Three years ago, country artist Craig Campbell had the kind of career setback that many artists fear most. In spring 2014, several months after the release of his second album, “Never Regret,” and as a single, “Keep them Kisses Comin’” was climbing the country charts, his label, Bigger Picture Records, closed its doors.
Campbell was suddenly an unsigned artist without the promotional support at radio and for touring that a record labels typically provide. It meant “Keep Them Kisses Comin’” would stall out before it could complete a potential march toward becoming his first No. 1 single. (The song did reach No. 9, thanks in large part to Campbell himself calling stations to urge them to keep playing his song despite his label’s demise.)
Any way one sliced it, Campbell’s future as a recording artist suddenly looked less certain.
But Campbell said he “felt good” about his prospects.
“When Bigger Picture closed, I had a song out that was my highest charting song I’d ever had,” he said. “So I knew that I had momentum. I had great relationships at radio and what not. So I didn’t panic too hard because I felt like I would find a (label) home pretty quick, and I did.”
Indeed, by December 2014 Campbell had signed to Red Bow Records (part of the Broken Bow group, whose roster includes Jason Aldean). He also got a boost when a song he co-wrote, “All American Kid,” was recorded by Garth Brooks and included on that country superstar’s new album, “Man Against Machine.”
What probably also helped Campbell was that he had been around the block on the country music scene.
Now 38, he had come to Nashville in his early 20s after working for a couple of years as a prison guard – first at a maximum-security prison and then a minimum-security facility.
“The department of corrections is a job that a lot of my family members were into,” Campbell said, explaining how he entered that line of work. “My stepdad, on the non-security side, he was a maintenance guy, doing maintenance over at the body shop, the auto shop. My uncle was head of security for the whole state. I was engaged and it was a good job, and I knew that if I wanted to get married, it would be a good thing to have a job like that just because it had great benefits and all that kind of stuff. After two years of that, I knew I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life. Music was too big, too strong.”
So Campbell set aside the job security of being a corrections officer and he and his wife headed to Nashville. There, he was able to carve out a living singing on demo recordings and working as a touring keyboardist, first for Luke Bryan and later Tracy Byrd.
One day, Campbell was having lunch with Bryan at Sonny’s Bar-B-Q in Nashville and he asked him for some career advice. Bryan told Campbell he should go write songs, work with co-writers and pursue a career as an artist.
Unbeknownst to Campbell, he had caught Bryan’s ear with his own singing and music well before joining his touring band as keyboardist.
“I think he just saw me playing down in Nashville on lower Broadway,” Campbell said. “I guess I made an impression. And then when I joined his band, he didn’t realize I was that same guy until we were doing sound check one day and I just started singing. And he’s like ‘Holy cow, you’re that guy I saw.’”
Bryan helped Campbell get things going.
“He was very instrumental in introducing me to a lot of people in Nashville and getting my foot in the door with just building and developing relationships with the Nashville songwriting community, publishers and producers and what not,” Campbell said of Bryan. “So he was a key factor in all that stuff. I mean, Luke’s helped me out a ton, and I’m very, very thankful for that.”
Since then, Campbell has been making a lot of his own luck. He got his deal with Bigger Picture and released his self-titled debut album in 2011. It gave him his first top 15 single in “Family Man” and a top 25 song in “Fish.”
“Never Regret” followed two years later, adding top 15 hit in “Outta My Head” and “Keep Them Kisses Comin’” to Campbell’s collection of singles before he was briefly sidetracked by Bigger Picture’s demise.
Since signing with Red Bow, Campbell has done a good deal of touring and songwriting and released two singles, “Tomorrow Tonight” and the strikingly personal ballad “Outskirts of Heaven,” which cracked the top 25 on “Billboard” magazine’s Country Airplay chart.
Campbell said he and Red Bow plan to release a third single, but they want that single (or possibly a subsequent single) to catch on at radio before releasing a third album.
“That’s the immediate goal. I’m not really worried about putting new music out until I get a new song out,” Campbell said. “If you ask me do I have product? Yeah, I’m ready to go. I’m sitting on a great album. But we’ve just got to make sure we do it right.”
Campbell said the new album, like his first two releases, will draw strongly from traditional country, but also have energetic songs meant to get crowds revved up at his concerts. Fans can expect that kind of musical mix from Campbell on his fall headlining dates, as he’ll play songs from his first two albums, some new tunes and a few covers
“The show’s good,” Campbell said. “We play country music. We don’t apologize for it. What we do is what we are and we’re proud of it. The bottom line is we have a good time. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what I try to do every time I step on stage.”