Elkton, Md., songwriter discusses his family’s musical heritage and what could be the best (unheard) country album of the year
Strike up a conversation with Zane Campbell, and stories almost too unbelievable to tell are sure to emerge.
The 57-year-old resident of Elkton, Md., talks fast and vigorously, a deep belly laugh punctuating nearly every sentence. He’s candid and frank when discussing his life – not too shy to talk about his bouts with alcoholism, drug use and psychological problems.
He’s quick to talk about his family’s musical legacy – people like his great uncle Guy Brooks, who played in the late ’20s with the North Carolina string band The Red Fox Chasers and recorded what is considered to be the earliest trucker song, “Wreck on the Mountain Road.”
Campbell also discusses his successes and misses as he approaches 40 years in the music business, crafting more than 2,000 songs in the form of illustrated manuscripts (he calls himself an “obsessive compulsive songwriter”) and serendipitous musical interactions with everyone from banjo impresario Bela Fleck to punk rock legend Tommy Ramone.
“I’ve had such a funny and colorful anti-career,” Campbell laughs. “I certainly wouldn’t have not done it – so many slapstick things and funny little colorful things that have happened along the way that were a pleasure to endure.”
LIFE IN THE BIG APPLE
Campbell’s musical journey began in the late-70s after he dropped out of the University of Maryland and moved to New York City. He took up residence for a time in a boarding house in Manhattan where he worked as a janitor. He chronicled his experiences in a published comic called The Alcoholic Janitor.
He was infamously banned from a Saturday Night Live after-party in 1978 when he got drunk and had an argument with John Belushi and James Taylor, smashing a champagne bottle in the street. He got banned from coffee houses for playing too loud (even though he was playing an acoustic guitar). He was placed in the psychiatric wing of Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem after threatening suicide following a mix of alcohol and pills.
“I lived in New York for 20 years, and it’s a wonder I got out of there alive,” Campbell says. “I ended up in psych wards, I ended up in hospitals, broken legs – all drink-related stuff.
“Ever wonder why I have so many drinking songs?” Campbell adds with a laugh.
However, not all was bad for Campbell in New York. There was the recording session with his rock band, Hard Facts, by legendary producer and musician, Tommy Ramone, who had just finished producing the classic Replacements’ album, Tim, in 1985. (Campbell tells me the album was never released and is “in someone’s basement in Brooklyn, probably getting moldy.”)
There was also the time in the early ’90s when banjo great Bela Fleck came in the studio to record banjo tracks over two of Campbell’s songs even though Campbell had no idea who he was. (Those tracks, too, have gone unreleased.)
Perhaps Campbell’s biggest career success came when his song “Post Mortem Bar,” – a powerful anthem that deals with the death of a loved one and was prominently featured in the 1990 Academy Award-nominated film Longtime Companion, which was the first major Hollywood film to deal with the AIDS epidemic.
He was also a fixture in the anti-folk movement that developed in the East Village of New York in the 1980s, with Campbell saying the scene “were all the weirdos who were not the normal folkies” of the West Village – musicians like Beck and the enigmatic Lach.
“If you couldn’t fit in anywhere else in the music scene in New York, then you went to the anti-folk scene,” Campbell says. “All the weirdos would get together, and anybody could play. The point was you did your own weird-ass music.”
HIS FIRST ALBUM
Campbell’s career hit a milestone earlier this year – a moment nearly five decades in the making.
With the help of Baltimore-based writer and filmmaker Travis Kitchens, Campbell released his first official solo album of his career in February. Carrying the sounds of folk and old-time country, the minimalist masterpiece of Americana features Campbell on guitar and vocals, along with fellow Maryland musicians Walker Teret on upright bass, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar and Anna Roberts-Gevalt on fiddle. No percussion is used – a tip of the hat to old-timey music.
“People get in the studio and say, ‘Less is more,’ but then they never do it and just give it lip service,” Campbell says. “Well, this album really is that – banjo, fiddle, guitar and vocals, nothing else. You can’t get much less.”
The self-titled album includes old and new songs spanning Campbell’s career, including a new recording of his song “Post Mortem Bar,” and his own cover of the song “High On a Mountain,” which was written by his aunt Ola Belle Reed – one of the most well-known progenitors of Appalachian string music in the 20th century. The famous song has been sung by everyone from Del McCoury to Marty Stuart.
The album also includes the overtly confessional track, “Fess Up,” with lyrics like, “Places I’ve gone/People don’t come back alive/And the things I have done/Half of them I’m going to deny.”
One of the most poignant moments is Campbell’s song “Bringing the Boys Home” – a true story about his brother who was tasked with escorting the bodies of fallen soldiers to their families during the Vietnam War. The song is performed by Campbell in a classic Johnny Cash-style, reading most of the lyrics, similar to “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
“You hear a song like [“Bring the Boys Home”], and you wonder, ‘God, that guy’s got a vivid imagination,’” Campbell laughs. “But it’s no imagination – that’s what happened.”
Although still an underground release on Emperor Records in Baltimore, the self-titled album has received high praise from the likes of NPR Music journalist Lars Gotrich, who called it “the rawest country album I’ve heard in a while.” Campbell says he’s also heard some “outrageous responses” to the album, including a producer from PBS who supposedly called it “a revelation.”
Not quite sure what to make of the praise, Campbell says the album is a throwback to a different era, with lyrics that are easy to understand and relate to – something he was striving for while recording.
“I’m almost 60 and have basically been a failure my entire life,” Campbell laughs. “So if somebody does like [the album], I go with it. It is a revelation.”
Now with the release last month of the book Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music On the Mason-Dixon Line, Campbell may be set to garner some more well-deserved accolades. Published by Dust-to-Digital press, the book revolves around the story of Campbell’s aunt Ola Belle.
The story traces the timeline of how Southern music migrated during the Great Depression from places like Ashe County, NC, up to and across the Mason-Dixon Line via out-of-work farmers from Appalachia, mutating into its own sound.
Reed and her brother, Alex Campbell (Zane’s uncle), are credited with helping to introduce bluegrass and Appalachian music to the Northeast through their radio show, Campbell’s Corner, which aired on WASA in Havre de Grace, Md, and later on WCOJ in Coatesville.
The 256-page book is filled with stories and photos of the people and places that made the music scene in northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania a unique melting pot and incubator for musicians, featuring information about the McCoury family in southern York County and a section about Rainbow Park – a music venue Reed started in southern Lancaster County in 1950, which hosted the likes of everyone from Hank Williams to The Stanley Brothers.
Cliff Murphy, a program director for the Maryland State Arts Council and a co-author of the book, got in contact with Zane and his brother, Hugh, to include them in the project. Half a chapter of the book is dedicated to Zane and Hugh, talking about building on the songwriting traditions of their famous ancestors.
The book also features two CDs – one composed of remastered songs by Reed, and another with covers of Reed’s songs and other tunes by her family members. Campbell’s song, “Family Graveyard,” is included and consists of lyrics that talk about long-passed family members like his favorite uncle, Miles (after whom his son is named) and his great uncle Jim, who shot and killed an in-law in a drunken fight and eventually drank himself to death with whiskey (calling it his “medicine”). Campbell includes his own confessional lyric in the song, discussing his own bouts with alcohol – “That medicine almost killed me, too.”
Campbell, a skilled artist and illustrator, also has some of his artwork featured in the book, including a portrait of his aunt Ola Belle painted on the back of a banjo and a realistic pencil drawing from when he was 12 years old of Tom Moore – the gravedigger in his childhood home of North East, Md. Hugh’s song, “Footprints Left Below,” which tells the story of Moore, is also included on the album.
“I’m bragging, if you haven’t noticed. I don’t know if you’re attuned to that,” Campbell laughs. “I bring (the book) to my AA meetings, take it out and go, ‘Hey, you, drunk over there – look at this. That’s me.’”
Listen to Zane Campbell’s self-titled album on Bandcamp.com. You can also catch him performing at occasional Friday open mic nights at Gracie’s Cafe or sitting at his art and antique store, Childs Store – both located just over the border in Elkton, Md. Campbell also has a full-band show slated for The Ottobar in Baltimore on October 8, and his brother, Hugh, is participating in a special free concert celebrating the music of Ola Belle Reed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on September 9, followed by a symposium on Reed on September 10.