Nettwerk recording artist Shelley Campbell (formerly Auburn) conjures images of life on the road & lost love with her unique blend of atmospheric pop, traditional country & beyond.
Forget about the music, at least for now. Instead, find the heart of Shelley Campbell through pictures lifted from her past.
Image 1: A high hilltop. Pleistocene fossils and arrowheads in the earth underfoot. A vast blue sky overhead. Off toward one horizon, Toronto's twinkling skyline. In the other direction, the furious mists and rainbows of Niagara Falls. Between the two, deer bound over the farmland.
Image 2: A young girl joins in singing old time gospel songs with the shirt-sleeved worshippers, their hands raised, swaying back and forth. Lanterns burn in the summer night. The young girl's father smiling approvingly.
Image 3: Black coffee. Scribbled notebooks. George Jones on the jukebox. Waitresses weave through tables, serving food and comfort to the truckers. Outside, diesels roar into the fathomless distance.
Image 4: An afternoon alone. The girl is a young woman now, stretched across her bed, praying in the way of someone who is weary of prayer, asking for a way out. At the same time, not far away, someone she doesn't yet know decides he needs to find a singer for his band.
Autumn festivals around Indian campfires. Deep burgundy hair and granny glasses in a sea of square-cut Bible students. Days spent chasing the American Dream, nights passed sleeping in her car. Each image is a moment from Shelley Campbell's life -- a life that plays through her remarkable Nettwerk debut, Blue Ridge Reveille. Now you're ready to listen.
If you've spent any time in Vancouver, you've probably encountered the fruits of her creative labor. For several years she has been at the center of the city's RANCH Society, a collective of artists gathered largely under her initiative to celebrate the virtues of what some call Americana music. Bands like Radiogram, the Buttless Chaps, and Circus in Flames mingled at RANCH events, played at each other's gigs, recorded together, all to everyone's benefit. Blue Ridge Reveille is in part a product of these activities. Recorded in Shelley's living room, it's an album that's easy on the ears yet grows richer and deeper with each repeated play. Surrounded by RANCH colleagues from Bottleneck, Bughouse 5, Coal, and Bocephus King and the Rigalattos, Shelley sings with hypnotic eloquence. The music mixes alt rock and country; banjo, harmonica, and harmonium weave around a guitar's electric blue twang. Each song stretches out like a highway that runs from memory to possibility. It's easy to imagine Shelley at the mic, eyes closed, letting each one take her back to the episode that first moved her to write it. She began absorbing the lessons of life in rural southern Ontario. Her parents encouraged her to explore the woods and fields outside their home. But they also immersed her in Native American culture and evangelical Christianity, a contradictory baptism that owed to her father's missionary work. Together they would visit the Mohawk nation, where he was known by his honorary chief name (in English "enlightener"). Like his father before him (and generations before, their relative and famed missionary David Livingstone), Shelley's father worked in rural Tennessee as well, adding to the musical influences Shelley was exposed to including gospel, soul and African influences. They spent time together at revival meetings, where her father's preaching, the worshippers' responses, and her own performances exposed Shelley to a different kind of spirituality. "I was there as The Child," she laughs. "I came to appreciate the emotions I saw. But I've always been drawn to a more universal acceptance of people instead of making them feel guilty. I'm not putting down anybody's beliefs, but mine come more from wonder at the individual journey and the ties that bind us all. And one of the ways that I learned to celebrate this connectedness is through music." What she heard was as strange as what she experienced in those days. In addition to exposing Shelley to some unusual scenarios in her upbringing, her father introduced her to music seldom heard on pop radio. "His record collection was interesting, to say the least," she says. "He'd play The Sounds of Algonquin Park -- birds and nature. Then he'd put on some Native American drumming and chanting. Then he'd play something like Johnny Cash. I heard bluegrass, gospel, hillbilly music and when we weren't playing records or singing together, there was classical music on the CBC." Eventually Shelley started doing gigs, at first with one of her sisters in coffeehouses. Although she had been writing verse throughout her teens it didn't occur to her to set it to music until she was eighteen. But by that time she had already spent a year in Virginia at perhaps the last school you might expect her to have attended -- Liberty University, over which the Rev. Jerry Falwell presided. "My dad being an evangelist, he had connections there," she explains, "and I saw it as a chance to get out on my own. Of course, once I got there I felt completely alienated. I looked like a gypsy/flapper, which definitely made me not fit in. I found some kindred spirits who would rather wear vintage clothes and shop in thrift stores than bleach their hair blond and look like Miss America. And we found solace by hanging out together as much as possible." Inevitably, Shelley followed her muse away from the squeaky-clean campus and out onto the highway in search of enlightenment. Armed with a tape recorder, a copy of On the Road, and a guitar, she made her way through the heartland. "I spent time with the homeless, interviewed people in the street -- and what I found was that many of these people had a stronger sense of home amongst themselves than the ones who felt that they had achieved the American Dream. "Truckers were one example," she points out. "They're a culture unto themselves. In truck stops I could hear the engines outside, and inside the waitresses would connect with these gruff-looking characters in a way that said, 'You're home right now.' There was this combination of motion and stillness -- and for some reason it felt like country music. I found it all inspiring."
Shelley's wanderings led her back to Ontario, where she began putting what she'd seen to music and getting involved with experimental theater and music circles. After a while, restless again, she left for the far west to join her brother and a sister in Vancouver, where she started busking in the streets, in a Django jazz style she had inherited through gypsy traces in her mother's blood. Before long the routine lost its allure; for the first time she felt as if her ship had beached and the world's currents were rushing past without her. "So this one night I lay on my bed, opened myself to the universe, and said, 'Take me to the next level,'" she says. "And within a couple of days I was performing in front of thousands of people at the Regina Folk Festival " Fortune had led Allen Dobb to Shelley, whom he invited to join his band Dobb and Dumela. Over the next several years she would tour with them as they opened for Ziggy Marley, headlined at the Smithers Midsummer Festival, and played to standing ovations at the Winnipeg, Mariposa, Calgary, Bumbershoot, and other high-profile events. "It was a great experience," she says, "but it taught me that what I really wanted to do was to lead a band and pursue my own music." And so in 1996 she made her way back to Vancouver, whose vibrant artistic subculture inspired her to launch the RANCH Society. Roots Allied Network Community Hosts, the organization became an umbrella under which musicians could help each other find work, write songs, get together for shows, and provide shelter for like-minded performers passing through town. She also drew from RANCH's resource to record her first CD, Misfit Café, which she released under the name Auburn in 1999. Produced by Cecil English, whose previous credits include D.O.A., Jello Biafra, and nomeansno, the album exposed a harder-edged, sassier side to Campbell, one that was consistent with the gritty romance of her material. In November that same year Shelley began to record Blue Ridge Reveille, this one produced by Jon Wood (Flophouse Jr.). She previewed it with an EP, Is It You?, in 2001; someone in the RANCH family burned copies one by one at home for local journalists and friends. But when the complete album was released independently in 2002 the regional media gave it immediate attention. The Vancouver Sun extolled her "achingly beautiful ... lucid, worldly lyrics, sweet drawl, and fine performance." Canada.com called it "a revelation ... straightforward and joyful." To Georgia Straight it was "as quietly beautiful as an untouched stand of Georgia pine." Ripples of interest lapped in as well from abroad, as a reviewer for Americana-uk.com promised that Blue Ridge Reveille "will be around for some time to come in this household." Nettwerk took notice too. In fact, its version of Blue Ridge Reveille improves on the indie release. In reviewing the original CD for comeswithasmile.com, Tom Sheriff tempered his rave with a complaint that the "sublime duet" version of "Is It You?" that Campbell had recorded with Radiogram's Ken Beattie for the EP had been omitted. Sheriff can rest easy now; this standout performance now takes its place as the album's last track. So the pieces have fallen into place, and Shelley seems to be ready for another adventure. Doubtless she will be "discovered" by new audiences, surprise critics and win fans in places she once visited as a pilgrim of sorts just a few years ago. But no matter where the music takes her, she won't travel alone. Her search for unity with the limitless world continues as before -- only the songs have changed, with new ones waiting to be born from communions yet to come. "Drivin' You" appears on the soundtrack to Showtime's "The L Word" as well on the forthcoming bluegrass compilation "The Grass is Always Bluer." "My music comes from the land," she insists. "And it comes from the cities. All genres and all forms have gone into it. I know people like to make comparisons, so I'll let them decide for themselves how to hear what I do. All I can do is keep it simple and let the music speak for itself." Blue Ridge Reveille is sounding. Time to wake up.
For further information please contact Monica Seide at Nettwerk America (310/855-0643 or via e-mail: Monica@Nettwerk.com).
that tells a story all its own,
"...enchanting and meticulously crafted..." - Queue, Van. Sun
"****/5 stars" - The Calgary Sun AND The Province
strong, the album is loaded with that intangible quality