Track By Track: Mike Campbell on Tom Petty, Chris Stapleton and the Dirty Knobs’ ‘Wreckless Abandon’
Mike Campbell launched The Dirty Knobs after coming to terms with his increasingly prolific creative output. Although Campbell wrote and recorded with Tom Petty for over 40 years—through Petty’s death in 2017—in the mid-2000s, the Heartbreakers guitarist acknowledged the surfeit of unused material that he had originally presented to his musical partner.
“I never really had a solo record in mind,” Campbell explains. “I have a lot of songs, and I would always give them to Tom. If I was fortunate, he would write to the good ones. But I ended up piling up so many pieces of music that he couldn’t possibly ever write to all of them. That’s when I started just writing to them myself for fun, just to see what they would sound like.”
“Then I met the guys in The Dirty Knobs, and we started just playing for fun in the studio. We liked what we were doing, so we went out and played a few gigs. I never contemplated going recording with them but, after we’d been playing for a while, I thought, ‘Well, this is a good band. I’d like to do an album with them.’”
Over the years, Campbell occasionally found a home for some of the material that Petty didn’t select, thanks to artists such as Don Henley and Stevie Nicks. Campbell later joined Nicks for Fleetwood Mac’s 2018–19 world tour, where she sang Petty’s “Free Fallin’” during their encore. The guitarist recalls, “When she first suggested that to me, I said, ‘Please, no’ because I was tired of playing that song after the last 30 years. But then she said, ‘I think it’ll be a nice tribute and we’ll have a little video to let everybody remember Tom.’ Once she explained it to me, I thought it was a good idea, and it was emotional every night when we got to that part of the show. It got to a point where I would not look back at the video because I might choke up a little bit. But it connected with a lot of people and kept his love and memory alive on some level. So I think she was right. It was a nice thing to do.”
Campbell’s best-known songwriting collaboration outside of the Heartbreakers is “Boys of Summer,” which became a hit for Henley in 1984. The guitarist looks back with affection on Petty’s reaction to this success: “When I first played him the music, he passed on it. But it had a different chorus and he was too busy writing to some other stuff. So it got left on the shelf. Then I got the call through Jimmy Iovine that Don Henley was looking for songs. So it ended up being his and it turned out well, thank God, because, at the time, I was having some financial issues and that kind of saved my ass. Flash forward several years later: I was in a car with Tom and it came on the radio. He told me, ‘That was good for you,’ which he had never acknowledged before because we’re brothers, and we’re competitive. Then he said, ‘I wish I would have had the presence of mind not to let that one get away.’ I thought that was just so brotherly and sweet. I respected that he had the humility to admit it and to accept it.”
As for The Dirty Knobs— which also features Jason Sinay on guitar and vocals, Lance Morrison on bass and Matt Laug on drums— Campbell explains that the quartet came together almost by happenstance. “I went to a session with my engineer friend, Don Smith, who worked with the Heartbreakers for many years,” he says. “I was going to cut some demos and he knew this guy, Jason. When I met him, I didn’t know what to think of him because he had this weird, blue Mohawk. I thought. ‘This guy can’t be right.’ But we started playing together and I realized that he fit in really well with me and, eventually, his hair grew out. I did not have auditions to start a band, though. My roadie said, ‘I just saw this drummer at a session.’ So he brought Matt in. Then Matt said, ‘Oh, I know this guy who plays bass.’ Those were the guys that showed up, and it just instantly worked. I didn’t want to look any further.”
While the quartet initially convened in the studio—where the band derived their name from a literal dirty knob—their original focus was live gigs. “I loved the challenge of playing clubs when we first started. We would go into a place with 200-300 people. Some of them might have known who I was, some of them might not have, but we did not rely on the hits. I didn’t play Heartbreakers songs,” Campbell remembers. “So we’d go out and play songs they’d never heard before. I loved that. It was a real challenge and we learned how to win the crowd over without playing ‘Refugee’ or ‘Free Fallin’’’ or any of the songs they knew. I think that gave us a spirit, a drive and a challenge that spilled over into the album.”
The impetus to record Wreckless Abandon came after Petty passed away. Campbell found himself floundering a bit, creatively, before he reoriented himself by enlisting producer George Drakoulias (The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks) and entering the studio with the group. Campbell admits, “I was lost for a little while there. But then I realized that recording with The Dirty Knobs was my own way of honoring what Tom and I had done together for so many years.”
The song title just came to me and it kind of explains how The Dirty Knobs play. The Dirty Knobs is a fly-by-the seat-of-your-pants, kinetic, live-feeling type of band. This whole record was done mostly live in the studio with very few overdubs, including this one where the solo was live. I wanted to capture the reckless abandon when we play together—this is how we sound, there’s no polish, per se, and we’re going for it. So this song kind of sets up the record.
Pistol Packin’ Mama (featuring Chris Stapleton)
“Pistol Packin’ Mama” represents the sense of humor that appears throughout the album here and there. I like a sense of humor in music. I think the title came from a phrase I’d heard on an old country song. So once I had that idea, I had to ask, “OK, who is she and what is she doing? And who is this guy who’s experiencing this girl that he wants to get with but she’s carrying a gun?” I put myself into that frame of mind and I wanted to have a track that has a Stonesy sway to it, a “Honky Tonk Women” kind of groove, and it sprung out of that. It’s also got some tongue-in-cheek lyrics that hopefully make you smile a little bit.
There was some lucky timing with Chris Stapleton. He had called me up and wanted to come out to LA to write with me. I had never really done that. It was different from the way I had written with Tom where, rarely, if ever, we sat down eyeball to eyeball and tried to pull something out of thin air, because it’s kind of intimate. But I agreed to give it a shot and I enjoyed it. Chris and I think alike—we threw ideas back and forth and it felt comfortable. [Two of the songs from these sessions appear on Stapleton’s new album Starting Over.] Now, by this point, we had “Pistol Packin’ Mama” finished with me singing all the vocals. But, once we hit it off, I asked him if he’d like to maybe sing a harmony on the song. I played it for him and he loved it. Then, after he sang a harmony, I said, “Well, since you’re here, would you like to sing the second verse?” He said yes and he did a great job—it made the song better.
The other thing I like about that song is that George Drakoulias and I were listening to it and it kind of reminded us of the Sir Douglas Quintet. We were talking about it, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a Tex-Mex organ?” Typically, we’re a guitar band, but I told him it would be cool if we added a Sir Douglas Quintet, Augie Meyers-type organ. So he said, “Well why don’t we just call Augie Meyers himself?” He called him up, sent him the tape, and he overdubbed the organ and sent it back to us. So we got Augie Meyers himself, doing the thing that he does so well.
“Sugar” was a song that we had played live before. It started with a guitar riff that I thought was infectious. It’s kind of a simple lyric but it also has a great groove and a guitar feel that I just fell in love with. It went down well live when we played it, so I thought, “We gotta put this on the record. There’s just something about it.”
When I began writing songs, I always used to start with the guitar. I didn’t write any lyrics at the beginning. Tom was so good that I would prefer to give him a blank palette and not suggest any particular direction so that he could do what he wanted. As the years went on with the Heartbreakers, I would occasionally work on the lyrics and the melodies as well. I would sometimes give him a song with my idea and then this blank palette with no vocals. Occasionally, he would add a melody or a line here and there, like with “Can’t Stop the Sun.” I had some of the words for that and the melody and he took it and, of course, made it 10 times better.
When I was working with Don Henley and Stevie Nicks, I would just give them the music and let them do whatever they wanted. And they always did something good.
But now that I’ve become enamored with the lyrics part of it, I find that sometimes I’ll start there. I’ll get an idea for some rhymes and put it together and then put music to it later. But most of the time, my go-to approach is: Start with the guitar and get some feels and grooves, a few chords that go together and then try to find a melody over it. I’ll hum along with it until some kind of words pop out.
I am a Southern boy. I’m not a hardcore redneck, but I am from the South and I love the South. I wanted to show what this Southern boy was up to but I thought, “Well, we’ll see it from the girl’s point of view.” She’s chasing him for whatever reason and she’s up to no good. It’s as simple as that. Matt played incredible drums on it and it has this great groove. It also gave me the chance to really play out on the guitar.
I Still Love You
This is an older song written in the first person, and it’s personal. It’s something I went through, so it’s a very emotional song for me and I feel that every time we play it. I wanted to capture that emotional scar of trying to heal things that went wrong and trying to patch things up. The lyrics are simple and direct, but that’s not a character, that’s actually me.
“Irish Girl” is one of my favorite songs on the record. It’s more poetic than I would normally get. I was inspired when I heard Van Morrison on the radio while driving home one night. It was a Van Morrison and Them record. I don’t even know what song it was, but I loved the atmosphere of it. I liked the simplicity of just three chords and I thought I’d like to do something like that. So when I got home, I got the chords together and just started making up a story about this girl.
In this case, I tried Armenian girl and Italian girl as well, but Irish girl was the one that seemed to feel right. So I had this vague image of who she was and what she was trying to accomplish. I’m really proud of the words. There are a lot of interesting rhymes and pictures that are created within that song. I think it’s one of my better lyrics.
Songwriting is such a magical, mysterious thing. I’m still learning as I go along. But what I typically do if I get a germ of a song is that I will just try to figure out what it is that this character is doing. I try to see the movie in my mind—where are they going and who are they encountering along the way. I look at it like a little bit of a film and then try to put it into song form. So most of the time, I’m thinking in third person, as some sort of character. Occasionally the first person will creep in there and I’ll realize, while I’m singing, that this is me talking—not some character that’s fictitious.
Fuck That Guy
“Fuck That Guy” was totally unplanned. Chris Stapleton was here and, one day, he said, “I’ve got an idea for a song called ‘Fuck That Guy’ because everybody probably feels that emotion at least once a day.” So I asked him, “Have you written it?” He said no, and I asked him if I could mess around with it. He told me I could, so I threw it together quickly and showed it to the band the next day.
Chris was right. How many times has somebody pulled in front of you on the road or cut you off at a stoplight and you’ve gone, “Fuck that guy” or something like that? It was a universal thing that everybody could probably apply to their own life on some level. And if you want to make it political, you can; I chose not to. There’s all kinds of things that can piss you off throughout the day and bring out that emotion.
We played it once and that was that. I didn’t even think it was going to be on the record but George got all excited about it. I just thought it would be a nice bit of comic relief in the middle of the record, which it is, but it started to become some people’s favorite song. So now we also have this video, which is hilarious.
Don’t Knock the Boogie
That one was hot off the presses. George came in one day and he’s good at putting everybody in a good mood and making it fun. So he walked in and said, “Don’t knock the boogie.” I thought that was a cool line so I decided to do something with it.
I sat down and made up a little story, mostly talking about a guy who walks into a bar. I was thinking of a John Lee Hooker groove, which we didn’t have on the record. That was also a foundation for some great guitar moments, just to go crazy. And once again, it has a sense of humor. It’s all just stream of conscious, involving a guy who walks in, sees the band and a woman in the corner. There’s no chorus to it. It’s just really an excuse to play guitar.
When I wrote “Don’t Wait,” I had my ‘59 Les Paul, and I was messing around with the thick bassy tone on it. I was thinking of a Cream-type sound and playing around with that tone. It’s a very simple lyric. It doesn’t say much, but it’s got kind of a sinister mood to it. It also has a great key change in the middle where the guitar can go crazy and then it comes back down. I like the dynamics. It’s loud, then it gets soft and then it gets loud again.
What I also like is that we did a nice performance but we didn’t rehearse it very much. There’s a lot of that on the record, where we just go for it. Even if we’re unpracticed, we’re good enough as a band that we can make it happen and make it sound like we knew what we were doing, even if it’s just happening in the moment.
“Anna Lee” was a relatively older song that we’d played live. The album needed a little lightness to counterbalance the hard stuff. So I thought this one fit. It’s about a girl who’s struggling, and the narrator is trying to help her through. It’s kind of spiritual and it’s got a lot of tenderness in it. I loved the melody and it’s just a way to soften up the ambiance for a while.
This one was originally a warm-up song in the studio when we were getting the band comfortable. It was something we’d played live and it always got a chuckle out of the audience—“Aw honey, what’d you do with all my money.” I didn’t think for a second that it would be a contender to be on the record. But after we finished it, George said, “There’s your first track.” I responded, “What are you talking about? We’re just warming up.” But he said, “No, there’s something about it.” So it ended up on the record.
It’s simple, but what I like about it is that, even though it’s humorous, the punch line’s really good—“If you don’t see me laughing, I don’t think it’s funny.” I heard that line somewhere and I just thought, “I’ve got to use that someday.” I like to counterbalance some humor with a little zinger in there.
That’s the beauty of songwriting. You can spend days working on a classic, epic song, fine-tuning it and changing it, and this and that. Or you can just throw something off the top of your head and it can be just as good. [Laughs.]
This one is several years old and it might be the last song that we recorded for the record. It’s got the steamroller, reckless-abandon vibe of The Dirty Knobs to me.
I played most of the solos on the record, although Jason played the slide on “Fuck That Guy,” which is amazing. Then on “Loaded Gun,” Jason plays the screeching, screaming, intense solo at the end. I’m very proud of him for that one.
I suppose you could read some sexual innuendo into it if you wanted to, but it’s just an exuberant burst of energy and it’s fun to play.
Don’t Knock the Boogie (Coda)
I was thinking it would be nice to remind everybody that you can’t knock the boogie. It will change your life and set you free. [Laughs.] And I thought that it would be nice to go out on an acoustic echo of the song.