Ashley Campbell takes her banjo into pop country

Let’s get this out of the way up front… Ashley Campbell‘s The Lonely One is not a bluegrass album, and she is not a bluegrass artist. She is a young country singer on the way up with a peerless pedigree behind her. And she’s bringing her banjo along for the ride.

Born into country music royalty as the daughter of the late Glen Campbell, Ashley was interested in stringed instruments all her life, but it was an unexpected request in college, followed by a baptism by fire in 2012 that cemented her desire for a career in music.

We had last spoken with her six years ago, when she was touring with her dad on the five string, and had been the featured musician and actor in Rascall Flatt’s Banjo video. Her blond locks and long lean look – coupled with some fiery banjo licks – captured the attention of the music world, but Ashley wasn’t yet ready for her star turn.

She spent the next few years writing songs, determined to create her own sound, following in the footsteps of her songwriting hero, Taylor Swift. Campbell appreciates how Swift took a song wherever it dictated, and refused to be bound by genre or convention.

The Lonely One - Ashley Campbell

As co-producer for The Lonely One, with her older brother and LA studio engineer Cal Campbell, we asked if she went in determined to make the banjo part of the album’s overall sonic vibe. Her response was instantaneous and emphatic.

“Absolutely! The banjo is a huge part of who I am as an artist.”

You hear it in almost all of the album’s 13 tracks, sometimes out front like on the grassy How Do You Know and the instrumental she wrote with godfather and banjo mentor Carl Jackson, Carl & Ashley’s Breakdown. On other tracks it provides texture, tinkling away in the background even on a slow country ballad like Good For You.

The first single, Better Boyfriend, is a banjo driven country rocker which combines twinges of old time five string with Swiftian lyrics telling a former flame that she would be a preferable partner to what he has been.

So how did a west coast teenager from a privileged background end up playing the banjo?

“I was a theater major in college, at Pepperdine University. I got into a play that needed a character that played banjo. The university paid for the banjo (a junker) and my first few lessons.”

Did you dad help at all as your were learning banjo?

“He played banjo, but he mostly would play guitar with me. He would know all the songs that I was learning.

Carl Jackson was the one who helped me the most. He’s been in our family’s life for many years, since the ’70s. When we came to Nashville to play the Ryman shows with my dad, I connected with Carl.”

Ashley Campbell

And now she has her own solo record, on her own Whistle Stop Records, and will play the Grand Ole Opry tonight to celebrate The Lonely One’s release. Campbell has her own band, who can support her whether a song leans towards bluegrass or country, and they played with her in the studio.

The grassier tracks were cut in Nashville, with her band members supplemented by flatpicking superhero Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Jackson helping out on both guitar and vocals. Ashley played guitar, mandolin, and banjo on the album herself.

At 31 years of age, she finally feels ready to pursue her own music under her own name.

“I’ve settled into my voice and accepted it for what it is. When I was in school I was trying to sing like the musical theater crowd. I feel so much more confident in my singing now.”

And it shows on this record.

The songs are very female, and very young. Older listeners might be too jaded to dive in, but pop music has always been herded by the thoughts and concerns of younger people. As the world spins on, the externalities may change, but the uncertainty and vulnerability of young love remains the same.

Lastly, Campbell wanted to remind everyone that she won’t be dropping the banjo if her career takes off. It’s often the instrument she picks up when she starts writing a song, and feels that it helps define her sound.

And she appreciates the company that has supported her from the start.

“I proudly play a Deering Banjo – they are incredible. I just love the way they sound.”

The Lonely One is available now wherever you find your music online.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.