Shawn Camp has one of those stories you don’t often hear in the music industry.
It involves a record locked away in a vault, a coincidental meeting and a second chance, and ends with the long-delayed release of Camp’s second major label album, now titled 1994. How long? Try 16 years.
“I’ve kind of always thought it would come out someday again,” Camp said. “I figured I was either going to have to die or have a hit before it did. But I do feel like I’ve been locked up in the pen for a crime I didn’t commit. Now I’m being set free.”
The Arkansas native’s crime was making an album that was out of step with the times. Camp had a collection of heartfelt and earnest Americana at a time when line dancing was a cultural phenomenon.
He made one concession to the times, offering a honky-tonk mix on the album’s first track, Near Mrs., but wasn’t willing to make any more concessions to Jim Ed Norman, then-president of Warner Bros. Camp called Norman “a sweet guy” and said their discussions were amicable. Neither would bend.
“In hindsight, I should’ve tried to work it out probably with Warner Bros. because they’re a great company,” Camp said. “I just couldn’t do it. I was too happy with what we had at the moment.”
So the record went into the vault.
Flash forward 16 years and Camp happens into a guitar jam with John Esposito, new president of Warner Music Nashville. Over the years Camp has become a celebrated songwriter with No. 1 hits for Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn.
But he’s also lived a parallel life that included four albums released on his own label, Skeeterbit Records, which he jokes he runs out of his laundry room, and growing respect as a picker for hire. The two hit it off and Camp mentioned that lost album to his new friend.
Esposito pulled the tapes and listened. He found a record that was always interesting and at times even moving.
In a way, it’s a snapshot of the times with vocals from Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Quartet and performances by go-to sidemen like John Hughey on pedal steel, Roy Huskey Jr. on standup bass, Bobby Hicks on fiddle and James Burton on electric guitar. It also included Cow Catcher Blues, the first in a long and fruitful songwriting relationship with Guy Clark.
Esposito loved what he heard and decided that not only would he release 1994, he also would re-release Camp’s self-titled debut, which had been out of print for more than a decade.
The company will market the albums and has set a modest sales goal. In the end, though, Esposito says the decision to put out the albums really wasn’t about the bottom line.
The decision earned Esposito immediate street cred in Nashville.
“The love in this community for Shawn Camp I’ve learned over the year I’ve been here is incredible,” Esposito said. “People are high-fiving us all over the place because we’re putting this out.”
It also got him to thinking what else might be hidden back there in the vault. So he went on a search. He said he had tapes from Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, and artists like Victoria Shaw, Mark Nesler, Iris Dement, Ilse DeLange and Bob DiPiero stacked on his desk.
“If this works we may have a ‘lost tapes’ series. Why not?” Esposito asked. “It doesn’t have to all be about getting to platinum. Of course, we’d like a few of those to pay the bills but we love great music and people ought to hear great music.”