A Charmed Life: A Conversation with Mike Campbell

By Michael Swanger 

Fresh off the release of their third album, “Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits,” Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs have returned to the road this summer and will make their Des Moines debut on July 3 at Hoyt Sherman Place. In addition to performing songs from their new album, including the first single, “Dare to Dream,” fans can expect to hear a few songs from Campbell’s former band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. 

It is a particularly rewarding time in Campbell’s “charmed life,” as ListenIowa discovered when it spoke to him last week. 

On one hand, the 74-year-old legendary rock guitarist is a mindful steward of the iconic catalog of songs that he helped create alongside his musical soulmate of nearly 50 years (“Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “You Got Lucky,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream”) before Petty’s untimely, tragic death in 2017. Campbell appears on the new tribute record, “Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty,” performing the Heartbreakers’ “Ways To Be Wicked” with country singer Margo Price. He also rotates a handful of Heartbreakers tunes to play live with The Dirty Knobs for each tour, sometimes re-arranging them and often times avoiding the band’s biggest hits. 

On the other, his work ethic and unwavering devotion to his musical muse defies the stereotype of a veteran rock star content to rest on his laurels. Since being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 as a member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Campbell hasn’t stopped making new, meaningful music.

Though The Dirty Knobs are steeped in Sixties rock influences, Campbell drives them to new musical and lyrical heights on “Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits.” The album features guest appearances by Graham Nash (“Dare To Dream”), Lucinda Williams (“Hell Or High Water”), Chris Stapleton and fellow Heartbreaker Benmont Tench (“Don’t Wait Up”). And like the band’s first two albums, 2020’s “Wreckless Abandon” and 2022’s “External Combustion,” it is produced by George Drakoulias, Martin Pradler and Campbell, and features a live sound that is predicated on capturing moments of inspiration without over-production.

“The first two records were about us finding our way as a band,” said Campbell. “Now we’re firing on all cylinders.”

Thematically, it opens with a nod to its fans on “The Greatest” before giving way to the blues of “Angel of Mercy” and the hope of “Dare to Dream.” The latter track is also the subject of a Chris Phelps-directed music video filmed at Leon Russell’s The Church Studio in Tulsa, Okla. It marked the first time that Campbell returned to the studio where in 1974 Mudcrutch — the precursor to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — made its first studio recording before moving from their hometown of Gainesville, Fla., to Los Angeles. 

The album continues with back-to-back, emotionally stirring ballads “Hands Are Tied” and “Hell Or High Water,” as well as the uptempo rocker “So Alive,” the gritty shuffle “Shake These Blues,” and a song of the road “Innocent Man,” which includes a verse about the Heartbreakers being searched at the border by U.S. customs officials. Stapleton, who co-wrote and contributed vocals to “Wreckless Abandon,” returns on the hard-driving “Don’t Wait Up.” It concludes with “My Old Friends,” a song in which the protagonist bids farewell to his drinking days with clever word play and a musical style that is reminiscent of the Sir Douglas Quintet. Ironically, it might be the best original drinking song in decades. “Amanda Lynn,” a mandolin instrumental that clocks in at 44 seconds and was originally recorded as the walk-out music at the band’s shows concludes “Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits.”

The Dirty Knobs, named after a tech slang for a broken amp dial and founded in 2000 by Campbell alongside fellow Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone and bassist Ron Blair, have undergone a few changes in personnel over the years. The newest lineup on “Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits” features Campbell, guitarist Chris Holt, bassist Lance Morrison and drummer Matt Laug. On tour, however, Ferrone reclaims the drummer’s chair this summer as Laug is touring with AC/DC.

“It’s glorious having Steve back. It’s also full circle,” said Campbell. “The Dirty Knobs started out as a studio gang and then we would go out and play a few bars just for fun. My original group was Steve and Ron. They were the only guys I knew. And then I had a conversation with Tom and he said, ‘It’s great that you’re having fun, but this is the Heartbreakers, maybe you should get your own guys so maybe we don’t diffuse the specialty of the Heartbreakers.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ So Steve, quote, unquote, was fired.

“When Matt got an offer to play with his dream band AC/DC I couldn’t say no. I was so happy for him that he got the gig. So I called Steve and he said, ‘So I get my seat back?’ It makes the band a little deeper because we have a history together and there’s an affinity between us as he brings new energy and old energy to The Dirty Knobs. It’s a brotherhood with me and him. It makes the whole experience a lot sweeter.”

Here’s the rest of what Campbell had to say about the album, the band’s sound and his old friend. 

How important is simplicity and nuance when expressing the feelings of your music and lyrics?
It’s just the way I’m wired. I grew up on music that is basically simple. I gotta give Tom credit. A lot of his songs are very simple and direct. He could say a lot with a few words, so I hope some of that rubbed off on me. I like simplicity. There’s places to get deeper now and then but mostly I like stuff that has an immediate connection that you can go along with for the ride without having to think too much.

The Dirty Knobs records have a live sound and feel to them. Do you record most of the tracks in just a few takes and if they don’t work do you move?
You’re absolutely right. If you like the record you’ll love the show. We did record most of it live. That’s the way I work now. Back in the day we used to labor over the tracks. I just don’t enjoy that anymore. I like to learn the song quickly then catch the take before they think about it too much and to catch the moment of discovery as it’s happening. And the songs since they’re recorded live they’re already arranged for the stage. They sound like they do on the record. 

Regarding your songwriting, do you commit time each day to write lyrics, or do you write down ideas as they occur to you?
I don’t commit to it, but it seems to happen that way. Basically I’ve become an antenna since I took on songwriting seriously. I’m always kind of open if I’m listening to the radio or whatever. I don’t book time to go into a studio because I have a home studio, which is terrific. So I tend to get up and have a cup of coffee and before I know it I’m in there … I gravitate toward it. I don’t set hours, I’ve never been able to work that way. I follow the muse.

Your songs are cinematic and easy to visualize. Tell me about the importance of developing characters, the setting and the story’s arc in a song.
I look at songs a lot like little movies. When I’m writing I get started with a line or two that may just be random. I observe the inspiration. I see it like a movie. I see the characters and I see the setting that they’re in and what they’re doing and I follow it up with, “What would he do next?” “Why did he do that?” “Where are they going now?” I think on the new album I’m developing more of the characters from a lyrical point of view than I have in the past and it’s really fun.

The Greatest” is a refreshing way to open an album by thanking your fans. How did you get the idea for it?
It was very simple. We had just come off a tour and I sat down in my studio one day, feeling very grateful for the crowds we had drawn and how receptive they were and how it was such a spiritual give and take of energy and positivity. I just felt in that grateful state of mind I’d love to thank everybody. How about a song? So I thought, “You are the greatest.” It’s directed at the people that are listening at the gig. It was a very simple song, it’s a thank you song. It was written in three minutes and we played it like once or twice and that was it. When I was sequencing the record I couldn’t think how to start it. I think it was George Drakoulias who said, “Let’s start with the obvious thing, we’ll start with that song and we’ll hit the rockers later.”

You had tried to record Angel of Mercy” previously but it didnt work. When producer George Drakoulias suggested you try recording it again, what clicked this time?
It’s like you were saying before, it’s true, if the song doesn’t catch fire in maybe the second or third take, I say let’s sit this one aside and do something else. “Angel of Mercy” is an old song I used to play in the bars when I got The Dirty Knobs together years ago. I always liked it, but we could never quite get the groove, or the vibe of the song, and many times we tried to cut it. I thought the album was finished and George said we should give that song one more try. Let’s try it with Steve Ferrone on drums and really try to make a good record out of it. So we did and it came out really good. We put some acoustics on it to make it sound fuller and it’s a great vibe song now.

The positivity and message of hope on Dare to Dream” is up-lifting. It reinforces the power of living in the moment. How important is that message today?
I think it’s real important. It’s a complicated world we live in now. Fortunately, I’ve been pulling back as I’ve been watching too much news in the last couple of years. And you can get really demoralized with the reality of what’s going on. You can write songs about that, but I tended to lean against that grain on this record. I wanted to provide a little relief and maybe some hope that things can get better and life is still really good if you open your eyes and don’t focus on the negative stuff. “So Alive” and “Dare to Dream” are almost embarrassingly optimistic but a lot of Heartbreaker songs were, too. Hope and redemption, that’s kind of the goal most of the time.

What was it like returning to Leon Russells The Church Studio in Tulsa where Mudcrutch had recorded its first demo in 1974 to film the video for Dare to Dream?”
It was kind of eerie you know, because the last time I was there I was with Tom and we were heading out to California. So I felt those spirits and ghosts and memories. But it felt good. It seemed like a full circle moment.

At a time when it seems like we have an abundance of rowdy songs about drinking, especially in country music, the wisdom and humor of Old Friends of Mine” sets it apart from the others. How did it come about?
It’s a great farewell. It’s a play on words. Like I said, I’ve been having fun exploring the world of lyrics and rhyme schemes. It started out as a joke but there’s so many drinks named after peoples’ names, “Bud Wezier” and “Ann Heizerbush.” I thought that’s funny, I’m going to see if I can get a whole song out of those characters and I was able to get enough of them in there. We played the song one time in the studio. That was the first take and I wasn’t going to put it on the record. I thought it was a bit too comical. Then George said we should put it at the end because it will lighten things up as you go out.

What did it mean to you to have guests like Lucinda Williams, Chris Stapleton, Graham Nash and Benmont Tench on the album?
It meant everything. It’s an example of my charmed life that I’ve been so lucky and blessed to have these people come into my path along the way. There are so many of them. I would write songs and record them with the band and sit back and say, “Well, it would be great if I’m talking to Graham tomorrow for an interview maybe I’ll get up the courage to ask him if we would sing because I’m a solid-gone-Hollies-creep. I just love the Hollies.” So he said he would and he put those great backing vocals on “Dare to Dream” and the chorus kind of does sound like the Hollies blend. And Lucinda, God bless her, she’s the sweetest lady. I did that song “Hell Or High Water” which is another movie-type song where there’s a character that’s going through this situation on the dark streets of night then a girl shows up in the second verse. And I thought it would be great if a girl actually sang that point of view. She was coming into town and we got together and she agreed to do it and she made the song ten times better just by her soul and personality. Of course Chris Stapleton I’ve known, he was in town getting another Grammy or something (laughs) and he stopped by the house and sang on a verse. Then Benmont came in and we put piano mics up and we did one take on that one. He just rocked it out for us. Those are highlights for me. My friends showing up to help me out with my music, what could be better?

What can fans expect when it comes to hearing The Dirty Knobs play Heartbreakers tunes live?
I only do three or four of them a night but I do them because I love the songs and it’s a reminder of my history. It’s who I am, it’s part of me. I think the fans that come to see me, if they know who I am, they enjoy when I throw one of those songs in. It’s kind of a feeling of Tom enters the room in a way, like his spirit is with me for a few minutes and it feels good … it’s bittersweet but it’s also kind of healing in a way. So I love doing it. I do different ones, I do deep tracks. I don’t do all of the hits necessarily. It’s fun for me to keep the songs alive.

What is it like being the full-time vocalist and frontman after all the years of playing alongside Tom? What did you learn about it from him?
I had it so easy in the Heartbreakers. Tom did all of the work at the microphone and I just sat back there, “La-di-da-di, guitar solo and chords.” I had no responsibilities at all (laughs). But now I understand how much more work it is. You’ve gotta remember the lyrics, you’ve gotta sing on pitch, you’ve gotta lead the band, you’ve gotta talk to the audience, it’s a whole other game. I have a lot more respect for how much weight Tom was carrying that I really didn’t appreciate at the time, but I appreciate it now. And I also appreciate it because I like doing it and I’m getting more confident with it and I’m starting to feel comfortable in that role. And I’m sure I picked up a few nuances here and there from watching him for nearly 50 years.

Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs
Hoyt Sherman Place
July 3, 7:30 p.m.
With special guest Shannon McNally
$39, $49, $59, $69
A limited number of VIP packages are also available