Shawn Camp,
(Skeeterbit, 2006)

Every once in a while I hear a recording which occasions the thought that mainstream country music doesn't have to be bad. Why, if it sounded like this....

Shawn Camp's Fireball, which inspires such reflections, is -- tellingly, alas -- on his own independent label. Chances are nonexistent to slight that any of the cuts are going to find their way to country radio, at least in Camp's arrangements of them -- full but never bombastic. (Maybe that's the problem.) You will hear some on radio -- so far mostly, not entirely, an Internet phenomenon -- where one will encounter, here and there, talented commercial artists whose inability to swim in the mainstream tells you all you need to know about how dry that stream has gone.

Camp is older than he looks -- he looks like a kid, though he's nearly 40 -- and a veteran of both bluegrass (his first major gig was as fiddler for the Osborne Brothers) and straight-ahead country. He's also done well as a songwriter, hitting the big time with cuts by the bigfoot likes of Garth Brooks (who went to #1 with his "Two Pina Coladas") and Brooks & Dunn and, respectably though no doubt less lucratively, of Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury. Like Jim Lauderdale, Tim O'Brien, Buddy Miller and a few other Nashville writers with a history of hits for others, Camp has a sense of the country-music tradition that -- unlike most in Nashville these days -- does not end with 1970s soft-rock and early Eagles. Once or twice, though, his songs do pass over the line into the sort of almost written-to-order sap (e.g., "Nothin' to Do with You," with John Scott Sherrill) that one day may pass through your ears if you're unfortunate enough, while innocently channel-surfing, to hear snatches warbling from a CMT video spotlighting whatever pretty boy or girl happens to be a superstar this week.

More often, however, Fireball sails on a sea of professionally crafted, slickly (in a good way) produced songs, afloat on a bed of cleanly picked acoustic and greasy electric guitars, fiddles and percussion, Camp's strong, slightly nasal vocals and fine honkytonk harmonies. The effect is to remind you that all good popular country music sounds weren't stilled two decades ago, the mainstream's last -- as in, one fears, final -- golden age.

"Drank" (written with Billy Burnette) would do Merle Haggard proud, and "Fallin' for You" (with Paul Kennerly) would have been one of the greatest Waylon Jennings cuts ever; you'd nearly swear it's an outtake from the enduring Dreaming My Dreams (1975), Jennings' own favorite of all his albums. "The Way It Is" (with Earl Bud Lee) is pure Bakersfield soul. All entirely agreeable, but songs like "Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble to Me" and "Hotwired" (both with Mark D. Sanders), which are just as satisfying, sound like nobody but Camp.

A final note: Camp's previous album, Live at the Station Inn (on John Prine's Oh Boy label), showcased his bluegrass roots. I reviewed it here on 12 March 2005. It's also well worth checking out.

by Jerome Clark
29 April 2006

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