"A good song will age well": Mike Campbell talks Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks' gift and unearthing tunes

The Dirty Knobs guitarist teams up with Chris Stapleton, Lucinda Williams & Graham Nash: "It was like Christmas"

Published June 19, 2024 3:30PM (EDT)

Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs (Photo courtesy of Chris Phelps)
Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs (Photo courtesy of Chris Phelps)

For decades, Mike Campbell made his living as the guitarist, co-songwriter, and co-producer with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. His expressive blues-rock riffs lent buoyancy and a deep sense of yearning to the band’s songs, which are as timeless as they are emotionally incisive.

Several years after Petty’s 2017 death, Campbell is still a road warrior as the leader of his own band, the Dirty Knobs. Last week, the group released what might be their best album yet, “Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits,” which is a combination of new songs and tunes Campbell dug up from his formidable archives and decided to record.

"I seem to write about damaged women that need to be saved."

Petty fans will certainly find much to love about the album, in no small part because it boasts plenty of Campbell’s inimitable melodic guitars and warm, weathered vocals. But the characters within the songs are vibrant and striving — and guests such as Chris Stapleton, Lucinda Williams and Graham Nash add the perfect amount of emotional depth.

Campbell checked in from Philadelphia, preceding shows where he’s planning to jump onstage with Chris Stapleton to collaborate on a cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “I Should Have Known It.” (Stapleton does his own version on the star-studded country tribute album, “Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty,” which is out June 21.) Throughout our conversation, Campbell is reflective and full of gratitude about both his music and career.

“I’m just like I was when I first picked up the guitar,” he says. “I followed it because I had to, not because I thought I'd ever get rich or famous. But I just love the music. I love the instrument, and I love the songs. I still do as much or better than at the beginning. I'm very blessed of a person. I've had a charmed life, and I'm enjoying every second of it.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits” is your third Dirty Knobs record in four years. To me, it really seems informed by all the touring you've done. In general, there's a real looseness, as well as cohesion and chemistry, that really stood out to me.

I hear confidence. Like you said, we toured a lot on the first few records, and I'm getting my feet leading the band. I hear growth. Also we're still having a lot of fun — so there it is.

Was there anything you wanted to do differently this time around as you were approaching recording the album?

No, there was no conscious effort to be different, just to be better, try to come up with better songs, and refine it, and keep doing what we do.

It's one of those things, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If it's working, go with it.

Well, you can always fine-tune it. With guitar players, for instance, all the great guitar players . . . I forget who said this, I think it was Clapton or somebody that said, once you get to a certain level, you don't improve exponentially every year like you did when you were a kid. You keep refining your craft and nuance.

That’s kind of we're doing at this age. We're just trying to refine it, polish it up, and mostly have – the songs have stronger characters and just get better. But don't go too far. We're just a rock ‘n’ roll band, so we don't want to go too far off that.

Lyrically, there's a lot of optimism and gratitude that I saw weaving through the songs. But all of the characters are going through these different things in terms of tough times or tough situations until they are able to find the silver lining or a bit of solace. The songs are literary, in a way.

You're right. I noticed that there's a lot of desperate characters. [Laughs.] But a lot of the best songs, even [with] The Heartbreakers, those characters are desperate to get a better life and to get to some sort of redemption and hope through the trouble they're in. That just seems to be a place that I naturally gravitate toward in my mind — and a lot of women, too. I seem to write about damaged women that need to be saved. I don't know why, but they show up.

But the important thing, like you touched on before, is I want to have hope and optimism. Because it's a really wicked world right now, and I think part of our job is to take people's minds to a sweeter place for a little while.

How did you get in the mindset to write these songs? I know that some of them you found on old tapes. But how did you get in the mindset to write these newer songs?

Once you become committed to writing, you're always in that mindset — open for the muse, open for any fraction of an inspiration, a lyric, or a chord, or a melody that might come to you. So I was already in the mindset. There was no specific, "I'm going to write this type of song or that type of song." They just come to you, and you have to follow the muse.

Mike Campbell and his band The Dirty Knobs' album Vagabonds, Virgins & MisfitsMike Campbell and his band The Dirty Knobs’ album Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits (Photo courtesy of Sacks & Co.)Knowing when the muse is there is so important. When I talk to musicians, some are like, "I need to treat it like a 9-to-5 job where I sit down and write." I've always admired that, because that's a certain skill to have. But when you have an idea, you need to grab onto it while it's there.

I can't write on the clock. The muse will happen at any moment during the day, or in your dreams. I look at it like a 24-hour job, really. But it's not really a job; it's just being open and accepting things when they're given to you. They are like little gifts. Here's this idea from somewhere to you. What are you going to do with it? Well, you're going to respect it and try to make something good out of it.

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What really draws you to be writing about those characters, those damaged women or the people really striving for things?

I think it's just the redemption. Life is a struggle, but we all hope for light at the end of the tunnel. You get through it, and there's a reaffirming reason to live. [Laughs.] You solve your problems, and then you can have some peace and joy for a while. A lot of the Heartbreakers songs, from “American Girl” or “A Woman in Love,” are very similar. 

"Life is a struggle, but we all hope for light at the end of the tunnel."

And the Beatles, too. I like the fact that the Beatles, [with] a lot of their songs, even if there is a dark element in some of the characters, there's always this feeling that you're going to get through this, and things are going to work out, and you're going to be OK. That's just how I'm kind of wired.

Over time, those are the type of songs that prove to be more enduring and timely, because the message is there and everyone can relate to that.

My biggest goal really is to inspire. Tom said that to me once, "Our job is to inspire the listeners, and if we can do something to make their moment feel a little brighter and make them feel good inside, then you've done your job."

I'm curious about the old tapes that you said you dug up that were hanging around. Do you have a big vault of stuff? Are they tapes in a box? What does that look like?

It looks like a wall of cabinets all full with two-inch tape from the last several decades. I have a home studio, and I do write a lot. I used to write more than Tom could deal with. He would pick out the ones if he liked something, but there might be 20 other ones in there that maybe weren't as good, but had some merit. So I stick them on the shelf, and write more, and always try and move forward.

It was actually my wife who said, "You really ought to go back and listen to those." I didn't want to go back to the past, but she said, "You might have overlooked some things." And so it's to her credit that I got my engineer. He pulled out the boxes — and you have to bake them now. If you have old tapes, there's a whole process. You put them in an oven, because they get gummy or whatever over the years. You have to burn that off carefully. Then you can actually play the tape, and then we would transfer them over to digital. When he had like 20 or whatever, I'd sit down and listen to them. 

And so four of the songs, I think, on the new album are from that process. I completely forgot about some of them. I would hear it back, and I’d go, "Oh, I remember this. I'm glad I found this, because this is better than I thought." Those, combined with the new things I was writing, that's how we put the record together.

It's very cohesive. I mean, going back to what you said, that you're like, "I just do what I've always done." You can't tell this was made X amount of years ago, and this was made in the present day. It's a nice continuum.

"Tom said that to me once, 'Our job is to inspire the listeners.'"

Well, luck, really. [Laughs.] But I have to give credit to my co-producer, George Drakoulias, for that. My band is so good in the studio. We don't play the songs many times — one, two, maybe three times, and then move on to the next song. We must have cut 25, 26 songs for this record. Some of them are rock songs. Some of them are ballad-y. Some of them veer into maybe a slightly different genre that may be a Beach Boys feel or something. So I got a little confused: "How do I find the 10 songs on here that fit into one flow?" George was very helpful with that. He said, "Well, these go together. Maybe leave those for the next record." And so he has to have credit for that.

Chris Stapleton, Lucinda Williams and Graham Nash all are on the record adding lovely contributions. What do they all bring to the songs for you?

They've all, in each case, made them better. I wrote the songs, and we were just going to do them ourselves, and then as I'm listening back, me or George might say, "You know, this would be good if another voice came in," or "Chris is in town. He's getting a Grammy up the street. Maybe he'll stop by.” 'Hey. Since you're here, would you like to sing on this verse on this song,' or Lucinda?" 

That song that I did with Lucinda, which is called "Hell or High Water," she just made the song 10 times better, because it's a female perspective, and her voice is so full of ache and soul. It’s much better than just hearing me sing all the way through the song.

And then Graham Nash—I had done an interview with him and I got up to courage — because I'm a huge Hollies fan — [to ask] him, "Would you maybe have time or be open to maybe singing some harmonies on one of the songs?" He said, "Sure. Send it to me." So I sent him the song “Dare to Dream,” and when he mailed it back. It was like Christmas. Like "Wow. Look what he did. He made my song sound like the Hollies,” [with] the richness of the Hollies' vocals, which I could never do on my own. So he brought a lot to it.

Of course, [Heartbreakers member] Benmont [Tench] played some piano on one song. There's nobody better than him. But the guests were kind of afterthoughts. It's not like I intended, "Oh, I'm going to write this song for so-and-so." I usually write the songs for my band, and then, on reflection, ideas come up, "Well, maybe this should be a duet," or whatever. I got some great guests. I'm really proud of them.

I love the Graham Nash song especially. With the Hollies, the vocals and the harmonies are just inimitable.

Yeah. How lucky am I? [Laughs.]

It totally is like Christmas. I love the idea — it’s like, "Here you go. Graham Nash made you a present."

He said something really, really clever when I asked him, because I was very shy, "Could you please?" He looked at me and goes, with a wink in his eye, "Yeah. I'll make your song better." [Laughs.] And he did.

In the credits, you also thank Stevie Nicks for the cool dulcimer. What makes it cool, and how did that come about?

Well, I was rehearsing for the Fleetwood Mac tour several years ago. Kind of seems like ancient history already. Mick Fleetwood, who doodles around on dulcimers and ukuleles and stuff, he had one of that model, and I'd never seen it before. I was coveting it and telling him how great it was, and Stevie overheard me. A few days later, I came in, and she says, "Here's one for you." She went and got me one.


And so I thought it was perfect for the cover [art], and I wrote the song “Innocent Man” on that dulcimer. It's got kind of a dulcimer riff in it. So I owe her a lot of credit. She’s amazing.

On the forthcoming Tom Petty tribute, you're playing on “Ways to Be Wicked” with Margo Price. How did that come about that you were able to do that song with Margo?

It was actually George Drakoulias, once again, who was involved with the production of the country tribute album. “Ways to Be Wicked” is an old song from, I think, our second album. I had written the music and gave it to Tom. We recorded it a few times, but never quite caught the fire on the track. So we put that on the shelf.

"It's very Beatles-esque and has some clever musical tempo changes."

Jimmy Iovine, our producer back in the day, he took it to Lone Justice, and they did a great version of it. Then it’s just been in the dust. And then George remembered it and was involved with that [tribute] record. He got Margo, and he said, "Well, why don't you do this song?" 

So he put that together, and I played some guitar and sang a little bit of buried vocals in there. [Laughs.] But I love the song. I think it's a really great lyric from Tom, really sarcastic, and pointed, and clever. It's an exuberant track. It rocks really good. And Margo, she's just a firecracker. She put a lot of life in it. So it's like your children have come back to life. 

That song in particular is one of those songs where people are like, "This is such an amazing song." It's just one of those that just does keep coming back.

One thing I'm really especially proud of in my years and with Tom and now with my band is the songs. A good song will age well. In the Heartbreakers, a lot of the songs I wrote with Tom—"Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “A Woman in Love,” so many of them — "Here Comes My Girl,” they age well. You can hear them years later, and they can still get the feeling and be affected by them. We were fortunate that we had a good catalog of songs, I think better than most bands over that much time. 

Songs are gifts. They're magic. Where do they come from? But if you get a good one, you're very fortunate.

Is there one that you've written with Tom or on your own that you wish would get more attention now?

Well, there is one song. It's called “All or Nothin'” [from “Into the Great Wide Open”] and it's a really powerful song. He wrote some great lyrics to it. We worked on it with Jeff Lynne, and he really liked it. It's got some interesting chords, and I was hoping that song would've gotten a little more attention. It's a deep track that's sitting there.

Another one is “Can't Stop the Sun.” It's very Beatles-esque and has some clever musical tempo changes. Those are a couple. But we have a lot of deep tracks that are good. Maybe they'll surface some and get more attention.

Absolutely — and you never know. You have fans or musicians who are like, "Oh. I love this song." Maybe they do a cover of it. Maybe they start talking about it, and it resurfaces. There are b-sides from bands released 30 years ago that are suddenly viral. It's wild and so unpredictable.

That's cool. That's what I mean. Songs have a life of their own. If they're good, they usually resurface eventually for somebody.

You recently appeared at Carney Fest in Tulsa at the Church Studio where you made your first studio recordings with [early Tom Petty band] Mudcrutch. What went through your mind as you returned to the site 50 years later?

A lot of things went through my mind — mostly how much I miss my brother, Tom, because we started out there. We met Denny Cordell, who got us our first record deal, there. The Church [Studio] is still there. They renovated it, but it pretty much looks like it did back in the day. It was walking in that room where Tom and I first walked in many years ago and had our little dream that maybe we'll make something someday.

All the energy was still there; those ghosts were swimming around in the room. It was kind of emotional. But it was also exciting. I love Tulsa, and at Church, there's a scene at the end of the [“Dare to Dream”] video where I'm on top of the church at sundown. They've got a drone filming the whole skyline of Tulsa as the song fades out. It was very sweet — a little bitter, because I miss Tom. But it was inspiring.

I know you have some touring coming up. Are you working on anything else at the moment besides this new record?

Well, we do have a tour coming up. We are a hard-working band. We're going to go through the Midwest, and we're playing theaters now. We've graduated past the biker bars mostly. And so we're playing nicer rooms, which is great. We’ve got a great opening act for this tour, Shannon McNally from Nashville.

While I'm in New York, I'm going to meet up with my record company, and do a little promo, and kind of try to buzz up the band. We love to play. I can't wait to get out and play these new songs in front of people, and we have the sweetest fans. That's why that first song on the record, it's a real thank you to the people that have supported me on my journey in the last couple of years. [Editor’s note: The song starts with crowd noise.] We're very grateful and excited to see them all again.

It's been really good timing, because everyone is hungry for live music, and connection, and community. And this music is perfect for it.

Live music will never die. The industry has changed a lot. It's not like it used to be. But live music . . . I look at it like we're a rock ‘n’ roll church. You come to our sermon [Laughs] and for a couple of hours, you can forget about wars and politics, and all that, and just be in a place of love, and joy, and redemption with us for a few hours, and hopefully feel better about yourself. We always feel better. We're doing it to heal ourselves, as well.

And that’s the connection you have with the audience, because everyone is in the same place with the same goal at the end of the night.

There's nothing like it. There's no other place in life to get that feeling that happens when you connect, and they connect with you, and the sound is right. Magic just comes in the room and lifts everybody up. It's the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. It's a beautiful thing. I love my job.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Interview Mike Campbell Music The Dirty Knobs Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers