Tracy at the time lived right outside of San Francisco, kind of in the Bay Area, not in Oakland, but over on that side of the Bay. She had a very limited amount of time, and that's where we found a great old hotel.

My son's taking this course in school right now called Magic Realism, and I've realized in doing some of the reading with him, that's probably what influenced a lot of these videos: This kind of nostalgia like walking into a place and it comes to life, or people doing something simple and their wishes come true. What we created for "The Thrill is Gone" was this guy looking back on his life and the great moments of it that had happened. That song is such a classic. I mean, how do you really do a video to it?

At the time, almost everything B.B. had done were these great documentary moments where it was him on stage with his guitar. He hadn't really done anything that was conceptual. So he didn't really participate that much in it, because he was reticent to be anything other than B.B. King.

The funny thing about that video, I shot that video on a Saturday. I got a call that Saturday from the Dixie Chicks label, and I hadn't met them yet. They said, "You need to go to Texas and meet the Dixie Chicks on Sunday." I was like, "Okay, well, I'm finishing up something."

So I flew from that video to Houston, where they had this band called the Dixie Chicks. I met their manager, Simon Renshaw. He's all over their documentaries. Crazy English guy. I met him in a bar in Houston, and they were playing what I thought was the worst gig in show business: They were playing the University of Texas alumni barbecue at the Houston rodeo stock show. That's a giant rodeo in Houston, and it's a giant gig for a lot of artists. The main stage is a great gig. But they were playing this barbecue, man.

So I went to see this band that all these people were saying was going to be the next big thing, and I'd just come from B.B. King and Tracy Chapman. I'm standing there watching people in a barbecue line while these girls play. I'm not kidding you, like, four weeks later they have a #1 song and they're massive. And the rest is the rest.

Songfacts: Another director I talked to, his example was Rod Stewart, but he said a lot of artists like him had difficulty doing music videos because they improvise so much on their recordings. Lip-synching was just so hard for them. Did you have anybody who was like that?

Thom: That's a good question. It's funny, the bulk of what's done in Nashville is so studio produced, but none of the videos that we're talking about are by anybody I've had any trouble with. I worked with newer artists that were just scared and terrified, but that didn't have anything to do with not lip-synching; that had everything to do with overconsuming things they probably shouldn't. It wasn't so much them not knowing their songs.

I had one video where the artist showed up thinking they were doing a video for another song. [Laughs] They thought the single was another single, so that was interesting. But they knew the lyrics to it. They just weren't happy that one was chosen. But that's not my problem.

Songfacts: Duncan Sheik was a brand new artist when you did "Barely Breathing," which became huge. Was there pressure from the record label to push a certain kind of image that they wanted him to be?

Thom: I don't think they had an idea of who he was. He was a very New York guy. Like, back then, uber hipster. Brooklyn wasn't a happening place, but he was a downtown guy. He was artsy. He made such a folksy record in a way that I think the label thought, "Well, let's get a country guy who can straddle the fence and talk to this guy." The super pop directors weren't right and the hip-hop guys weren't right. I think hip-hop was just exploding at that time, so they were the ones getting all the budgets and all the visibility.

And here's Duncan with this record that I think everybody was as shocked that it became a hit as he was. But he was great. He's definitely one of those guys that are reticent to do a video, though. He's the guy that always just thought it was all about his music. I think he's an old school, singer-songwriter soul.

I think he loves his image. He definitely had fun when he was a pop star, but at the same time, he's one of those guys that when you sit and talk to him, he's more likely to talk to you about painters and sculptors that he likes as opposed to photographers. So it's a little hard to translate particular sorts of imagery to a guy like that.

The things that inspired him weren't necessarily going to be things you could take and copy. If he were a huge fan of a particular photographer, you can mimic that style, but he wasn't. It was a different side to the art world that he was interested in. It basically all added up to being really broad, moody, nostalgic. What he liked visually, those are the records he made. Really atmospheric and authentic records.

He always struck me as a guy that probably had much bigger, way higher concept projects in the works compared to just making pop records. Not to minimize that, but I think he probably would see that as limiting over time.

Songfacts: And how did that video for "Barely Breathing" come together?

Thom: We shot that in Brooklyn in the Navy Yard, which was being renovated at the time, but it had been abandoned for a long time. So a lot of it was found spaces. I worked with an English cinematographer named Peter Selesnick, who I'm still friends with. He was a big fan of 1960s color work, so that's where the cross-process color treatments came from.

Songfacts: Switching back to country, how did you get hooked up with Brad Paisley for "Mud On The Tires"?

Thom: I had worked with him first on something that wasn't a music video project. It was a thing for the Country Music Hall of Fame, and I was hired to get a snapshot of country music all over the world in a given week. So we went to Australia, then I went to two places with Brad. I caught him in Scotland for his first foray into the UK, and then again in Japan.

So I didn't really do any music video work for him. Steven Goldmann, a director who became my partner for awhile, did. He had a long stretch with Brad. So we knew each other socially, and I think he was just looking for somebody with a similar sense of humor.

He was very involved in that video - probably ought to take a directing credit on it, because he's an incredibly creative guy and has a lot of ideas. I think he was really getting comfortable with his voice as a comedian. That's where that came from. My role on that was more as chaperone and cheerleader and filling in around the edges when it was getting too far off track. But that video is very Brad.

Songfacts: The scenes where you have fans playing in the mud and all that kind of stuff, was that just setting it up and letting it go without really directing too much?

Thom: Yes. [Laughing] Yeah, exactly. Sometimes you just go, "Okay, here it is."

Songfacts: Wes Edwards did a similar thing for the "Hicktown" video for Jason Aldean. He said he actually went in with storyboards of how he wanted everything to look, and he just threw them out, because there's no way you can choreograph something like that.

Thom: That's right. You hope you're living right to the point where there's enough lucky accidents that you go, "There it is. I wish I'd planned that, but I didn't." The sun was in the perfect place, or that plane flew over. Right as were doing that shot, a train went by. All those things.

Aside from directing music videos, Thom also shot footage for documentaries like country singer Mark Collie's Alive at Brushy Mountain in 2001. In the vein of Johnny Cash's legendary At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin recordings, the film and companion album was captured within the walls of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Wartburg, Tennessee - an endeavor that took over a decade to see the light of day.

Songfacts: I also wanted to ask you about the work you did for the documentary Alive at Brushy Mountain?

Thom: I'm not sure what version of that you've seen, but there's one that I know Mark Collie finished last year. It's a very different version than the version that I cut. That one's a bit of a painful one for me to a degree. I mean, it was a cool opportunity. It started out as being hired to do a concert at the prison. But when we were scouting that, we started to see all these guys in prison that were coming to terms with what they had done, or apologizing to their victims. They're really just kind of living a long life. Some of them were using music to do that. They couldn't really talk to a victim and say, "Sorry," but they could write a song about it and share that.

We spent a ton of time in there, maybe the better part of six weeks working on that. There were maybe five of us, mostly the guys that I'd made videos with. So a director of photography, a sound man, and another camera guy. We would go in every day to this maximum security prison and basically be there from six in the morning to eight o'clock, when they make guys go to bed.

We shot that, we cut that, and we put it together. We had this film, and right about the time it was about to be released, MCA Records, who had been the record label, went out of business. So it was one of those stories where that thing sits on a shelf.

I think over the years Mark was able to get it back and he was able to finish it himself. On balance, it was a great experience.

October 6, 2015
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