Knox ex-pats make in-roads in the Music City
by Mike Gibson
Interstate 40 has seen more than a few promising local musicians migrate westward to the more industry-friendly climes of Music City in recent years. Few, however, have more potentialalbeit mostly unheraldedthan singer-songwriter Mark Campbell, whose Nearly Beloved returns next Friday for an engagement at Manhattan's in the Old City.
Campbell, a former Longbranch Saloon tapmeister, played for the better part of two years in Boondocks, a local combo that melded Gram Parsons-esque roots rock songcraft with jam-band simpatico, before moving on to a series of short-lived projects that showcased his simple but plaintive tunesmithery. Now, having moved his base of operations to Nashville, he hopes to expose his musical wares to a broader audience, and perhaps catch the ear of some sympathetic A&R denizen.
"Last summer marked my 30th birthday, and that made me decide to move," says Campbell, speaking from his West Nashville apartment. "I was afraid if I didn't move then, I'd get stuck in the mud. There's industry here, record people, players, the whole nine yards. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss Knoxville, but Nashville is pretty cool."
Although Campbell is principal songwriter for Nearly Beloved, he is joined by an able trio of fellow former Knoxvillians in drummer Kevin Trotter (formerly of Boogie Disease, the Dirtclods, Shinola), bassist Matt Fuller (the Ghosts, Flesh Vehicle), and guitarist/lap steel player Bob Ocker (a protégé of Knox expat Brian Waldschlager).
Together, the quartet create a brand of hummable Americana that falls at that fertile midpoint between nouveau country honky-tonk and Replacements-esque power pop.
"It's less country-based than a lot of the stuff I did in Knoxville," Campbell explains. "It's still Americana, but more on the Wilco tip. The songs are shorter; we're shooting for a radio-friendly thing. The rootsy thing is definitely there, but there's also some stuff like Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub. We're on the 'rock' side of rockin' country.
"We're not trying to be clever; I got over that a long time ago. We want to be accessible on as many levels as possible. Being clever has ruined a lot of good musicians."
The band has just released its inaugural five-song EP, a self-titled effort available in both Nashville and Knoxville. Nearly Beloved displays some saddleworn but catchy roots-pop, much of it reminiscent of Paul Westerberg's solo material. The songcraft is offset nicely by Campbell's fetchingly tattered croon, and by some fine ensemble playing. Ocker's axemanship in particular, though integrated nicely into the fabric of the songs, stands out for its sheer blues-approved taste and facility. "Bob adds a whole new dimension to what we do," Campbell enthuses. "He's all over the place."
The move west has already paid dividends for Campbell and co.; with Trotter and Ocker both having done session work around Nashville, Nearly Beloved was able to land producer Richie Owens to oversee its debut. A cousin of Sevierville native Dolly Parton and a veteran of studio efforts by the Georgia Satellites and Jason and the Scorchers, Owens agreed to produce the Beloved CD for no cost.
"He saved us a lot of bread that we didn't have," Campbell says. "He's kind of a good ol' boy from Sevierville, and he was like, 'I want to help out anyone from East Tennessee.'
"What's been great for me is that this is the music I've always wanted to do, but never had the right people to do it with. It's finally starting to sound like it always has in my head. When Kevin and I were mixing down the tracks and hearing the whole thing come together, our eyes were wide open. We were breathing heavy; we had goosebumps."
Campbell has hopes that the EP will turn a profit and finance the demos and press kits necessary to further the Beloved cause. In the meantime, the band will play sporadic gigs in both cities and try to scrape up enough coin to keep itself afloat. Seeking one's fortune in Music City, its seems, does have its drawbacks.
"Everyone's broke as shit," Campbell says with a hearty laugh. "I'm having a great time, but I've never been this poor in my life."