AUDIE CORNISH, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Shawn Camp is a Nashville songwriter who's had more success than most. Country music stars like Garth Brooks and George Strait have turned his songs into top 10 hits, and he's released five albums of his own that have sold modestly well. Sixteen years ago, Camp had a shot at commercial country music success, but that record was shelved. Now it's out, and Craig Havighurst went to the release party.

CRAIG HAVIGHURST: Shawn Camp is wearing a blue and white Western shirt - the same one he wore on the cover of his debut album, and it fits nicely nearly two decades later. The 44-year-old waits self-consciously while a man in black praises him to the songwriters, business folk and journalists packed into a listening lounge at Warner Bros. Nashville. He is label president John Esposito.

Mr. JOHN ESPOSITO (President and CEO, Warner Music Nashville): I'm like fascinated with how great this sounds and the fact that that record was never put out. I apologize for 16 years of the failure of this building, but it's out tomorrow.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Mr. ESPOSITO: So, ladies and gentlemen, Shawn Camp.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of song, "Fallin' Never Felt So Good")

Mr. SHAWN CAMP (Singer): (Singing) There's a photo in my baby book of the first step that I ever took. I ended up on my butt with a puzzled look.

HAVIGHURST: Camp was a fiddle and guitar prodigy from Arkansas whose songwriting earned him entree into an elite Music City fraternity soon after he moved to town in 1987.

By just his early 20s, he was collaborating with legends like John Prine, Cowboy Jack Clement and Guy Clark.

Then, amid the go-go early '90s, Camp found himself with a record deal on Warner's Reprise label.

(Soundbite of song, "Fallin' Never Felt So Good")

Mr. CAMP: (Singing) Falling never felt so good. It don't scare me like I thought it would. Tumbling down, dropping fast. I got a feeling that it's going to last. Here I come, baby, ooh, ooh, ooh. Falling in love with you.

HAVIGHURST: His first album produced a couple of charting singles and earned critical praise. Then he turned in his second project, which hewed even closer to his traditional country and bluegrass influences.

(Soundbite of song, "Clear as a Bell")

Mr. CAMP: (Singing) Never thought I'd see the day it would come to this. Sitting all alone listening to the wind.

HAVIGHURST: Unfortunately, that's not the direction country radio was heading.

Mr. CAMP: The head of the label said, oh, Shawn, the head of promotions is telling me there's no hits on this album. Maybe you ought to rethink that and go in and take all the fiddles and Dobros off and put electric guitars on it because it don't sound like the current John Michael Montgomery record.

HAVIGHURST: Camp bridled at compromising his sound. Months went by. And at last, Camp sent his manager in with an ultimatum.

Mr. CAMP: Ask them for a release date off this record for a single or release me from the label, because something's got to change. And they said, we will let you go, you know? So that's what happened.

HAVIGHURST: Camp calls the next few years a low point for his recording career, but by 1997, his songs began finding their way to country radio. He landed a number one single with the number one artist at the time, Garth Brooks. And more traditional performers began recording Camp songs by the score, such as bluegrass veteran Del McCoury.

(Soundbite of song, "My Love Will Not Change")

Mr. DEL McCOURY (Singer): (Singing) Well, the seasons come and the seasons go, and the reason you left is I'll never know. There will be others. Yes, I know it's true, but they won't do you like I did for you. My love will not change.

HAVIGHURST: By 2000, Camp thought he'd made enough money from his songwriting successes to buy the master of his lost second album back from Warner Bros.

Mr. CAMP: They wanted an astronomical amount of money for it, more than I could afford. So I figured I'd just wait it out, maybe.

HAVIGHURST: He wasn't sure what he was waiting for, but it turns out it was John Esposito. The veteran New York music executive was just learning the very different culture of country music and Nashville when he heard Camp at a guitar pull.

Mr. ESPOSITO: Which is the name they give for when you're sitting around a campfire or some sort of setting like that. Several guitarists will be there, and each sing a song. And then it's the next person's time to do it. I didn't know who he was. I didn't know what songs he had written, but it was so obviously magic to me that I had to pay attention. I wasn't actually sitting there thinking I'd sign him as an artist, just thinking he was mesmerizing.

HAVIGHURST: They got to talking later. Esposito wanted to know Camp's story.

Mr. CAMP: He said, where have you been or something, you know? I said, well, man, I used to be on the label that you now run. And I said, I've got a record laying over there that's never been released. It's been on the shelf for years. And he said, well, I'm going to go to the vault. I'm going to find your records and listen to them. I said, okay.

HAVIGHURST: Esposito was impressed, especially by the lost album's last track.

(Soundbite of song, "The Grandpa That I Know")

Mr. CAMP: (Singing) Brand-new shoes, they hurt my feet. This necktie is choking me, cutting off my air supply when I hang my head to cry, when I hang my head and cry. I see tears on Daddy's face. Someone's humming "Amazing Grace." Rain beats on this graveside tent. Preacher says he did repent. Preacher swears he did repent. They've got him laying there in pinstripes. How'd they get him in that suit? I guess the Lord will recognize him without his overalls and mule. They all say he looks so natural, but all I see is a cold dark hole. I won't commit this day to memory. That ain't the grandpa that I know. That ain't the grandpa that I know.

HAVIGHURST: One of Esposito's deputies suggested releasing the album, and he did, under the title "1994."

Mr. ESPOSITO: I have probably heard from more people about doing this and how happy they are to see somebody would do this than anything I've ever done in my music business career because I've discovered Shawn is beloved by this entire community and people outside of this community. And sometimes releasing a Shawn Camp can make people look at your record label in an even more positive way.

HAVIGHURST: This, even though country radio today sounds even less like Shawn Camp's style than it did 16 years ago.

Mr. CAMP: You know, I didn't move to town to be on that chart with the people I was on the chart with, honestly. You know, I wanted to be on the chart with George Jones and Roger Miller and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. And, you know, if I was going to be the singer in the band or be playing songs in a country band, I wanted it to be old-school country as much as I could.

HAVIGHURST: Camp says losing that record deal was probably a blessing. He has little confidence that his younger self would have handled stardom well, and he might not have spent those years honing his songwriting craft and proving that there's more than one way to make it in Music City.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.

(Soundbite of song, "The Grandpa That I Know")

Mr. CAMP: (Singing) He said, the simple life suits me fine. Never dreamed beyond the county line. Grandma was his boyhood bride. He'll be back in her arms tonight. He'll sleep there in her arms tonight. They've got him laying there in pinstripes...

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