Shawn Camp – Plays well with others
Camp is 39 now, though he doesn’t look much different than he did on the cover of his debut solo CD thirteen years ago. He attributes maintaining his youthful look to “beer and barbecue.”
He was raised in Arkansas, the son of musical parents. His guitar-playing daddy, iron worker Darrel Camp, sang Merle Haggard songs, and watched Porter and Dolly and the Wilburn Brothers on TV. Mama Betty Camp, who ran a beauty shop right in their basement, sang harmony. They gave him his first stringed instrument, a mandolin, when he was 8; by his early teens, he was playing mando or fiddle with local bluegrass bands while playing electric guitar in honky-tonk outfits at VFW halls on the side.
Just shy of 21, he was spotted by bluegrass legends the Osborne Brothers playing fiddle with Oklahoma bluegrass band Signal Mountain at a festival there. The Osbornes suggested they might be able to use him in Nashville; they had him playing with them on the Grand Ole Opry in mid-February 1987, just weeks after he arrived in town. Four years of touring sideman work followed, with everyone from Jerry Reed to Trisha Yearwood to Alan Jackson.
His songwriting efforts began in earnest when he met young Dean Miller at the storied Bluebird Cafe one night. The two of them proceeded to write some 40 songs together in the months that followed. By 1991, some were getting recorded; that year, Camp also finally met Dean’s legendary dad, Roger, who was then living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Camp asked Roger, enthusiastically, when he’d be returning to Nashville to record again.
“He said, ‘Aw, them people don’t wanna hear nothing from me,'” Camp recalls. “He had a little bit of a vibe that they were over him here; I caught a little bit of his dark side. But Roger Miller proved that there are no rules to music, no genres, and no boundaries — and that, right there, is enough to say.”
Camp would soon have his own encounters with “on today, off tomorrow” receptions for big-time country performers. His self-titled 1993 album on Warner Bros./Reprise, a now hard-to-find disc which holds up remarkably well for a release of that sometimes problematic Nashville era, produced a couple of charting singles, including the high-powered “Fallin’ Never Felt So Good”, and featured backing vocals from Jim Lauderdale, Shelby Lynne and Alison Krauss. The follow-up, produced by Emory Gordy and featuring everyone from Bill Monroe himself to James Burton on lead guitar, never came out.
“We had taken early mixes of about half of the second record into the head of radio promotion at Warner Bros. and he’d said ‘Man; these are all hits!’, so we were so excited about it,” Camp recalls. “And then I turned it into the head of the label, and he said, ‘Well, this just doesn’t sound like the John Michael Montgomery album that’s out now.’ He absolutely said that! I had Bobby Hicks playing fiddle on there, one of my heroes — and he wanted all of the fiddles taken off and to put on electric guitars, and to take all of the dobro off.”
They agreed to disagree, and so ended Camp’s major-label recording artist experience. Today, he puts out his CDs on his own Skeeterbit label, with Fireball being distributed nationally by Emergent Records. The label name is taken from “Skeeterbit Blues”, a song he co-wrote with Guy Clark. Another co-write with Clark, the story-song “Sis Draper”, appeared on Camp’s Station Inn album as well as Clark’s 1999 disc Cold Dog Soup, and was covered by Ricky Skaggs on his 2004 release Brand New Strings.
“There was a real live lady that I knew as a kid, named Sis Draper,” Camp explains. “My grandpa and my Uncle Cleve, they just always would tell me, ‘You really better get to practicing if you’re gonna play with Sis Draper, because she’s gonna come over here one of these days and we’re gonna have a pickin’. And you’re going to have to be really good.’ So I was woodshedding, trying to practice.
“And when Guy heard that story, he said, ‘We need to write that.’ And I said ‘You’re right.’ So we got to whittling around on it, and he proved that it could be done, helping it along; it became as much his story as it is mine. We ended up writing a series of songs around Sis — fiddle tunes. We’ve got seven or eight pretty close to finished, a project in itself. It may be that we’ve got a couple of more songs to write before the whole picture shows up.”
It seems reasonable to ask whether the busy man who can “write with anybody” ever stops to write on his own.
“I do write on my own quite a bit, actually,” Camp responds, “but tend to get stuck at some point — and when I get stuck by myself, I just walk away from the whole idea. So I’ve got a whole lot of songs started, just by me, but I haven’t had a lot of cuts that were just solo.
“And just having a collaborator reassures me that I’m where I need to be with the song. It’s such a crutch in a way, co-writing — but I have so much fun with it, having somebody to bounce off of. You can say silly stuff and laugh about it, whether it makes the high-water mark or not.”
For all of his major-league songwriting success, as little as three years ago Camp didn’t even have a booking agent, and you weren’t likely to get to see him pick and sing much anywhere — bluegrass, high-powered honky-tonk, or anything else. It was that “focus” thing — and maybe the result of a bit of past history. Anyway, that’s all changed now.
“Well, I don’t feel like I have to prove anything anymore,” he says, “so much as just go out and play the songs that I want to play. And if somebody wants to hear a particular song, I’ll play it for them, whatever it is. Before, I had to go and do what they wanted me to do, in the way they wanted me to do it. And, obviously, I could never fit into that.”
ND senior editor Barry Mazor is apparently at work on several books at once now. Maybe it’s a focus thing.