Shawn Camp,
Live at the Station Inn
(Oh Boy, 2004)

These days, being a Nashville songwriter who's had hits cut by Nashville's reigning stars may be good for one's bank account, but it is not exactly a character reference. Garth Brooks, retired and out of the picture at least for the moment, had a #1 song a few years ago with Shawn Camp's composition "Two Pina Coladas." I have no recollection of it, though I must have heard it at some point. Likewise, Brooks & Dunn's version of Camp's "How Long Gone." Maybe they are, or were (modern Nashville hits tend to fall into the memory hole the moment they fall off the charts), decent-enough songs. Where the likes of mainstream Nashville performers are concerned, the listener is occasionally forced to acknowledge that yes, even an old blind sow does find an acorn once in a while.

Anyway, the snarkiness out my system, I am pleased to announce that this is an enjoyable recording. Camp, who in the early 1990s briefly had a deal with Warner Brothers and one commercially oriented album, recorded this easygoing, organic-sounding effort live at the Station Inn in Nashville. The bluegrass band backing him consists of genre pros who hadn't even bothered to rehearse before they hit the stage. No matter. The playing is just fine and the songs are exceptional, showing that Camp's roots are deep, his knowledge of bluegrass, folk and traditional country not shallow, either. The tunes are all originals, many of them co-writes with the esteemed likes of Guy Clark, Paul Craft and Jim Lauderdale.

He and Lauderdale are responsible for the enchanting pure-country "Forever Ain't No Trouble Now," which you can dislike only if you reject in principle the very concept of country music (in which case, my sincere sympathies). "Soldier's Joy 1864," written with Clark, has the resonance of an old ballad and the melody -- in this case literally -- of an old fiddle tune. Another Clark co-write, "Magnolia Wind," sounds disconcertingly like the late Gram Parsons's "Hickory Wind," which sounded disconcertingly like the 1960s Porter Wagoner hit "Satisfied Mind." Oh well, what's a good tune good for if not recycling? Camp happens, too, to be a splendid acoustic guitarist and a wonderful singer, with the warm tone of a young Lester Flatt.

If you're attuned to this approach, you are almost certain to approve of everything that's happening here. Camp remarks in the accompanying promotional literature, however, that this album is a one-off, a casual, sentimental journey and backward glance at his early days as a bluegrass musician. In other words, he's just passing through, not settling into, um, camp. Next time around, he says, he'll have an electric band behind him, which is no surprise; Oh Boy, John Prine's label, is hardly known for its bluegrass acts. Electric bands I have no trouble with; but when he notes that he may also "have a whole orchestra on my next record," this listener reflects ruefully that Camp is, after all, a Nashville songwriter, which means he's always looking for the next hit and one more shot at the majors.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 12 March 2005

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