Troy Campbell remembers that, when he was 13 years old, he wished for two experiences that he felt would leave his life complete: “I prayed to God that I’d get to see a woman’s breasts, and that I’d be allowed to get up onstage and play,” he said. “That’s all I wanted; I didn’t get more specific. And I got it!”
Thus the former frontman for Austin’s Loose Diamonds sounds like a contented man upon the release of Man Vs. Beast. The solo debut on his own M. Ray label marks the first time he has billed himself by his full name — Troy Young Campbell — and it represents a departure from his rootsier and harder-rocking work with his former band. Where Loose Diamonds had something of a dual identity — sounding gritty like Keith Richards on one of guitarist Jud Newcomb’s songs, but more of a heartland band on Campbell’s melodic anthems — the atmospheric, understated solo collection is easily the most cohesive and unified work of Campbell’s career.
“It’s quieter, and I’m trying to sing in a different way, where I’m not so over-the-top,” he said. “I’m learning to relax. This is how I sing at home, or like a conversation on the phone. There’s more intimacy in my music than ever before. I used to hide behind it a little. Well, a lot. It’s not like I’m trying to shake some bar apart anymore.”
The son of a Kentucky truck driver and his Korean war bride, Campbell once described his distinctive facial features as “that un-American Indian look, exotic white trash from Ohio.” The do-it-yourself ethos of the ’80s encouraged the punk-rocking Campbell to form his own band, though he didn’t even begin playing guitar until his early 20s. He teamed with his bassist brother Mike in Dayton band the Highwaymen, whose music became deeply influenced by the intensity of the LeRoi Brothers and the True Believers, Texas bands that brought a punk edge to a roots sensibility.
Deciding to follow their inspiration to its source, the Highwaymen moved to Austin in 1989. Their new home saw the Campbells joining forces with guitarist Newcomb, changing the band’s name to Loose Diamonds (from a song by Jo Carol Pierce, whose tribute album Troy later co-produced), going through a bunch of drummers, touring to exhaustion, and recording albums that showcased their songcraft without reflecting the reckless dynamism of the band’s live performance.
“I thought I had the best band in the world, but I was kind of playing a role there,” said Campbell. “It wasn’t like we were fighting or anything, but we needed a breather, and then we realized we needed to take a couple of more breaths. So now we’re on hiatus. We weren’t together enough to break up,” he adds with a laugh.
For Man Vs. Beast, Campbell decided to open his music to a bunch of different collaborative relationships, working with friends such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jon Dee Graham on “Southland 75″, putting his material within the soundscapes of producer Craig Ross on four tracks, and employing Danny Levin’s gorgeous piano-and-cello arrangement on “Somewhere”, the album’s melodic standout. The latter is one of two tracks that feature vocals by A&M Records artist Patty Griffin, who moved to Austin to be with Campbell.
“I’m just really happy with my life and feel like I’m sorting everything out,” said Campbell, who suffered the end of a two-and-a-half-year marriage while Loose Diamonds was touring itself into the ground. “I’ve got a really great girlfriend, we’ve got a house in Hyde Park, and I finally got the wiener dog I’ve been asking for since I was five.”
The album’s release finds Campbell, 34, putting together a new band and exploring all sorts of possibilities. He has been working with guitarist Jon Sanchez, whose space-rocking Flying Saucers band seemed to operate in an entirely different orbit than Loose Diamonds. He’s also hoping to play more regularly with Hubbard and Graham (if they can find a marquee big enough to fit three three-name artists).
“I’m trying to keep it all open,” he said. “You start a record and however it comes out is how it comes out. I’m working on a rock record now, and it may just be a punk-rock record. I don’t have a label bugging me to give them an Americana song, and I’m not out to write the great roots-rock anthem. After playing for all this time, I know how to make a generic roots-rock album that people would like. But if only a couple of hundred people get Man Vs. Beast, at least they’ll know who I am.”