Growing up in rural Lyons, Georgia, singer/songwriter Craig Campbell learned one important lesson from the ZZ Top records his mother favored: “Every girl’s crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man.”
That’s one reason Campbell is always impeccably well tailored on stage, and at industry awards shows and events. But he says there’s an even more important reason: respect. For Campbell, caring enough to wear a pressed, button-down shirt and black cowboy hat when he performs is a show of respect for his fans, for the successful career he considers himself lucky enough to have, and most of all for the country music genre itself. It’s also a credit to his no nonsense, “yes, m’am/no, sir” upbringing, which made Campbell into the Southern gentleman he is today.
That respect is amply evident on Campbell’s new EP, “Outta My Head,” a five song set that solidifies Campbell’s standing as country music’s hippest neo-traditionalist, a niche he’d already begun to carve out with his critically-acclaimed, self-titled 2011 debut album. The EP offers fans an impressive taste of the sophomore album he’s working on with producers Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band) and Matt Rovey (CCMA Album Of The Year Producer) for release in early 2013, which includes tracks penned by Campbell as well as some of Nashville’s other elite songwriters.
The role comes naturally to the artist Roughstock.com called “one of the most promising neo-traditionalist country music artists today.” Among the albums Campbell says he’d most like his to be compared to are Clint Black’s “Killin’ Time,” and Tracy Lawrence’s “Sticks And Stones,” plus “Here In The Real World,” the debut album by another singer/songwriter Campbell is frequently compared to: Alan Jackson. Says Campbell of that style of music, “That’s what I absolutely love. But I need to put my own unique stamp on it. So the challenge for me back when I first signed my deal with Bigger Picture Group was how do I do that? How do I show my love for that style of music, but make it my own? I believe that’s exactly what we’ve done here.”
The EP, which includes two songs co-written by Campbell, offers something for everyone along those lines. The mesmerizing and catchy title song and first single, “Outta My Head,” tells the tale of a man trying to shake off the memory of a lost love. Just as the singer attempts to forget a woman from his recent past, the up-tempo song similarly defies any attempt by listeners to get it out of their heads after hearing it.
The hilarious “My Baby’s Daddy” puts a fresh twist on the theme of an overprotective father keeping a wary eye on his daughter’s would-be husband. Instead of telling that story from the father’s perspective, it’s the scared suitor who shares his story here, via Campbell’s rich baritone.
“That’s Why God Made A Front Porch” offers a relaxed vibe in an ode to slowing down and powering down for a little while. The romantic “Keep Them Kisses Comin’” sets an amorous tone, while poignant set closer “When She Grows Up” follows that romantic relationship to the next step of marriage and family, and sends a relatable message to dads raising those young daughters who think they hung the moon. Campbell was thinking of his own two girls, ages 2 and 4, when he wrote the song, which features some brief but adorable vocals from his eldest, Preslee.
“Even before it was on an album, I could sing that song in concert and look out and see at least one or two grown men crying,” says Campbell of the touching song.
Campbell says his goal in choosing songs for this project was a simple one. “I want people to know that’s really who I am, and I’m not faking it,” he says of his music. “It’s the real deal,” adds the singer who got his start playing music and winning talent competitions in his hometown, which has a population of just 4,000 people.
Georgians like Campbell are dominating the country music scene these days, and he believes it’s partly because they share genuine rural country roots and a similar work ethic. Like other artists, Campbell has made sacrifices for the sake of a music career, but he says, “There’s nobody who wants it more than me.”
That’s not to say Campbell is all business. Fans have started to become familiar with his quick wit and dry humor through programs like GAC’s “Behind The Video” special on the making of “Outta My Head,” and his turn at the microphone as co-host of the 2012 CMA Awards coverage on AOL’s popular site “The Boot.” He’s not afraid to share his playful side, either. He lights up in conversation sharing pictures and talking about the fun he and his band and crew have on the road playing on the cornhole boards Campbell had custom painted with his logo. Asked what most fans don’t know about him yet, Campbell grins, “I’m an amazing cornhole player.”
But his busy career doesn’t leave much time for backstage games. Campbell became one of the most successful new artists of 2011 when his debut album was released and spawned the hits “Family Man,” “Fish,” and “When I Get It,” accompanied by some very creative videos. He continues that tradition with “Outta My Head,” in which he takes on the challenge of acting for the first time, playing a dual role in the mind-bending new video.
First single “Family Man” was a top 15 hit and featured in HBO’s “True Blood,” while “Fish” has sold a quarter of a million downloads. To cap off 2012, Campbell was surprised by his label president with a plaque commemorating four consecutive charted hits with over a billion radio airplay audience impressions and more than half a million downloads. He’s also made national TV appearances on “Fox & Friends” and “Huckabee,” won songwriting awards from SESAC, and been nominated by fans for two American County Awards.
Prior to landing his record deal, Campbell had spent time on the road playing keyboards in the bands of Tracy Byrd and then Luke Bryan, gigs that inspired him nightly. “Just being out there on the road and seeing the reaction from the audience to them and their songs, that was fuel to the fire,” he says. “That’s what I wanted for myself.” He was later discovered playing a regular gig at the downtown Nashville honky-tonk, The Stage.
Now, as the star of the show, he’s gotten so at ease on stage that he’s taken to sometimes stepping away from his guitar or piano and just working the stage while he sings. “That’s what the audience wants to see, so I challenged myself, and I’m getting more comfortable with it,” he says. “It’s easier to do during a hit song that everybody’s raising cain to.”
He’s also gained extensive touring experience in the last two years, including his first overseas shows in Switzerland and Australia, which were well received. “It’s amazing enough to me to go somewhere here in the United States and see people sing back my songs to me from the audience,” he says, “but when you fly 9,000 miles around the world to Australia, and somebody spots you in the middle of a crowd and tells you how much they love your music, I can’t explain how that makes you feel.”
Likewise, his songwriting has also been influenced—and improved—by the support he gets from fans. “After the first album, I realized that there was millions of people out there just like me,” he says. “I was shocked at all the responses I was getting on Twitter and Facebook from people who went through the same things I was going through. I realized we’re all in this together. There are more people in this world that are the same than different. So I figured out that I could just write my songs, and there’s going to be somebody out there that relates.”
But nothing influences the songwriting of this devoted family man more than his wife, Mindy, and daughters Preslee and Kinni Rose. “They’re everywhere in my music,” he says. “Most of the inspiration I have comes from them.”
With his debut album earning rave reviews from multiple media outlets, including USA Today, Associated Press, People and The Washington Post, Campbell went into the recording of his sophomore project a lot more relaxed, particularly since he’d already worked with Stegall on his previous set. But the singer still challenged himself to basically “start over” on the second album, despite having already laid a great foundation for his career. There’s still lots more he wants to accomplish.
“I’ve done some amazing things for a new artist,” says this Southern gentleman, “but I can’t slow down. I’ve got to keep full steam ahead.”
It’s just a matter of respect.