Country newcomer Michael Grayson Campbell can remember where he was when his debut self-titled EP went on sale on iTunes last month – not too far from a computer, he joked.
“I was at a rehearsal for another band that I play a part of, and a songwriter in Nashville told me years ago that it’s bad luck not to buy your own album. After all, if you don’t buy it, why would anyone else. The album link went live when I was at the rehearsal, and I had to take a five-minute break because I was so overwhelmed,” he admitted to CMChatLive.com. “It was such a long process, and I’m just so grateful that it got out there. I was so nervous to see how people would take it.”
Campbell, who also is a student at Nashville’s Belmont University, learned quite a bit of his trade on the fly, playing keyboards for The Grinders’ Switch Ensemble, a band that has their own weekly radio show on WNKX in his hometown of Centerville, TN. “I would definitely say that has helped to shape me into who I am as both a player and a singer. I grew up around the older guys, and learned from them. I also listened to a lot of the new stuff, as well.” He said that the old and the new both have a distinct influence on his style today. “It’s a unique mix, but I’ve always been big on hearing music instruments played by real people. I think that comes from being a music student. There’s no synthetic anything on the record.”
Each week on the radio show, the band that Campbell was a part of would also back up a visiting artist each week – which would also prove to fuel his on-the-job education. “Most of the time we would have a guest band, and they wouldn’t even have charts. I have always wanted to play by ear, and even before playing on the show, I was classically trained, and had no experience ever playing with a band. I didn’t understand how chord structures worked. I learned a lot on the fly – on the air. You want to talk about flying by the seat of your pants, I had to learn quick!”
While he very well could have remained a big fish in Hickman County, Campbell knew the only way he would truly grow as an artist was to be among the best – in Nashville. “I had already been warned by a couple of my professors – ‘You might need to understand. You might not be the best anymore. You need to be ready for that, because if you’re not, it might be a rude awakening.’ At the same time, I was excited because I wanted someone to challenge me. There’s some great players here, and they push you to push yourself.”
Among his influences, he counts a trio of very essential artists. “George Strait is one of my favorites, and I also love Vince Gill and Randy Travis. They might not have invented singing, but they perfected it, and they taught me how to phrase and how to feel every word. You don’t just sing it to sing it. You know them the moment they come on the radio.” He wants that identifiable sound for himself. “A lot of people spend their whole lives trying to figure out who they are as a singer and as a vocalist – even a player. But, I think with all the history I have with music, I know what I like. I’m definitely more into the jazz world at college, but that’s to push myself and find my boundaries, then I go back and use those to find things that I wouldn’t hear on a country record without getting too far out of the box.”
In talking about the Belmont experience, he confesses that “It’s very much hands-on. Your professors don’t give you anything. They show you the right direction, and it’s your job to get out there and take it. They’re not going to feed it to you. My dad owns a small business back home in Centerville, and he told me ‘You got to get out there and take it. Find out what you do, and do it well.’”
Cambell’s EP kicks off with the energetic “She Drives My Truck,” which is a lyric he knows first-hand, though penning another truck song wasn’t on his bucket list. “I definitely am a truck guy. I actually sat out not to write a cliché-ridden truck song. One of the guys I write with had the idea, and I came up with the line in the chorus, ‘loaded down with the heart she stole,’ so I decided to give in a bit, but I put a lot of pedal steel and played piano on it. I really wanted not to let my voice get too poppy on it,” he said with a smile.
Another highlight from the set is “In Love With The Night,” of which he says, “That’s a very personal song about a relationship that I was in. The song took six or seven months to finish up because we couldn’t figure out how to develop the story. Even the choruses change on it, so we turned a couple of things around, but the basis of idea is still there. I don’t write about things I don’t know or haven’t been through. My friends can usually tell what or who the song is about if they pay attention.”
After living with his EP for a few weeks, Campbell feels he achieved what he wanted to do with his introductory project. “I wanted to do five different styles of country music that I enjoy, and have all of them link together. I started with a song that was more pop, then took it in a more traditional sound, and the last song shows a little rock influence. I really wanted to show some of the things that I can do, and see how it went over with my songwriting. I think that played a role in how they turned out. Hopefully, we can get some ears on it, and someone will take a liking to it.”
Two people that definitely are liking the project are his parents, who he says have been there all along. “My mom and dad are definitely big supporters. I think when I told them I wanted to record an album, they didn’t really believe me. So, when I handed them the final product, everyone was in tears. I don’t think they had any idea of what I had up my sleeve.”
And, he made his record his way. “I have a hand in every part of the process, every word, every note. I wanted it to be mine.”
Michael Grayson Campbell’s debut EP is available at iTunes.