There’s something about a comeback story that always seems to endear to human emotion. Craig Campbell began writing his on March 13, 2020, after releasing music for the first time in nearly two years, and for the first time in his career, as an independent artist. And as the ship that is country music has seen its course righted during that span, it was about damn time for Campbell to make his return.
However, to fully enjoy the comeback, it’s important to know the journey that led him to the triumph that is his comeback single “It’s About Time.” It’s important to know a kid who fell in love with playing piano, a teenager who set his sights on a music career, and a man who established himself as a true friend to the country music community with songs of family, faith and love.
Without great predecessors, that journey may not have had a chance to begin, and Campbell drew his inspiration from the artists that have since become not only legends in the genre, but artists who have sonically shaped a plethora of artists that have followed.
“I’m a product of the early 90s boom. 1989 to 1997 produced some of the best country music that we’ve ever had. I had the best teachers,” says Campbell. “If you listen to my music, you can hear Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Shenandoah and Randy Travis; that sound was very influential on me. When I was working on who I wanted to be and what I wanted to sound like, those are the guys I looked to.”
That initial love of listening to music soon spawned a love for playing it as well, with a path towards music seeming almost pre-determined as Campbell spent his early years playing his mother’s piano and singing in church.
“I tell people all the time that I didn’t choose music, music chose me. Playing the piano was something that I just gravitated to. I couldn’t walk by a piano without playing it. I was super intrigued by it,” says Campbell. “It made sense; I could sit down and play, and I knew I wanted to do it. Music was the only thing I felt like I was good at, so from there, I dove in headfirst.”
That dive, along with the validation of winning a singing competition, quickly led Campbell towards the realization that a career in music was a legitimate possibility.
“I entered a singing contest: the Jimmy Dean True Value Country Showdown, and I won. That was a huge turning point for me where I realized I could be on stage and sing country music, and people would clap, hoot and holler,” says Campbell. “I would finish up and people tell me how much they enjoyed it. It made me realize that I wanted to be on stage for the rest of my life.”
To do that, the logical next step for Campbell was Nashville, where he then spent several years as a demo singer and playing various stages on Broadway, all the while, setting fluid, attainable goals each step of the way.
“My goals when I got to Nashville were very achievable. When I first moved to town, I just wanted to play music and pay my bills. It didn’t matter which level it was at. The idea that I could play piano for other people and front my own gigs at the same time was what I wanted to do,” says Campbell. “Once that was happening, I had achieved what I came to achieve, and then my goals changed to wanting to write songs. When I did that, the goal was to be on the radio.”
As he continued to establish himself in Music City and hone his craft, Campbell landed jobs as keyboardist for Tracy Byrd and a then-unsigned Luke Bryan, who both provided him with valuable lessons that he was able to put into his arsenal.
“I learned a lot from those guys. From Tracy, I learned how to treat your fans. He was great with his fans, he was just a great singer. He sounds just like his records when you see him live, and that’s what I want people to know me for when they see my shows,” says Campbell. “When I played piano for Luke before he had his record deal, I knew he was going to do some big things. He was very special. I learned how to entertain. Even back then, he was a great entertainer. I sat back, played piano and took notes.”
Campbell’s path to the radio became more clear as the first decade of the 21st century came to a close. His solo performances in town drew the attention of not only music fans, but a representative from Bigger Picture Music Group, who eventually signed Campbell to his first record deal.
“I was playing The Stage for a few years, and there was a bartender there who was dating a guy in the business. She told him that he needed to come see me, so he had been coming on and off for about two years, and then one night, he came up to me and said he thought I was ready,” says Campbell. “He said they were about to start a company and that they wanted me to be a part of it. We met up, had some drinks, shook hands on it and the rest is history.”
One of the first perks of signing with Bigger Picture was the opportunity to work with producer Keith Stegall, who had produced some of the artists that Campbell lists as personal heroes, and taught him valuable lessons in the studio.
“Keith was my dream producer. If I could have picked one producer to produce my debut record, it would have been him,” says Campbell. “I learned that the process was not as complicated as a lot of people think. You can produce as much as you want to produce, but there’s this magical, organic thing that’s going to happen if the music is right, and I watched him allow that to happen with whole bunch of those songs. I learned to just let the music do what it’s going to do.”
In doing that, Campbell had a hand in writing nine of the eleven songs on his debut album, and was validated by the belief from both Stegall and the label in the songs that he had written.
“I had my whole life to write those songs. If we wanted people to know who Craig Campbell was, we needed to focus on the songs that I had written,” says Campbell. “For Keith and everybody to agree that those songs were as good as any of the other songs out there, that was a huge boost for me. It showed me that I was an artist and that I could stand on my own two feet.”
One of those songs that he had written, “Family Man,” made its way to country radio in July of 2010, allowing Campbell to realize his goal of hearing himself coming over the airwaves for the first time.
“I was riding down the road on my radio tour after my final visit of that day. We were coming from Atlanta, and we lost the Atlanta station because we had gotten too far, so we switched to the Chattanooga station, and it probably wasn’t even 10 minutes before ‘Family Man’ came on,” says Campbell. “We turned it up and started singing along like a bunch of idiots. It was an amazing moment.”
After many more spins on country radio, “Family Man” peaked at number 14 on the country music charts. Though the song wasn’t the “typical” debut single, Campbell and his team not only believed in the song, but believed it could be a hit.
“The chart success was huge, especially with an independent record company and having my very first song go top 15. It was a heartfelt, slower song; a lot of the characteristics of a debut single that normally wouldn’t do that well, but we believed in the song, and we knew that we had chosen the right debut single,” says Campbell. “We were very proud of it. We weren’t surprised because we all believed it was a hit song.”
After following up his debut single with “Fish” and “When I Get It,” which peaked at numbers 23 and 38, Campbell was tasked with matching and surpassing that success with his follow up record, Never Regret, released in May of 2013.
“There was a little bit of pressure, but I knew the songs were there,” says Campbell. “I knew ‘Outta My Head’ was a hit song, and ‘Keep Them Kisses Comin’ was a tempo love song, and you can never go wrong with those.”
Campbell’s belief proved true, as he reached numbers fifteen and nine on the charts with them. And though he was in the midst of his greatest chart success to date, Bigger Picture shut down, leaving him in a state of shock initially, which was soon overcome by the belief that he would be able to bounce back.
“For a few days, we were pretty deflated and there was a lot of wondering,” says Campbell. “After those initial few days, I knew that I didn’t have a plan B and that I had a hit song on the radio, and that I would be able to take that momentum with me as I was shopping for a new record label.”
Luckily, Campbell was right, and he didn’t have to wait long before signing with Broken Bow Records. That partnership produced “Outskirts of Heaven” in 2016, a song that has since touched millions of people and become his signature song to this point.
“When I wrote that song, I wrote it for myself, but then I started getting messages from people about how that song had touched them, and it made sense,” says Campbell. “I’m not surprised that people want to have comfort knowing that there’s more to life on the other side, no matter if it’s for themselves or for people that they’ve lost. They want to be comforted knowing that everything is going to be alright.”
The release of “Outskirts” in April of 2016 was Campbell’s last for more than two years. The release of 2018’s See You Try EP was the culmination of several different recording sessions, working with multiple producers and a label buyout.
“I had been recording songs for the entire three or four years that I was with Broken Bow, and we never did get to release all of them. I used to bunch of different producers, and I had been trying to put that music out for a long time, and it just never happened,” says Campbell. “When they were bought by BMG, they said we needed to put music out, and I said I’d been trying to do that for a while. The process was challenging, but once we decided it needed to happen, those songs are easy to pick.”
After the trying experience he had with the release of See You Try, Campbell and Broken Bow mutually decided to part ways. He was now without a record label for the first time in nearly a decade.
For many artists, that is where the story ends. For Campbell, it served as a new beginning.
The release of “It’s About Time” allowed Campbell to finally get the song, which was originally to be included on his third album for Bigger Picture, into the hands of his fans.
“I had that song in my back pocket for about five years before we released it, and I knew I wanted to release it as soon as I left Broken Bow,” says Campbell. “It had been almost two years since I had released music, and it was about time that I was doing what I wanted to do with it. It was the perfect song to release as my first independent single.”
Just two months later, Campbell made good on his promise to continue to steadily release music and avoid layoffs for his fans with “All My Friends Drink Beer,” another song that Campbell had in his back pocket, and one that allows him to showcase sonic diversity with its southern rocking sound.
“It was absolutely important to be diverse. That’s another song that was a couple of years old that we were finally able to put out on our own,” says Campbell. “We’d been playing that song live, and I could see the reaction from the fans. It’s a song that I get fired up about, and I knew my fans were fired up about it, so I knew I had to record it.”
As July began, so came another new release, “Flyin’ My Country Flag,” a song that feels like a personal anthem for Campbell as he continues to take the reins of his career.
“We were talking one day about how people were complaining about the state of country music and how it was too pop, and I was telling myself that I can’t do the pop-country sound,” says Campbell. “We said that we don’t have to worry about that because country music is coming back around, and I could just keep doing what I was doing. I said when that happens, I’ll still be right here flying my country flag, that’s how that song came about. The response has been great!”
With his first three independent singles, Campbell is not only playing piano on his music for the first time in his career, but he’s also serving as co-producer. It is that hands-on approach that Campbell says will give continuity to his music and will allow him to continue to make the music that he wants to make.
“It’s been great to be so hands-on. It’s my music, so why not co-produce it? Why not play piano? Nobody buys or streams music because they know Gordon Mote played piano on it,” Campbell says with a laugh. “I want there to be continuity in my music; those little nuances that are my fingerprints on these songs. I feel like that’s the way it should be, and that’s the way it should have been from day one. Now that I’m independent, I don’t have to ask permission, I can do it the way that I want to do it.”
It may have taken Campbell a decade to get to that point, but the lessons he’s learned along the way serve as a guide for what is sure to be a great step for him, and luckily, he’s still got the pen in his hand as he continues to write the next chapters of his comeback story.
“I’ve learned to be real. I’ve learned to stay in my lane, both musically and creatively,” says Campbell. “A lot has happened over these last 10 years, but I feel like my best is in front of me. I’m going to take everything that I’ve learned, put it in place and keep rockin’.”
*Feature image by Thaddaeus McAdams/Keep It Exclusive Photography*
***Craig’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country Playlist!***