Old-School Crooner Crushes New Country
People who openly slag other people in the insular country community are as rare as vegetarian joints in Amarillo. But when it comes to the current state of his beloved country music, Scotty Campbell is seriously pissed.
He’s convinced the old girl is dying at the hands of weedy assailants who don’t know jackshit about time-worn tunes that make grown men weep.
Call him a flame-keeper or even a daydreamer, but Campbell is determined to play country music so antiquated that it belongs on a scratchy 78, even though his hurtin’ opus, Damned If I Recall, is on CD.
At 36, unsigned and, um, Hamilton-based, maybe Campbell has to howl to be heard above Nashville’s bloodless new-country din.
And if the plan unfolds as Campbell hopes, he’ll emerge from the shadows to scoop old-timey country music – all fiddles and steel and heartache – into his arms for a two-step around the roadhouses of the world.
In the interim, he’s playing it like he thinks it should be played, and spinning some tasty yarns in the process.
“You could say the class of 89 is where country music went wrong,” Campbell offers cheerfully over Saturday-afternoon beers, “but that’s also when Alan Jackson first appeared, and he’s a damn good country player, so that’s not completely fair.
“It was probably more around 92, the point when the industry figured out it was selling. Anytime you’re giving a lot of awards to Michelle Wright, you pretty much know things are fucked up. At that point, country caught up with the rest of the music industry.
“I’ll give you a recent example. The other night I went to this guy’s record release party. And he sucked. That record wasn’t released – it escaped. Later, I was talking to a friend of mine who was there who works for a major record label, and I said, ‘Wasn’t that guy awful?’ This label rep said, ‘Yup. But we’re looking at him.’
“I mean, what is that? ‘He’s shit, we’re in!’ I’m using that record to level my kitchen table. Somebody’s got to chip away at the way this business is run.”
This record-labels-are-killing-music argument is older than dirt. In the best of all possible worlds, though, Campbell admits his indomitably teary, twangy, high-lonesome stuff would be a tough sell even if his band smokes and the singer himself puts out for a crowd of 15 like he was playing for a crowd of thousands.
Clearly, the alt-country wave that buoyed Son Volt, Wilco and others of that ilk was too forward-looking to embrace Campbell’s sepia-toned hillbilly ballads. And besides, his propensity for calling fellow artists to the mat presents a PR risk few labels would welcome.
Take this interview, for example. He is unselfconsciously blabbing about his devotion to tradition and his staunch performance ethic until your eyes take on that glassy look common among children at religious services and guys watching Meryl Streep films.
Just when you’re thinking it’s all him, him, him, Campbell turns into the dishin’ musician, rattling off a list of country music offenders who’ve played around with pop and found success but have spoiled the soup simmered by genuine cowpokes like Webb Pierce, Roy Rogers and Ray Price.
Look out, BR5-49! “They’re the Sha Na Na of country music. When you thank so-and-so for introducing you to this music, like they did on their first album, why the fuck even bother?”
Wham! There goes Robbie Fulks! And he’s a friend. “He’s got more talent than 100 guys I know, but the first chance he had to flirt with big fame, he went and made a shit record (98’s Let’s Kill Saturday Night).”
Considering his square-peg sound and his motormouth, points go to Sony, who at least fired Campbell off to Nashville last year with a mind to adding him to the roster of their Lucky Dog imprint. Nothing except a few spontaneous jams at local bars came out of it, and Campbell says the pilgrimage confirmed his worst suspicions about the contemporary country scene.
“Here I am in Music City, the home of country music, and I’d play Buck Owens and Ray Price and people wouldn’t let us down for hours. I should have been just another zero, and yet I was kicking the shit out of the place every single night. Marty Stuart even told me if I stayed there, I’d have a deal in no time. I just don’t have that option.
“I don’t want to grow as an artist,” he says bluntly. “I just want to get better at what I do. I’ve never wanted to do anything but this, which is why I’m snotty about it.”
Snotty maybe, but very sincere. Traditional country radio – the soundtrack to his family’s life first in Nova Scotia, then in Ontario – irrevocably shaped him, Campbell says, tugging at his ears with vivid images of empty whiskey bottles and mascara-stained cheeks.
You can almost imagine a teenage Campbell, dramatic pompadour already in place thanks to the influence of Robert Gordon-by-way-of Ray-Price, singing along to George Jones while his dad sawed on his fiddle and his mom washed the supper dishes.
And yet the first bands Campbell played with in high school and beyond were rock and roll and – deep breath – new wave. Needless to say, neither style grabbed him, but performing and touring did.
“It was Calgary, 1983, and I was playing in this pop band,” he says, pinpointing his epiphany. “There was a NASCAR race in town and this club we were playing asked us to play an extra night for these southern dudes who were coming to drink after the races.
“We got about one song deep into our Clash repertoire and it was clear we were going to get lynched if we didn’t start playing country. So we literally went backstage for a break and I taught the guys in the band as many country songs as I could in a very short time.
“We came back and did Hank Williams and Faron Young songs, and the place went ballistic. Until that moment, I never thought about singing for others what I always sang for myself. And I knew I’d never sing anything but country again.”
A succession of groups followed – the Cadillac Cowboys, the Crawldaddys, Mystery Train – and with each, Campbell began increasingly dropping the covers and wrangling themes of love gone south in his own compositions.
“I’ve just always naturally written about sad things,” he says. “I remember somebody asking Billy Cowsill about this performance where he’d smashed a guitar over a guy’s head. ‘Were you drinking that night, Billy?’ And Billy said, ‘Naw, just remembering the bad times.’
“I can relate to that. I get my heart broken every day when I see all these people with less commitment and balls surging by me.
“That keeps me just bitter enough to write a good, sad song, which is fortunate, because my life is actually good. I’ve had the same job for 10 years and my wife actually likes me.
“You know what I’m hearing at my shows these days? I’m hearing, ‘I don’t like country, but I like what you do.’ Well, I’ve got news for those people. They just didn’t know they liked country, because they were listening to the fucking Dixie Chicks. And it happens everywhere we go.
“If I didn’t believe there was an audience for this, I would have quit.”