The voice is straight-forward and powerful. The songs are down-to-earth portraits of real people from the American heartland. The sound is traditional, unapologetic country.Craig Campbell is a proud reminder of one of country’s strongest creative periods, building on the early-‘90s legacy established by some of the genre’s most successful figures: Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Travis Tritt.The Georgia-bred Campbell was introduced with a five-song EP that landed in the Top 20 on iTunes. His self-titled debut album expands on the central themes of his life—family, friends, purpose and self-determination—with a bundle of self-written songs, all delivered with the force and conviction of someone who’s lived every sentiment in every word.“I have to believe every one of my songs,” Campbell says matter-of-factly.It’s a simple premise learned through years of touring at the club level, writing songs in Nashville and playing the bars on Lower Broadway in Music City. Campbell honed his craft in bands backing Luke Bryan and Tracy Byrd, on stages where he covered Alabama and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and at an annual hometown talent contest where he won twice and eventually became the leader of the house band for other contestants.Campbell’s abilities stood out, as Nashville decision-makers discovered. In fact, he became the subject of a moderate competition. He received an offer from one of Nashville’s major labels, but he was more intrigued by interest from songwriter-producer Keith Stegall—known for his work with Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band. Introduced to Stegall through radio promotion executive Michael Powers, Campbell turned down the other offer to wait while Stegall and several other industry veterans developed Bigger Picture Group, an innovative artist-development company.Once Bigger Picture was in place, Campbell headed into the studio to work on his first project, founded on his big, commanding voice and centrist-country songwriting. “When I Get It” puts a defiant spin on a tough economy, “I Bought It” revolves around sweet revenge and “My Little Cowboy” incorporates a multi-generational storyline and a Haggard-esque instrumental hook into a Southern-rock framework. “Fish” puts a bawdy spin on romance, but—in sensitive-daddy fashion, does so in a manner that’s safe for the kids to hear.“Family Man,” set up by a sonic comma in its first reference—“It’s family, man”—brought Campbell quickly onto the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Still, the singer and his associates plan to go way past one single or album.“The one word Keith has used a lot with me is iconic,” Campbell notes. “He says, ‘We don’t want to do a one-song project, we’re gonna shoot for 20 years.’”Campbell’s assault on a two-decade career was in development for years before he made the conscious decision to pursue it. He was born and raised in Lyons, Ga., a town of about 4,000 people half-way between Macon and Savannah, a geographical hot spot that’s produced such peers as Jason Aldean, Billy Currington and Lady Antebellum. Campbell grew up one of five children in a blended family. His parents divorced when he was extremely young, leaving his oldest sister—11 years his elder—to tend to the siblings while his mom worked multiple jobs to keep food on the table. He saw his biological father every other weekend until his dad died, when Craig was 11 years old, leaving little impact on his son’s memory.“The older I get,” Campbell says, “the more I realize didn’t know him.”The man Campbell called dad married his mom when Craig was six. He provided structure, a sense of right and wrong, and a daily model of what an adult man could be.“In all honesty,” Craig says, “my life began when my mama married my stepdad.”The family studiously attended the Baptist church—twice on Sundays and again on Wednesday nights—which became an important training ground for Craig’s musical education. He played piano for the congregation from age 10 until he turned 18, and Campbell learned harmony from listening to his mom sing from the hymn book. “I’d stand beside her and try to mimic what she was doing,” he recalls. “In a Baptist church, you have to learn how to sing harmony because the song was not always in your key, so you gotta find somewhere to go with it.”The house was filled with the sound of gospel groups—the Cathedrals, the Inspirations, the Kingsmen, the McKameys—and the from-the-gut approach of those acts resonates in Campbell’s delivery today.But he gravitated even more to country music, magnetized by the quality of performers during one of the genre’s golden radio eras. He’s drawn comparisons to Alan Jackson—understandable since they’re both Georgian singers with a similar range and accent. But it was Travis Tritt, embodied with a fierce vocal style similarly informed by gospel singers, who most influenced Campbell.He put that influence to work at age 15 when his sister Lynn, nine years his senior, pushed him to enter the Jimmy Dean/True Value Country Showdown. She served as an unpaid manager and A&R person, enrolling him in the competition, helping him decide on his stagewear and picking out two then-current songs that would show off his skills well: Tritt’s “Foolish Pride” and John Michael Montgomery’s “Be My Baby Tonight.” Campbell finished first among the 22 contestants at Kerrigan’s bar, got his picture in the local paper—The Vidalia Advance—and was instantly hooked on performing.“I wanted to be on stage for sure,” Campbell recalls. “The crowd response is what drove it. Nothin’ better than to hear somebody applaud.” It gave him a vocational direction, though his sense of purpose was tested just months later when Lynn died from injuries in a car accident. “It was rough,” he reflects. “We were pretty good buddies, you know, and she had a 6-year-old little girl, too, which was the worst part about it. I don’t think I cried up until we told her daughter her mommy wasn’t comin’ home.”It took months for Craig to regain his footing emotionally—with the encouragement Lynn had planted in his psyche, he used music as a grounding mechanism. And he continued to enroll in the Showdown. He won one more year, and—after a two-year stint as a corrections officer in the Georgia State prison system—he put together Out Of The Blue, the house band at Kerrigan’s. With assistance from the club owner, he made some connections with a couple of booking agents and the band started touring small venues five and six nights a week with the travel extending as far as Wyoming and Elko, Nevada. The band once drove itself the entire 1,800-mile trip from Florida to North Dakota, stopping only to change drivers or fill the tank. It was a grueling schedule, but it also gave Campbell first-hand knowledge of how to fill out a setlist and win over an audience.“You can go anywhere and play Lynyrd Skynyrd, you can go anywhere and play Hank Williams Jr.,” he shrugs. “There’s certain songs—‘Friends In Low Places,’ ‘Dixieland Delight,’ ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ ‘Margaritaville,’ ‘Brown Eyed Girl’—it don’t matter where you are. You’ll get a response.”In 2002, one of his friends called from Nashville. The friend was getting divorced and wanted to know if Campbell would move up and share an apartment.“Shoot, yeah,” Craig responded. “If you can get me a job, I’m there.”In short order, Campbell had an interview for a maintenance position at the Belle Valley Apartments in the Bellevue neighborhood. Within a week, he’d moved all his belongings to Tennessee, where he was within reaching distance of a music career.Campbell wasted no time. He ingrained himself in the club scene and picked up a gig when he met another musician at Douglas Corner, the same venue where Trisha Yearwood had once secured her first recording deal. When Campbell told the musician that he played piano, he got an offer to fill in on a Saturday night at The Stage, one of the largest clubs on historic Lower Broadway. Not only did Campbell accept the job, he aced it.“Halfway through the gig, he asked me do I want the gig fulltime?” Campbell remembers. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I started working five and six nights a week then. On top of my job. I was bankin’!”He quickly became ingrained in the Nashville music community, meeting fellow Georgian Luke Bryan. Bryan, in turn, introduced Campbell to songwriter Jon Mabe (“The Climb”), who brought Craig in to sing on a demo session for his wife, songwriter Connie Harrington (“Girls Lie Too”). That led to a ton of work as Campbell became one of the in-demand singers on Nashville’s underground demo circuit.Bryan, who hadn’t yet signed with Capitol Records, also advised Campbell to write his own songs. If he could sing and write, he’d be more valuable. And he’d have an identity of his own.“At first it was a job,” Campbell admits. “I wasn’t used to it, but then I started writing songs that I thought were kind of cool and I’d play ‘em live and people would applaud, and then it started getting to where people were requestin’ ‘em. It takes on a completely different meaning whenever you can stand up and say, ‘Here’s a song I wrote.’ As opposed to, ‘Here’s a song I like.’”In the middle of it all, Campbell started seeing a singer, Mindy Ellis, he’d known even before he moved to Nashville. There’d always been chemistry between them, but she was already seeing someone else. Months after she broke off a relationship, he got a call from Mindy while waiting at the Country Music Hall of Fame to audition for Nashville Star. She wanted to hang out; he couldn’t leave.“She said, ‘Well, I have a van that has a TV and a VCR. I’ll just come to you and we’ll watch a movie.’ So she came down and we plugged in Face/Off, with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and we watched it. We’ve been together ever since.”He started playing piano in her band, and that led to another valuable gig: One of her friends got him a job for 15 months touring with Tracy Byrd’s band, giving Campbell his first opportunity to play mid-sized venues. During his tenure with Byrd, Campbell married Mindy and started a family, which now includes two daughters, Preslee and Kinni.He eventually scored a weekly performance slot at The Stage, where his band consisted of musicians who also played with Big & Rich, Chris Young, Mark Chesnutt and Joe Diffie. One of the bartenders, Kim Trosdahl, talked Campbell up to her significant other, Bigger Picture Group’s Michael Powers, who was won over by the singer’s obvious skills.Powers brought Keith Stegall down to the club in August 2008, and from there, it was simply a waiting game before Bigger Picture had everything in place to get Campbell recorded and bring him to a wider audience.The company introduced him with the 2010 single “Family Man,” a song that incorporates the centerpiece of his life, the source of his emotional strength and the reason he wakes up in the morning.Now his debut album blends Campbell’s masculine, no-nonsense vocal style with solid, salt-of-the-earth songs about America’s working class and a classic sense of wordplay. It’s a timeless sound, one that links him directly to Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson, who likewise built their style on such predecessors as George Jones and Hank Williams Jr.
“It’s traditional, back-to-basics, true country music,” Campbell says. “It’s what I am. I can’t be anything else.”
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