Any list of songwriters worth the paper it is written on should include Shawn Camp’s name at the top. Camp has made a career writing some of the best songs to come out of Nashville in decades. Bluegrass legends like Del McCoury and Ralph Stanley have included Camp originals on their recordings, while country icons Garth Brooks and Brooks and Dunn scored #1 hits with Camp tunes. Camp has shared the stage with folk hero John Prine, jamgrassers Yonder Mountain String Band, and country stars like Alan Jackson and Trisha Yearwood. BRO recently caught up with Camp at his home near Nashville to discuss his latest project, The Bluegrass Elvises.
BRO: You are a student of the history of country music. What has delving into the past done for you as an artist?
SC: You have to go to the source of the spring. You have to go right to the purest form that you can, as far as recorded music goes. I just believe that we need to know where we came from before we go any further. Otherwise, we would just be covering the same ground. I have a deep respect for the past, and if we are going to grow any further we have to respect where we came from.
BRO: Does that interest in musical history stem from music that would have been playing in the Camp household when you were a kid?
SC: Sure. I listened to a lot of Jimmie Rodgers when I was a kid. Everything that Sun Records ever recorded in the 50s was in the house—from Elvis to Johnny Cash to Jerry Lee Lewis. And I listened to a lot of bluegrass stuff, especially Bill Monroe.
BRO: Having those Sun Records recordings around must have played a role in your interest in the Bluegrass Elvises project. How did the album come to pass?
SC: I have had this idea—a concept record of bluegrass Elvis stuff on a “want to do” album list for a while. I was hanging out with my buddy Billy Burnette and a friend of ours named Dave Ferguson, who engineered for Johnny Cash and Jack Clement, in Clement’s studio recording something. And Ferguson came in and, out of nowhere, said, “You guys ought to do a bluegrass Elvis record.” It floored me, as I had written down the idea but hadn’t told anyone about it. It just came together really quick this spring.
BRO: Elvis is probably the most famous name in the history of rock and roll. Was there any pressure, real or conceived, knowing that you were recording some of the most recognizable songs in the history of rock and roll?
SC: Not really. This was just a fun thing to do. We, by no means, copied exactly the way the records went. We couldn’t. We wanted to, but it was flying by so quick that we did our best, and it seemed to come out pretty good.
BRO: Any of the songs on the album stand out as particularly enjoyable moments in the recording process?
SC: They were all surprises. We wanted to do some sort of introduction on the album, and “The Bluegrass Oddity” (a bluegrass spin on “2001: A Space Odyssey” – D.S) just sort of came up really quick and was a lot of fun.
BRO: I would think that you guys giving the bluegrass treatment to these Elvis tunes would get you special access to Graceland. You have any good Jungle Room stories?
SC: Not yet, man, but I am hoping to get in there with some jumpsuits on or something. I can’t go through Memphis without stopping and going through Graceland. I’ve been through 18 or 20 times. I’m some kind of fanatic about it. He had some kind of power, and you have to pay homage to the King when you pass by the throne. —Dave Stallard
Barrel House Mamas—Gathering
If you liked the seductive chemistry of Welch, Krauss, and Harris on the “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, you’ll get the same fuzzy feeling from the Barrel House Mamas. The Asheville, N.C., female trio plays a harmony-fueled brand of neo-old-time folk that mixes wispy melodies with earthy claw-hammer banjo rolls. When Jane Kramer Edens, Molly Rose Reed, and Eleanor Underhill sing, their voices roll off each other with angelic synchronicity. On the group’s debut, “Gathering,” songs like “Maze of Summertime” and “Riversong” flow with choral grace through dusty string shuffles that tell life lessons through poetic nature imagery. “Socks and Shoes” rolls with hill country roots that would make a juke joint holler, while “Ecstasy” is a sweet vintage country love ballad—a pure example of a missing link in a genre that’s gone wrong. Voices like this have an easy way of making the Americana of yesteryear seem oh so urgent.
Special Ed and the Short Bus—Ground Beef Patrol
“Ground Beef Patrol”—the latest release from Special Ed and the Short Bus—has Bill Monroe spinning in his grave. Or laughing his ass off. It’s impossible to tell, but I’m betting on the latter. The Richmond-based Special Ed’s spin on bluegrass and old time is certainly an irreverent one; “Ground Beef Patrol” features tunes inspired by impotence, kinky sex, and apathy towards the poor. While song titles like “Trouser Gravy” and “Underpants Rag” might be off-putting to some, listeners shouldn’t be dissuaded by the off-color subject matter. Their wacky sense of humor doesn’t belie the fact that the boys on the Short Bus can pick; you will be hard put to find another disc that will satisfy the tastes of the most discriminating acoustic music fan that includes the words “cooter,” “pooter,” and “double ender.” It’s an album that placates the inner-hedonist in all of us. —Dave Stallard;
Mike Farris—Salvation in Lights
Mike Farris is a saved man. The success enjoyed by Farris with his band the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies was tempered by his ongoing battle with addiction, a battle that included a near fatal overdose at the age of 21. Sober since 2004, Farris has revisited the faith of his childhood and has subsequently released his strongest work to date with Salvation in Lights. More soulful than a clapboard Alabama church on Easter Sunday, the album is a cup overflowing with the bluesy, gospel sounds of the Deep South. Farris originals like “The Lonely Road” and “Selah! Selah!” testify side by side with time-tested traditionals like “I’ll Take You There,” the Staple Family Singers’ masterpiece, while “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down” even passes the “Play That Again Daddy Test” from my eight year old son whenever “Salvation in Lights” is on in the car. Something just feels right about that.