And the winner is: Jeff Campbell.
The Philly native was chosen Saturday night at Hollywood’s Hotel Café out of a field of ten finalists as the winner of the annual Guitar Center Songwriting Contest, co-sponsored by American Songwriter magazine.
Chosen by Grammy-award winning songwriter John Shanks, Campbell not only wins the distinction of being this year’s winner, he also gets an amazing prize package, a dream come true for any aspiring songwriter: the recording of a 4-song EP with Shanks, $10,000 in cash, new gear from Martin, Bose, Korg, Zoom, Shure, D’Addario, TC-Helicon and Converse, studio time at the Converse Rubber Tracks studio in NYC, and worldwide distribution from Tunecore.
He will also get his name in American Songwriter, following in the footsteps of the world’s greatest songwriters.
Asked afterwards how he felt to be the winner, Campbell said he was humbled. “I am actually having trouble processing it,” he said. “It is the most overwhelming feeling, the most humbling joy I have known. I have worked so hard and for so long to make something happen in my career, so that now to be validated like this is extraordinary. To share the stage with the other nine finalists was an honor, as they are all great artists. And to be awarded this from an iconic genius songwriter-producer like John Shanks is fantastic.”
Prior to the announcement of the winner, there were performances by last year’s winner Josh Doyle, and then by all ten finalists: Melissa Polinar from Dallas; Joshua Robinson from Lakeland, Florida; Carson Henley from Seattle; Mikey Wax from Long Island, New York; Cyra Morgan from New York; Madilyn Bailey from Wisconsin; Joe Hertler from Detroit, Michigan; Evan Gibb from Orlando, Florida; Drew Schofield from Denver, Colorado.
Each performer played only a single song, but each with much grace and humor, and gratitude to be included. Cyra Morgan admitted to a quick yoga session in the women’s room prior to performing to calm her nerves, after which she sang a stunning song called “Sanctuary,” about “going to your happy place when you are in need.”
Drew Schofield, with his long mass of blonde hair, first established that he was neither Kurt Cobain or Keith Urban before launching into a passionate rendition of his song “Hang Out.”
Detroit-native Joe Hertler spoke about the demise of the historic Hudson Building in his hometown, which he used as the main symbol in his song, supporting himself ably on harmonica as well as acoustic guitar. “I’m a fifth grade teacher,” he said afterwards with much excitement. “And [my students] are excited!”
Evan Gibb, with a voice and guitar-style reminiscent of Dave Matthews, performed the touching “I’m Slowing You Down” against an elaborate yet flawless finger-picked guitar part.
Joshua Robinson opened by saying he was amazed to be here, a “swamp Everglades boy in the land of dreams.” With strong falsetto, he entranced the crowd with his song “Black & White.” Carson Henley brought a good portion of soul to his singing, conjuring up the spirit of classic Motown as he pounded the piano and sang “Go Under.” Mikey Wax, who also performed on piano, delivered a lovely exploration of modern times called “Counting On You,” and got the crowd of Hollywood hipsters to actually sing along.
Madilyn Bailey, one of only three female finalists, spoke of her “tiny tiny” Wisconsin home-town, where “there are more cows than people,” before singing a beautifully jazzy song of ultimate romance, “Crescent of the Moon.” Melissa Polinar spoke of her gratitude and then took us on a sophisticated and spiritually-tinged soul journey called “Skyline.”
In his opening song, prior to winning, Jeff Campbell took the stage to a big ovation, showing that this Philly native already had fans in the room. He sang the strident “Shut Your Mouth,” a suggestion the crowd followed as it stopped talking to take in his performance. He so won over the crowd that it seemed highly likely he would be the winner, as predicted by his fans and friends in the audience, as well as those who didn’t know him but were won over.
“This guy is phenomenal,” shouted one inebriated audience member, fist-pumping through the whole song. Linda Swanson, a defense attorney from Seal Beach, said, “I’ve heard [Campbell] before, and he is always great. I think he is a world-class artist.”
Shanks, upon announcing the winner, explained that it was a very difficult choice, as he truly believed in each artist. “Everybody who was here today,” he said, “was someone I chose myself. They are all great artists.”
When he announced that Campbell was the victor, the crowd went wild, with many contingents of obvious Campbell fans jumping up and cheering. Imagine midnight on New Year’s Ever and you get the idea.
Afterwards, Ocean Record Studio manager Greg Ruoff, who has worked with Shanks on several projects, said he made the right choice. “All of these artists are excellent,” he said, “but I have known Jeff for a long time, and he’s special. He’s got the making of a great songwriter because he is very in tune with the world, and he can extract that into his songs in an honest way. He’s also a tremendously appealing performer. So they couldn’t have chosen a better winner.”
Folk-rock singer Lissie closed the show with a spirited set.