The Man Who Would Save Country Music

The hard life and overlooked brilliance of Zane Campbell

The Man Who Would Save Country Music

The hard life and overlooked brilliance of Zane Campbell
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Photos by Pete Marovich

In 2012, Travis Kitchens, a young writer and filmmaker from Baltimore, made a pilgrimage to the far northeastern corner of Maryland. He had heard stories about an eccentric musician and artist named Zane Campbell from up that way. People talked about a “hillbilly madman,” a punk version of outlaw country-singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and the product of DNA that contained the entire life span of country music. Adding to the mystery, Campbell was a recluse, rarely playing shows and, in fact, rarely leaving his house.

Kitchens, who at the time wrote a monthly column about country music for the Baltimore City Paper, decided to track Campbell down. He found him in Elkton, a town of just under 16,000 off Interstate 95, where the local newspaper, the Cecil Whig, is named for a political party that died before the Civil War. Kitchens went to see Campbell perform in his semiregular gig. It was at a nursing home, a few blocks from Campbell’s house.

These shows were afternoon-long marathons, the nursing facility’s paid entertainment the first Tuesday of every month. In the rec room, two dozen residents, most in wheelchairs, were the audience. Sitting on a stool without a microphone, Campbell, then 54, played his guitar and sang covers from the golden age of country: Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and Merle Haggard and George Jones and Jimmy Martin and Johnny Cash, along with curveball stuff like Sly Stone.

The featured entertainer was a fearsome sight in this sedate setting. He sang with a gaptoothed sneer, hunched over a potbelly spilling out of a too-small Goodwill plaid shirt, stomping his cowboy boots as he bashed the strings on his beat-up Martin guitar. He was loaded on Adderall and drenched in sweat, mopping himself down after every song with a roll of paper towels. “He was totally wired,” recalls Kitchens. “Every song was a super-intense, dramatic performance.”

Beyond the sheer force of Campbell’s presence, there was also his remarkable vocal range. Kitchens had grown up with a Vietnam vet father playing classic country records around the house in Owensboro, Ky. What he was hearing in Elkton weren’t just tasteful cover versions but masterful interpretations of the country-and-western canon that rivaled the originals. “I’d never heard anybody sing with that kind of command,” Kitchens says, “and with all the inflections and nuance in his voice tones and the crazy notes he was hitting, from a growl to a tremble. He sounded like a mountain opera singer.”

Campbell played several sets that kept Kitchens and the residents — among them Campbell’s 90-year-old mother, Eva, and his Aunt Darthula — riveted. He included weepers like Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” a favorite with the audience that often spurred lonely hearts to do just that. The familiar songs meant a lot to these folks. But the music clearly meant just as much to Campbell himself. This wasn’t oldies nostalgia but a form of catharsis. It made Kitchens an instant convert. “I was thinking, ‘Here’s the best country singer in Maryland or anywhere else at a godd— nursing home in Cecil County.’ ”

To Kitchens, Campbell was the kind of artist who could save country music from what he felt it had become: heartland consumerism run amok. But if that was even possible, Kitchens, as he was about to learn, would first have to save Campbell from himself.

Country singer-songwriter Zane Campbell and his guitar at his home in Elkton, Md.
Country singer-songwriter Zane Campbell and his guitar at his home in Elkton, Md.

I met Zane Campbell three years ago. I wanted to learn more about the force behind the best country album I’d heard in years — a low-budget CD released on an unknown label, homemade and visionary and raw with just enough varnish to brighten its inner darkness, like a modern-day William Blake singing bare-bones, hardcore country. I knew this was something special, and I confirmed it with friends who’d had a similar epiphany. (Full disclosure: I ended up writing the liner notes for Zane’s 2017 album “Ola Wave.” My compensation was a few beers and copies of the CD.)

I went to Campbell’s house in Elkton to pay my respects, but I soon realized that the album, much less himself, was the last thing he wanted to talk about. Instead, he regaled me with anecdotes and allusions about his heroes and influences, many of them from his family tree. In person, he is a natural raconteur with the edge of a shock jock. He tells self-deprecating, off-color stories about himself and his family, punctuated by maniacal laughing jags. He often breaks into song, belting out snatches of his hundreds of lyrics, some decades old, some written yesterday.

He told me his songwriting models came not so much from classic country but from the Classics: “I love Ulysses. Have you heard the ‘Ballad of the Joking Jesus’ from Ulysses? I set that to country music. You can’t get higher on the food chain in literature than James Joyce.” He talked about his favorite medieval poets, like François Villon, and he went on a tirade against “Hee Haw,” the country-music variety TV show, for the way he says it made a travesty of the rural Southern culture he came from. “I watched it growing up, but I hated it,” he told me. “It made country music into a joke. But the early country performers had dignity; they took their music seriously.”

Campbell was not always such a purist. In his younger years, he was too busy with his own fledgling music career to spend time or energy defending the honor of country music. He had dropped out of the University of Maryland and headed to Manhattan during the late ’70s — the tail end of punk rock — to join a band. He went on to lead several, including Satan’s Slaves and the Dry Drunks, among other ill-fated outfits. By the mid-’80s, his group Hard Facts had a loyal following and garnered the attention of Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone, who happened to be a serious aficionado of bluegrass and mountain music. Ramone produced the Hard Facts’ second album, accepting a single joint as full compensation, according to Campbell. (Ramone, real name Thomas Erdelyi, died in 2014.)

During the recording session, Ramone was floored when he found out that Ola Belle Reed, a legendary old-time performer, was Campbell’s aunt. She had been a star in the ’50s and ’60s in the borderlands of northeastern Maryland and Southern Pennsylvania. Ola Belle was also a lifelong contrarian. She once turned down an offer to join the band of performer and promoter Roy Acuff, known as the King of Country Music during the postwar era, saying, “I wasn’t taking orders from no man.”

When Ramone found out Campbell had some Ola Belle records at his Greenwich Village apartment, they decamped there for a listening party. The wowed Ramone later started his own old-timey bluegrass hybrid band, Uncle Monk. For Campbell, it was an epiphany to hear a godfather of the punk scene rhapsodize about Ola Belle and her music. It gave him a newfound appreciation of the musical heritage he had taken for granted. He began to include his aunt’s songs in the band’s repertoire, including “High on a Mountain,” Ola Belle’s aching ode to an unnamed lost love and to the Blue Ridge Mountains she left behind as a girl. (It’s been recorded by the likes of Del McCoury, Marty Stuart and alt-country band the Blood Oranges, among many others.) Campbell started to write songs in the family tradition and tried to peddle them in Nashville, where he recorded a “technobilly” album with synth-bass and drum machines and a cameo by Béla Fleck on banjo. Even so, he says his goal was always to shine in the New York downtown scene where eccentrics could find a foothold.

“It was a great experience,” he says of his immersion in the bohemian demimonde of artists, writers and musicians. “I honed my craft and read a lot of old poetry to improve my lyrics. It was stimulating to be around other songwriters. It was a healthy competition to try to one-up everybody and write better songs.”

Campbell in New York. (Photo album page courtesy of Zane Campbell)

In 1990, his career seemed to be finally taking off. His song “Post Mortem Bar” was included on the soundtrack for “Longtime Companion,” considered the first mainstream American movie about the AIDS epidemic. Then instead of seizing his first big break, he self-destructed into drink and drugs. Through it all, he hung on to his music like a life raft, often as a solo act that gained him notoriety in the New York scene. He was a fixture at the Fort, a club on the Lower East Side run by anti-folk artist Lach. (The anti-folk contingent, which basically specialized in punk-rock lyrics set to acoustic music in an anger-fueled alliance, saw many misfits pass through its ranks, including a young Beck Hansen.) “Lach’s sidekick is Zane Campbell, a darkly handsome singer-songwriter,” explained New York magazine in September 1994. “He shares with Lach both antisocial tendencies and career misfires.”

Campbell’s oversized vocals and aggressive showmanship often sabotaged what few paying gigs he could muster. The New York magazine article noted that he was banned from performing at a Lower East Side coffee shop for being “too loud,” but Campbell thought the audience just didn’t like the song he was singing, “Crystal Meth.”

He had a final “crack up,” as he puts it, when he set fire to the boardinghouse where he lived and ended up in a psych ward in Harlem. “I OD’ed on New York,” he says simply. By the close of the ’90s, he was back in Elkton trying to dry out, his time in the wilderness only just beginning.

As Campbell’s career was tanking, Garth Brooks was ushering in a slick, pop-friendly sound that rules country radio to this day. Now, as Campbell makes another run at commercial success, he is at war with what he sees as the Nashville pretty boys with their cowboy hats and their affected Dixie-fied drawls and assembly-line songs of empty-headed hedonism. “They’ve got these fake Southern accents they use when they sing, and then you hear them talk and they’re from places like Australia, like Keith Urban,” he says. (Urban was born in New Zealand.) “They have no roots in the music; it’s just showbiz.” Naturally, Campbell’s got a song about these poseurs: “If You Ain’t From the South, Why Don’t You Tell Your Mouth.”

Campbell performs at a country store outside Elkton that he helped his brother Hugh renovate.
Campbell performs at a country store outside Elkton that he helped his brother Hugh renovate.

July 2017. Onstage at Hill Country Barbecue in downtown Washington, Campbell tells the crowd he has a bone to pick with his Aunt Ola Belle. She’s been dead for 15 years, he explains, so he wrote a song to tell her ghost exactly how he feels, called “Ola Wave.” It’s the title track of his recent tribute album to her.

The few dozen tourists and locals in the room look up from their beers. The rumpled, cranky singer has their attention. Family was once a bread-and-butter subject in country music. In recent years, though, the songs are more about six-packs and monster trucks and Walmart honeys. Now here’s this guy talking about some hillbilly feminist kin of his who used to play at music festivals and tell dirty jokes to earnest folkies.

She was born Ola Wave Campbell in North Carolina in a remote area deep in the Blue Ridge known as the Lost Provinces. During the Depression, she and her family migrated to the low country above the Chesapeake Bay along the Mason-Dixon Line. Some of the Campbells ended up on the Pennsylvania side and some on the Maryland side, in North East, Rising Sun and Pleasant Hill, near Elkton. Most, like Campbell’s dad, were grocery store owners. Music was one of the things the family brought north, and Ola was soon playing in a hillbilly band and hosting a radio show. In 1949, she married Bud Reed, and along with Ola’s brother Alex, they formed the house band at New River Ranch, a country-music park that they operated on Octoraro Creek near their home in Rising Sun. At some point, she changed her middle name to Belle, after 1930s country star Lulu Belle, to further her budding career. For the rest of her life, she was known as Ola Belle Reed. Her mantra had always been “No matter what, don’t sell out.” So, it stung Campbell that a die-hard maverick like her had felt the need to up her commercial appeal.

“I understand why she did it,” he says. “She thought Ola Wave would sound weird to people. But I love it. I think it’s beautiful. It tells you who she really was and where she came from.”

In the rendition of “Ola Wave” that Campbell performs at Hill Country Barbecue, he plays acoustic guitar and sings, as Walker Teret, a veteran Baltimore musician, backs him up on five-string banjo. It’s the same basic setup that mountain performers have used for centuries, singing about love and murder and everyday trouble and, now, about reclaiming a dead aunt’s rightful birth name.

You gave me hope when it seemed hopeless, you put a song in my heart

Showed me a road not often taken, you gave me a start.

Ola Wave, why did you ever change your name?

Because you were like a wave on the ocean, wild and free you came,

And you were like a storm out of the mountains, never to be tamed.

Campbell’s aunt was Ola Belle Reed, a legendary old-time performer. (Gusto Records, Inc.)

Campbell’s mountain-style singing can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It has a wild, ancient grief that gets its force from the release of pent-up feelings long buried. But, as if somehow uncomfortable exposing such deep emotions, Campbell abruptly shifts into his shock-jock mode honed in New York bars where the goal was more about provocation than entertainment.

He tells the crowd that he visited Ford’s Theatre that day and jokingly observes that John Wilkes Booth, his “favorite actor and the ‘Original Redneck,’ ” did not have any merchandise of his own for sale at the gift shop. It’s his usual rambling way of introducing a new song, in this case, “Me and the Devil and John Wilkes Booth,” a reimagining of what happened in the hours before the assassination, with Campbell packing a Glock as the trio goes barhopping in Georgetown. (“Every time the Devil gets drunk he wants to fight, but me and Booth are the artistic type.”) Twisted stuff for a country song, and it proves too much for some, who head for the exit.

Near the stage, Kitchens, 35, stands at a table stacked with “Ola Wave” CDs. In five rocky years with Campbell, he has seen the looks of horror and disgust on the faces of patrons unacquainted with Campbell’s brand of dark humor. He’s always telling Campbell to cut down the stage banter and the novelty songs and, instead, to let his serious, literate country songs do the talking.

Much of the zeal that drives this odd couple is a hatred for mainstream country. Kitchens caused a stir in 2014 when he slammed a concert by Nashville star Jason Aldean. His scathing review for Baltimore City Paper called the show “a two-hour beer commercial,” but the review was spiked after pressure from Aldean and advertisers. (The news website Baltimore Brew reported that City Paper’s then-editor in chief Evan Serpick agreed to kill the review after two days of resisting and the threat of losing his job. “I’m not proud of it,” he said.) Yet instead of just complaining about contemporary country music, Kitchens — whose previous occupations include forklift operator, biomedical equipment repairman and videographer — decided to do something about it. And after that nursing-home performance of Campbell’s, he realized he may have found an antidote.

From top: A page from Campbell’s diary from when he was hitchhiking with friends; his art for sale at the country store; Campbell’s lyrics embellished with artwork.
Clockwise from top: A page from Campbell’s diary from when he was hitchhiking with friends; his lyrics embellished with artwork; Campbell’s art for sale at the country store.

Cameras are not allowed at the nursing home, so Kitchens shot footage of Campbell at his house in Elkton. He zeroed in on tattered notebooks of lyrics — meticulously handwritten and lavishly illustrated. (Campbell is also a prolific visual artist. Around his rambler, you will find surreal drawings, black-light paintings and a copy of his graphic memoir, “The Alcoholic Janitor,” based on his years in New York. There are also painted fruit crates and screen doors and other found objects that Campbell has both customized with his brush and varnished with seeds, feathers and other talismans brought home from his walks. In 2017, several pieces by Campbell were included in an exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.)

Kitchens pored through the notebooks and ferreted out the songs that held promise. Some compositions dated from 1980; others were penned just days earlier. A stack of CDs labeled “Zoloft Sessions” contained songs Campbell recorded years ago on a boombox and had filed away and forgotten about. Kitchens transcribed the lyrics and helped Campbell relearn them. The aspiring impresario of hard-edged country music had no experience as a producer. But he went ahead and started a label called Emperor Records in 2015 to produce the first of three albums of Campbell’s music. Kitchens, who has made several short films, is also shooting a full-length documentary about Campbell, his family and the role of Southern migrants in the early development of country music.

Campbell is grateful the young Kentuckian appeared on his doorstep, admitting that he had long ago given up on a recording career. “It’s like you got somebody on his deathbed and you get him out of bed and you make ’em run around the block, and the next thing you’re running a marathon, and then you collapse,” he says. “It wasn’t easy for Travis, having to deal with a mental patient. It was like pulling teeth for him to get those records out of me. I don’t take directions well, and we’d argue like hell.”

During the recording of the first album, Campbell was drinking and taking pills and hiding it from Kitchens, and it set off an extended binge that nearly sabotaged the project. “I was trying to polish him up for the limelight, and he went on a rampage,” says Kitchens. “I think because I so adamantly believed in him, he went hard as f— and really wanted it as bad as I did. I now realize I put too much pressure on him. I believed 100 percent we could take over the country music world within one year, and I think the pressure took him to the breaking point. He was beaten down and cynical and realized more than I did how difficult it would be.”

The upside was that Campbell’s downward spiral gave Kitchens complete artistic control. “I finally had to back down and listen to my inner don’t-give-a-f— and let him take over,” Campbell says. Cherry-picking from a lifetime’s worth of material, Kitchens chose and arranged the songs and wrangled top musicians from Baltimore and Nashville to play on the sessions. Utilizing contacts made in his stint as a music columnist, he was able to lure local talent like multi-instrumentalist Teret and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, as well as fiddler Patrick McAvinue (now with bluegrassers Dailey & Vincent of the Grand Ole Opry). “Everyone worked their a—s off because they loved Zane’s songs and his singing, and they knew he was the real deal,” says Kitchens.

Travis Kitchens, who wrote a monthly column about country music for the Baltimore City Paper and became Campbell’s manager. (Josh Emmitt Nielson)

Even after all that, the two men have endured all sorts of breakups and reunions. For a while, Kitchens was banned from contact with Campbell because Campbell’s family deemed him a bad influence. This was after a binge that ended in a brawl between Campbell and one of his neighbors. Campbell landed in the hospital in a neck brace along with a pending assault charge. The charge was dropped, but the incident was a last straw for Campbell’s family, who got him into recovery. The 24-7 marathon studio sessions on top of too many nights getting loaded together also helped wreck Kitchens’s already disintegrating marriage. And yet, somehow the music pulled them both through. “The distraction of making the CD and fighting with Zane got me through my divorce,” Kitchens says.

For now, there is a peaceful interlude to their ongoing bromance. Kitchens has a girlfriend. Emperor Records has a stable of young country musicians, some from Kentucky and Ohio, who, along with Campbell, are “keeping hard-edged country music alive in a dark age,” according to the label’s website. Campbell’s latest album, due for release this summer, is a collection of originals that showcase his brand of bastardized hardcore country, but now with touches of Celtic folk and old-time mountain drones and odd instrumentation like bagpipes; he calls it his “ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ of hillbilly music.” It owes as much to Shane MacGowan of the Pogues as it does to Merle Haggard, and it shows Campbell tracking his roots all the way back overseas to the old country — scavenging the Scottish Highlands from centuries ago, looking for sounds and inspiration to match the songs in his head.

A photo of Zane Campbell’s aunt Ola Belle Reed in his home in Elkton, Md. Her middle name was originally Wave, but she changed it to further her career. “I understand why she did it,” Campbell says. “She thought Ola Wave would sound weird to people. But I love it.”

The Campbell legacy is more than just Ola Belle, who died in 2002 after suffering a series of strokes starting in 1987 that left her unable to perform. The family tree boasts a roster of talent that dates to before the dawn of recorded country music.

Zane’s grandfather, Arthur Campbell, played with the medicine shows that traveled the South in the early years of the past century. His great-uncle, Guy Brooks, was a fiddler with the Red Fox Chasers, a Carolina string band that made 78-rpm records in the late 1920s and is featured in Robert Crumb’s drawings of the cream of prewar performers, compiled in the book “R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, & Country.” Zane’s uncle Alex was a musician and DJ who, along with his sister Ola Belle, broadcast a radio show from Campbell’s Corner general store. He also operated the New River Ranch country-music park with her and her husband. It was an important pit stop for Nashville stars like Hank Williams and George Jones and Johnny Cash on tour in the ’50s and early ’60s.

Over the past decade, a new generation of musicians — in the so-called alt-country and Americana genres — has found success mining the legacy of musicians like those in Campbell’s family. These artists include Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Chris Thile, the unctuous host of the public radio show formerly known as “A Prairie Home Companion.” But to Campbell, they are just carpetbaggers (Welch and Thile are from Southern California; Krauss from Illinois) exploiting a tradition that he was born into. “It would be like if I went up to Alaska to sing Eskimo folk songs,” he says. “That’s about the same as Gillian Welch singing Appalachian murder ballads. This isn’t just a lark for me. I have a right to play this music. These are my roots, and I want to keep the tradition alive, especially the songwriting tradition. I want to carry it on as long as I can.”

Campbell’s great-uncle, Guy Brooks, was a fiddler with the Red Fox Chasers string band, which made 78-rpm records in the late 1920s. (County Records)

Besides bringing back some of his aunt’s hits for new audiences, he’s become the unofficial chronicler of the Campbell clan, including family secrets that his relatives would rather keep under wraps. Like the story of the half-cousin who moved to Charleston, W.Va., where she found work in a topless bar with her girlfriend, inspiring the song “Lesbian Strippers of West Virginia (Will Break Your Heart Every Time).” One of the best cuts from his self-titled album from 2015 tells the story of his oldest brother, Lon, a mortician whose duty as a funeral escort during the Vietnam War was to accompany the remains of fallen soldiers to their families. “Bringing the Boys Home,” a somber spoken-word rendition in the tradition of country recitations, backed by a mournful bagpipe, is about the family of a slain soldier that asked Lon to stay on at their house for another day. Lon soon realized why, after he saw a framed photo on the mantel.

Because the picture of the soldier looked exactly like Lon.

It was like he was replacing, for one extra day, the one that could never be replaced.

Just for a little while they wanted to look at his face.

In “Drinkin’ Whiskey,” Campbell sings of the substance that has sent a fair portion of his kinfolk to early graves, including granddad Arthur (burned alive in a house fire during a bender) and Uncle Ford (drowned crossing a creek near New River Ranch while inebriated).

Writing about his 2015 album, one reviewer summed up Campbell’s appeal this way: “Zane is the guy that all the other younger country dudes pretend to be. He’s had a tough life of hard livin’ and he puts it all in subtle, slacked-out story songs that are filled with a heart-breaking specificity.”

Kitchens says Campbell’s discovery of the twisted roots of his family tree is the crucial element in his artistic rejuvenation: “I think what saved Zane was he realized he was part of a rich and important tradition, and it orients him. That’s why he constantly talks about Uncle Guy and Ola Belle and all the rest. He’s riding a mythical wave from way back of crazy artists in the family, so he doesn’t feel alone.”

Campbell had hoped to sing “High on a Mountain” at a 2015 concert that the Library of Congress hosted along with a symposium on Ola Belle’s legacy. But he was not invited, according to family members, because organizers deemed him too unpredictable to hold court on such a hallowed stage.

It’s not hard to sympathize with such concerns, as Campbell has a habit of saying what you’re not supposed to say. When he introduces his Uncle Hub’s “Don’t You Call My Name” onstage, Campbell tells the story behind it: “This is a song about a guy whose wife ran off and left him for another woman.” He says he likes to gauge audience reactions to see whether they are paying attention.

Representing the family at the concert in the Library of Congress’s historic Coolidge Auditorium was David Reed, one of Ola Belle’s sons, now 64, and Zane’s older brother Hugh, a wiry, silver-haired, soft-spoken 62-year-old who, like Zane, made a roundabout journey back to his native soil in northeast Maryland. In the ’80s, he tried for a career as a singer-songwriter in the heady Austin music scene, “got his a– whupped,” and came back east to raise a family and work as a house painter and restorer and furniture repairman, and to be a “good citizen” in his community. He didn’t give up on music altogether, though. “Shape of a Tear,” penned by Hugh and recorded by the Lynn Morris Band, was nominated for song of the year in 2003 by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

That year, Hugh bought an old post office building as a fixer-upper to renovate into a country store. (Nothing remains of New River Ranch. It has been reclaimed by nature.) He enlisted Zane’s help. Slowly but surely, his kid brother nudged him to revisit the rich tradition he’d left behind. “Zane pulled me back into music and got me enthusiastic about our family history,” Hugh says. “We started singing together for the first time, and we discovered we had pretty good harmony.”

Hugh says that with Zane, he can let it all hang out and sing with an abandon — and a sheer volume — that he can’t with anyone else. It brings out an emotional side that he usually keeps in check. “He’s the only one I can do those loud, mountain-style harmonies with,” he says. “Zane has always had a big voice, and when I put the harmony next to his lead, we can hit the mark.” The brothers do not always enjoy the same positive vibe outside their creative pursuits: They’ve had ugly spats — usually about meds that Zane is supposed to be taking — with long cooling-off periods. But the music always draws them back together.

On a Saturday in September, the brothers arrive at the country store for an impromptu performance. The plain clapboard building, which sits on a winding road outside of Elkton, is crammed with family memorabilia and custom-made artwork for sale. Most are collaborations, with furniture made by Hugh from reclaimed wood and embossed by Zane with his surreal designs, advertised on a placard out front as “Fancy Hillbilly Folk Art.” The centerpiece is a large four-panel landscape on the back wall depicting the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Campbell ancestral home, painted by Zane onto wooden doors salvaged during the renovation.

Relatives and neighbors and friends have dropped by as well, including members of Zane’s old band from the area, the Gravel Pit Ramblers. Among them is Sporty Dave, a black Hank Williams impersonator who grew up listening to Alex and Ola Belle’s radio show and who arrives in a vintage 1954 Chevy sedan. The Fellini-esque troupe, which played dive bars across the Mid-Atlantic, also had a septuagenarian, always-soused fiddler and chick magnet named Chet, as well as a pair of female backup singers and performance artists who had homemade masks and other stage props to act out elaborate skits with Zane.

Zane’s older sister Mavis says that her kid brother’s bluster and shock appeal can be deceiving. “He’s a big mouth, but inside he’s a softy,” she says. “All our grandchildren just love Zane.” She says she’s saddened by the passing of the Campbell musical tradition. Zane’s 31-year-old son, Miles, by a former girlfriend from his New York days, is a social worker and bodybuilder; Hugh’s two adult daughters appreciate the music but are busy raising families and pursuing careers. David Reed has no children. After he, Zane and Hugh are gone, “there’s no one in the family to pick it up,” Mavis says. “It takes dedication and time to practice, and the younger generation don’t have either.”

Campbell performs for friends and family at the country store. Musicians, from left: Robert Campbell, Zane Campbell, Sporty Dave and Gary Irving.

A month before the country-store concert, Campbell is in Washington to make his first-ever televised appearance. He has made the two-hour trip down from Elkton to play music and evangelize the Campbell family saga on Mark Segraves’s “NewsPlus” on WDCW (Channel 50), a show about cultural affairs and the arts in the D.C. area.

Campbell downplays his debut, but he’s pushing 60 and knows it’s a big deal that he can reach an audience many times larger than his club gigs. He hasn’t driven in years, so he caught a ride with a friend and fan of his music named Carol from his recovery group in Elkton. He had given her artwork, including a painting that celebrates an anniversary of her sobriety.

In the cramped studio, Campbell realizes he’s packed a mismatched pair of boots, different colors but, luckily, one left and one right. The moment spurs him to launch into a mini-rant about classic country-and-western attire and its pseudo-authenticity in country-music history, and how he is a willing participant in the sartorial charade, which ironically has given boots a certain gravitas. “It looks goofy to sing country music with sneakers on,” he says. “Only Willie Nelson can get away with it, and I think it looks stupid on him, too.”

Zane Campbell and his aunt Ola Belle Reed in an undated photo. (Family photo)

“Cowboy boots and cowboy hats have nothing to do with Appalachia,” Campbell continues. “It was foisted on them because the record companies didn’t like the image of the hillbilly in bib overalls with the straw hat, which was distasteful and reeked of incest. So they made ’em dress up like westerners. Like Ola Belle, when she was young, she dressed up like a cowgirl with the boots and hat and dresses. But when she got older and went out on the folk circuit, she didn’t care what she looked like. She wore a kerchief and an apron and combat boots, and she looked like a Russian peasant woman.”

After the interview with Segraves, Campbell performs “Ola Wave,” with Teret on banjo. The fierce, spine-tingling mountain sound fills the studio. The song is about the time Ola Belle turned down a chance to be a star on the “Grand Ole Opry.”

You never cared for fame and fortune, or worldly renown,

On the day that it came a-knocking, you just turned it down

Campbell never got as close to making it in the music industry as his aunt. And Kitchens, more than anyone, knows what a tough sell Campbell’s music is in today’s market: “Zane is too hardcore country for the hipsters and too weird for the country fans.” Just listen to a “gospel” song Campbell wrote when he heard that a born-again cousin lost his house after giving all his money to his church. The song, titled, “F—-d Up on Jesus,” is rendered as a first-person account of what it feels like to be on the losing end of the prosperity gospel.

Now I’m going through a dumpster for my dinner and that ain’t right.

One thing for certain, I ain’t saying no godd— prayers tonight.

Not the sort of humor that garners much airplay on country radio these days — which, of course, is what drew Kitchens to Campbell in the first place. Still, Kitchens is convinced there is an audience for it. “People like Zane’s voice,” he says, “because he’s a hard country singer, which you can’t hardly find anymore.”

His new songs utilize off-kilter, obsolete sounds, including a bowed banjo and a type of harmonium used in Indian classical music called a shruti box. His lyrics, meanwhile, remain complex and literary even as he mines tried-and-true country-and-western subject matter. “My music is a mutation,” Campbell says. “My roots are in country, but I incorporate folk and rock and blues and classical and funk and R&B. I hate retro music. The past is over, and those in the past did it better.” By forging something new out of the old, Campbell is staying true to the family tradition of bucking tradition. This may not get him any closer to mainstream success, but the prodigal nephew has found his rightful place back in the family fold.

Eddie Dean is a writer based in Maryland and co-author of Ralph Stanley’s memoir, “Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times.” To comment on this story, email

“High on a Mountain” by Ola Belle Reed from the recording titled “My Epitaph,” FW02493, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. ℗© 1976. Used by permission. “High on a Mountain” by Zane Campbell from the recording titled “Zane Campbell,” ER-100, courtesy of Emperor Records. Written by Ola Belle Reed. ℗© 2015. Used by permission.

Credits: Story by Eddie Dean. Photos by Pete Marovich. Video by Whitney Shefte. Designed by Christian Font.