By Jeffrey B. Remz, May 1999
fter going the major label route with critical, but not commercial success from two twangy, honky tonk albums on Sony, Stacy Dean Campbell pulled back.
The major label thing wasn't working. And that was not the only change for Campbell.
For starters, his new album, "Ashes of Old Love," marks his debut on Paladin Records.
Secondly, the disc is a far more laid back, spare, often acoustically-based affair, though still country. And the stories - often about freedom - are ever present.
A look at Campbell's co-songwriters - Chris Knight, Kevin Welch and Dean Miller - gives a strong indication of where the album is at musically.
"I think for me the difference between this album and the last album was not really such a conscious thing as it was becoming more focused as a songwriter," he says from his Nashville home. "That was really my main goal with this record - to make a focused project to define what I was going to be as a songwriter."
And writing was something Campbell got away from at least when it came appearing on his last album, 'Hurt City" from 1996 where he wrote only one song, compared to four on his 1992 debut, "Lonesome Wins Again."
"I'm real proud of those last two records," he says.
"I don't think I was specifically going into the studio (and said) 'ok let's get away from that sound and go for a new sound and do something different.' It was almost four years between those two records. I think I grew up a lot - just matured as a person and also as a songwriter. I think I found a songwriting voice that I felt comfortable with so to speak that I don't know how comfortable I felt before."
Campbell says one reason he thinks he has grown as a songwriter was that he did not have to contend with being on a major label. "I spent a lot of time on Sony Records and spent a lot of time constantly making a record."
"I had thee years that was pretty much nothing but concentrating on making that second record. With this record, I wasn't on a label, I didn't have a label deal for a couple of years. I wasn't really sure what kind of label deal I wanted. I wasn't sure where I wanted to be. That's important creatively. There was no criteria dictated for the songwriting. It was an open field out there. It enabled me to search out my voice as a songwriter."
"That and the natural maturity of going to being a certain age in your life and you literally and physically grow up," says Campbell, now 31. "Your thought patterns change. You want to say some things you may not have cared much about saying before. All things wrap up together."
"When you're not specifically writing for an album - any person who's an artist, your goal is always to make records because you want people to hear your music - when you don't have a deal and don't have schedules and time frames and schedules, you're more relaxed basically. You're freer to do what you want to do. To me, that was important."
Freedom imagery is a topic explored in many songs. "I'm Gonna Fly," written with Dean Miller is about a prisoner who dreams of flying the coop after seeing his woman.
"Train Not Running," penned with Chris Knight, is about a man trying to make it financially. The song is based on a coal miner from Virginia.
"I was up there staying and at the place I was staying, there was a train literally behind the house."
Workers filled the cars with coal with the trains inching along the track making "this horrible brake noise. It's impossible to sleep, but the next morning this guy said, 'did you get any sleep last night?' - no. how can you. He said, 'when that train doesn't run, I don't sleep.'"
"That's a real cool thing," Campbell says. "I didn't take it as a passing comment. I took it as a very literal statement - 'I get worried about how ends are going to meet when the trains aren't running.'"
Of the freedom idea, Campbell says, "It was the way it naturally flowed together," Campbell says. "I've always been drawn to songs with real strong characters in them. I wanted to make a real focused record. I really liked the songs and thought they were my best writing. The two Jamie O'Hara and David Halley songs really fit in with my vision. If I had wanted to write a song like that, I hoped I could have written a song like that."
Campbell did not have to endure years in Nashville before signing on the dotted line. He moved to Nashville at the end of 1990 from New Mexico. "I think it was pretty much in the right place at the right time," he says. A song demo of his made its way to Paul Worley, a Sony exec.
Within three months, Campbell had a deal.
But two albums later, the marriage was no longer working, something about which Campbell harbors no bitterness.
"The bottom line is they were a great bunch of people," he says. "They were doing some things really really well. They were doing things not so well. It was just not working. It wasn't working for me. It wasn't working for them. I got to a point where I thought I'm not really getting anywhere. I'd rather be free to explore my own thing as opposed to just sitting here and becoming a bitter artist in a year and half or force them to release a record or force me to put out a specific kind of record. It didn't happen the way we wanted to, and let's call it quits."
Paladin contacted Campbell, telling, him, "You can go make whatever kind of record you want. I said why on earth wouldn't I be interested. I felt wow, this is going to be the first time someone is going to cut me loose in the studio and give me total control. I don't want the outcome is going to be as far as sales, but that's out of my control anyway. I didn't see a lot of places that would have much faith in an artist and even let you do that even if they did have that much faith in you. I just jumped at the chance to do this."
In some respects, Campbell says it should be no surprise that he is not rehashing what he already has done.
"Artists just can't make the same records over and over and over. You've got to evolve and change and be better."