It’s the kind of good fortune you love to see come to a top-shelf, stone-cold country-singing, hit songwriting, multi-instrumentalist who’s earned a lot of respect in Nashville over the past couple decades without really becoming a household name beyond it. Shawn Camp is that songwriter, and Josh Turner’s “Would You Go With Me” and George Strait’s “River of Love” are just two examples of his handiwork.
An impromptu jam session with the current head of Camp’s former label John Esposito has led, at long last, to the release of his second album, 1994. The title’s not meant to be retro; that’s the year the album was finished, and shelved. It was worth the wait.
I’ve heard of plenty of albums not being released for a lot of reasons, but not because the artist himself had something to do with making that decision. What did you feel like was at stake for you at the time?
Oh, I mean, my whole dream. The dreams I had of coming to Nashville and playing music for a living and being an artist and being able to go out and play for people. That all came to a screeching halt when I decided not to go back in and take the fiddles and dobros off and put electric guitars on it. In hindsight, maybe I should’ve. But I probably wasn’t ready at the time anyway. So maybe this is the right time for that record to be out.
Asking you to remove the rootsy fiddle and dobro—I mean, those are some of your specialties.
Yeah. It’s pretty weird. But, you know, I can understand them trying to replicate something that’s making big money in this town. And that’s what major record labels generally try to do. If somebody’s all the sudden having a hit record with a particular kind of song, everybody’s gonna write a song just like that and try to put it out.
Now the album’s 1994, but what was it originally called?
Didn’t have a name. I mean it was shelved before we got to that stage. They were dragging their feet forever on putting out a single. I turned it in in June and it was closing in on wintertime and it seemed like to me they needed to put a single out or release me from the label. And that’s what I asked them to do. And they said they’d be happy to do so. (laughs)
It’s finally being released because of a chance encounter.
This last year I got to go through [the music industry education program] Leadership Music. On the opening retreat weekend we had a guitar pull and I’m sitting there jamming with this guy playing guitar. He says, ‘Who are you and what do you do?’ I said, ‘I used to be an artist on the label that you run, John [Esposito].’ And he said ‘Really?’ And I says, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna go in the vault, then, and find your records and listen to them.’ I said, ‘Great.’ And the next time I saw him he said, ‘I’m gonna put those records out.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ And the next time I saw him we were [deciding on] dates. He’s a great guy. He’s a musician and singer. And for him to get fired up over this is wonderful.
Leaving the label back then wasn’t the end of the line for you by any means. You’ve done quite a bit since.
Well, thank you. I just always try to have a lot of irons in the fire. That way you’re not too dependent on any particular thing.
You’ve worked in hard country and bluegrass and the independent roots-Americana world; you’ve had co-writers all over the map and songs that have landed with all different sorts of acts: Brooks & Dunn, George Straight, Josh Turner and Del McCoury, Jim Lauderdale, Guy Clark. How do you do all that, and do it all convincingly?
I don’t know. (laughs) I’m not sure I am convincing anybody of anything. I’ve always tried to learn something from everybody if I could. And there’s a lot of great songwriters that I was a huge fan [of]. Like Guy Clark and all these people you mentioned.
There were a couple songs on Fireball—one of your independent albums—that found their way onto albums by Josh Turner and Dierks Bentley. What do you think makes a song work in different worlds?
I try to write songs that’ll work in a lot of different genres. But there’s times when a lyric is gonna dictate the style of the song no matter what. If you’ve got a hillbilly kind of lyric, it’s gonna have to land in that world.
Something tells me that if I were to ask you which of the things that you do feels the most you, you wouldn’t be able to say just one thing.
I think you’re right. I love it all. I just try to have fun in whatever I’m into at the moment.
When you moved here to take an Osborne Brothers gig, were you envisioning a career strictly as a sideman?
Well, I always did several things. I started playing guitar when I was five, and mandolin at seven and fiddle at fifteen. And then all of a sudden I started getting work as a fiddler, because fiddle players are more in demand. There’s a lot more guitar players than they are anything else. So when I moved here, I worked a little while with the Osborne Brothers. Then I knew I wasn’t gonna leave town just because they let me go. I went to work, I mean, little side gigs here and there. I’d work for little trust fund gigs and go play old folks homes. I worked for a while in factories around town, temporary service in between jobs. Just anything I could do to keep going. Somewhere along that time, about ’89, I guess, I really started sinking in as a writer and started trying to co-write more.
I understand that you really got serious about writing when you met Dean Miller at the Bluebird one night. Did you just need a co-writer to bounce things off of?
I think so. But Dean and I just hit it off as friends. He was a funny guy. We’re setting there at the bar and I didn’t know who he was. Somewhere in the conversation, not far into it, he said, ‘Yeah, that’s my daddy on the wall over there,’ and it’s Roger Miller’s picture was hanging up on the wall. …We left the Bluebird and he came over and we sat on the tailgate of my pickup out there at, like, midnight and wrote our first song together. We wrote about thirty, forty songs together or so. Sometimes that’s enough.
You’ve had some pretty enduring co-writing relationships with Guy Clark, Jim Lauderdale, John Scott Sherrill and others.
Well, if it works with somebody, I like to write with them until it don’t. And just because it stops working doesn’t mean that they’re not my friends. Sometimes you just kind of dry up, the well does, for a while. You just have to hit each other at the right moment in order to make it all line up the right way.
That’s a very relational way of approaching songwriting, rather than forcing it.
Oh, sometimes I get like that, though. As soon as you start thinking ‘I have to write something today,’ you’re not gonna write anything.
I read that before you started touring with John Prine, you had your doubts about how you’d be received by his audience. What did you think wouldn’t fly?
I just admire John so much. I mean, he’s like a god when it comes to writing to me. His audience, you know, they’re acclimated to that level of integrity in a song. And sometimes [I] questioned what I was going to be presented to them. (laughs) I enjoyed playing for them. But they’re a highly intelligent crowd. A lot of times when you go out to the middle of this country or wherever, you’re playing the free stage and you’re at the county fair between the swine barn and the tractor pull and you wonder… I mean, it’s a different level of intellect in a way as far as what they’re… I love that crowd. But I think I’m more apt to play to that crowd than I would be to an intellectual crowd. I don’t know. Maybe I’m nuts. (laughs)
What kind of balance are you envisioning between songwriting, playing and performing going forward?
Well, it’s just a give and take thing. I think without having an outlet to perform there’s no need in writing songs. …I’d like to split my time between writing and performing as much as possible.