“I enjoy writing songs; it’s so much fun for me, but I just knew that if I didn’t get out there and start performing these songs again, I would be a songwriter — but that’s all I would be.”
“I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I can write a song with almost anybody,” Shawn Camp says, as we talk about his celebrated collaborative songwriting career in his office at Big Yellow Dog Music, in the heart of Music Row. “Yes, I’ve been lucky, but I do think I have the ability to find what someone else has to offer — to identify what somebody has in them that’s good, and in their song.”
His collaborators, spanning back to the late 1980s, have included everyone from rockabilly heir Billy Burnette to John Scott Sherrill (author of “Wild And Blue”, recorded by both John Anderson and Sally Timms) to Dean Miller (Roger’s talented son), to Guy Clark. Camp’s polished, stone country songs — from honky-tonkers to modern love ballads to bluegrass stories to rootsy rockers — defy the increasingly difficult-to-maintain notion that songs from Music Row are necessarily of some different assembly-line order than those of more indie-derived sources. The quality and consistency of Camp’s work has made him frequently mentioned as one of the rising country music talents of this era.
Those co-written originals have been recorded by everyone from Del McCoury (the driving “My Love Will Not Change”, and “Travelin’ Teardrop Blues”) to rising baritone country chart-topper Josh Turner (“Loretta Lynn’s Lincoln” and “No Rush”, a sex-drenched bedroom ballad of Conway Twitty proportions) to Ralph Stanley & Jim Lauderdale (“Forever Ain’t No Trouble Now”) to, yes folks, Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn. Most recently, Camp’s “Nobody But Me” reached the country top-10 earlier this year, courtesy Blake Shelton.
More frequently now, audiences in Nashville and beyond are getting to hear Camp’s own performances of his material. He’s refocused on singing and playing over the last several years — for the first time, really, since he briefly appeared on the top-40 country charts himself back in 1993. His 2004 CD Live At The Station Inn was an exemplary, if informal, affair that featured his more laid-back, acoustic bluegrass side, demonstrating his strengths as both a singer and an instrumentalist.
“I can’t explain it, really, but I had to get back to it.” Camp says. “I had so much ammunition here, and it’s only so long you can let it set in a warehouse, you know? I’d made a conscious decision to focus on writing, more than anything else. I enjoy writing songs; it’s so much fun for me, but I just knew that if I didn’t get out there and start performing these songs again, I would be a songwriter — but that’s all I would be.”
Lest anyone try to peg him “bluegrass only” since his re-emergence as a performer, Camp’s new release, Fireball, is a twangy, electrified killer of a recording that lives up to its title, leaning more toward rocking rousers such as the title song and another called “Hotwired”. It’s clear how he once fit right in as a sideman to Jerry Reed. When you’re hot, as the man said, you’re hot.
Of his varied stylistic interests, Camp says, modestly, “Maybe I’ve got a scattered kind of way of thinking, but, really, I just enjoy playing all kinds of music. People shouldn’t try to anticipate what I’m going to do, because I don’t know what I’m going to do myself! Every song is different, and every song has its own character.”
He shares that view with one of his Nashville mentors, the estimable, irreplaceable and unpredictable Cowboy Jack Clement, producer of Jerry Lee Lewis and Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, and the author of “Guess Things Happen That Way”, “Just Someone I Used To Know” and many other classics. Clement is “like a father to me,” Camp puts it simply.
Cowboy Jack responds, in a separate interview, that “Shawn ought to be a star. He’s got the talent, and the looks, and the musicality — everything. I met him first at a dinner party at John Prine’s house over fifteen years ago. He was pickin’ mandolin and guitar and stuff, and I could tell he was real good, right then. He’s played in my band a lot when I play gigs around town, along with Billy Burnette; we’ve got a little sound goin’. And Shawn can sing just like Jimmie Rodgers — or just like Elvis!”
That Camp is steeped in country history and has a love for the music in all the ways it has mutated is obvious enough. As we talked about his career, there were his sudden, knowledgeable references to the work of everyone from 1920s minstrel Emmett Miller to present-day jamgrassers the Yonder Mountain String Band (with whom Camp has toured). And then there are the artifacts he keeps close at hand in his office: the upright stage piano of western swing keyboard pumper Moon Mullican, the portable wet bar that used to belong to Porter Wagoner, the sign from the first early-’70s Outlaw Music Festival (retrieved from Waylon Jennings’ office basement).
“I just try to surround myself with things that mean something to me,” he says of these casually acquired treasures lurking around us. “Like that John Anderson album cover on the wall there — his first, I think. We’re friends; we go huntin’ together.”
It should be noted at this point that Camp — with his genuine humility, undisguised enthusiasm for the music, sometimes halting but finally precise and point-nailing way of talking, in an Arkansas drawl to match — has to be about as “country” a guy as you could meet in Nashville (or most anywhere else) circa 2006. The word “Drank”, as pronounced on the new disc’s last track (which is titled just that), is not a past-tense verb, son.
Anderson isn’t the only hunting partner Camp mentions. Another, the late bluegrass king Jimmy Martin, appears on Fireball at the start of a new song, “Beagle Hound”; Camp taped Martin flamboyantly hushing a bunch of barking hunting dogs not so long ago. Which would simply be a charming bit of business if the song proper didn’t turn out to be an unforgettable, updated answer of sorts to (You Ain’t Nothin’ But A) “Hound Dog”. Sung from the viewpoint of the wandering guy, it features an impossibly catchy, chunky rhythm, and a hook line to match: “I sure do miss…my baby; I sure do miss…my baby; how ’bout you?”