There’s something counterintuitive about Craig Campbell’s “Outskirts of Heaven.” It’s a ballad that contemplates the afterlife, delivered in 3/4 time, and released as buds are sprouting and temperatures are rising. Many of his peers are trotting out summer anthems, and Campbell has a languid steel guitar wafting long notes over a spacious arrangement.
And that’s perhaps the secret weapon behind “Outskirts.” Campbell’s two highest-charting singles to date — “Family Man” (No. 14, 2009) and “Keep Them Kisses Comin’ ” (No. 9, Country Airplay, 2014) — peaked in weeks No. 35 and No. 27 of their chart life. Should “Outskirts” follow a similar trajectory, it’s likely to amass its most airplay right around the start of November, when consumers are fashioning holiday lists and adopting a more thankful tone for their lives and families.
Plus, with all those upbeat, splashy songs in circulation during the summer, someone needs to slow it down, just to provide a little contrarian, old-school relief.
“You don’t want everything to sound the same,” says “Outskirts” co-writer Dave Turnbull (“Old Alabama,” “The Boys of Fall”). “That’s what attracted me to this business in the first place. You have several different styles in this genre.”
Campbell’s “Outskirts” is actually rooted in the summer. The chorus references a rural outdoor setting — “dogwood trees and honey bees/And blue skies and green grass forever” — when Mother Nature is in full bloom. And it was written in July 2015, with the mercury hovering around 90 degrees.
Campbell had introduced the title to Turnbull more than two months earlier. They took part in an annual benefit, organized by songwriter Kelley Lovelace (“Crushin’ It,” “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight”), for Bethel Bible Village at the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Convention Center on May 14, 2015. Just days earlier, Campbell had been mulling the images of Heaven he had gleaned from the Bible in his Southern Baptist upbringing: the streets of gold, the mansions of glory. As an adult, that portrait didn’t sound so heavenly.
“It’s not my style, if you compare it to where I grew up,” says the South Georgia native. “The song was written from my point of view, like if the good Lord does know me like he says he knows me, then he’ll put me on the outskirts of Heaven.”
Campbell shared the title with Turnbull while riding the hotel escalator after that Chattanooga show, and Turnbull asked Campbell to hold it for the next time that they wrote together.
When that happened, in the last week of July, it came just days after Turnbull’s uncle had died. That naturally had him thinking about mortality and what happens in the next life, and it gave them a starting place for “Outskirts” as they wrote it at Turnbull’s suburban home. They put a grandpa in the opening line to establish a mentor — Turnbull thought of his uncle, Campbell considered it his stepfather — who imparted common-sense, country wisdom: how to use a buck knife, the proper use of a rod and reel, how to drive a manual transmission. By the fourth line, Grandpa was deep into religion, and when they got to the chorus, they took the melody to a higher plateau and drove the point home.
“We came up with the line ‘Lord, when I die I want to live…,’ which we thought was kind of cool,” says Turnbull. “ ‘Lord, when I die I want to live on the outskirts of Heaven.’”
The second verse dug even deeper into the Bible, though the singer became more specific about his own vision of paradise: “A farmhouse with acreage/And a backyard that’s shaded/And a squeaky front porch swing.” The squeak speaks volumes — the homestead needs some work, but the imperfections are what he appreciates most.
“There’s things about my house that we live in right now that I don’t want to fix just because I’m used to it,” says Campbell. “That’s part of my house.”
Turnbull rhymed the front porch swing with “angel’s wings” — they high-fived over that one — and wrapped it up in a focused afternoon. Somewhat miraculously, they did not come back to it.
“On average, I take between two and four appointments to feel like a song’s completed,” says Turnbull, “but this one came out in that one day. I think we wrote it in three or four hours. It’s weird for me to actually look back that night or the next morning and go, ‘I think that one’s done.’ ”
Campbell posted a #NewMusicMonday video performance of “Outskirts” on -Facebook on Aug. 3, and he recorded it at Cones’ Westwood Studios on a date numerologists might find divinely inspired — Nov. 11, “11/11” in shorthand — with Mike Johnson ladling steel guitar atop a sparingly crafted track.
“Needless to say, the steel guitar player on the session was pretty fired up about it,” says Campbell. “But all the guys in the band were like, ‘Wow, this is so refreshing to be able to play a 3/4 time country song.’ I was like, ‘Well, that’s what I’m here for, boys: to satisfy your country music needs.’ ”
The band nailed it on the third full take with Troy Lancaster playing the electric guitar solo live, unusual in the current studio environment.
Originally, Johnson’s steel provided an ethereal close to the song, but Campbell had been tagging it live with a rolling piano lick that sounds much like Hargus “Pig” Robbins’ work on early-’80s George Jones records. He taught the lick to keyboardist Tony Harrell, who revamped the end of “Outskirts.”
“It ended up being such a good call,” says Cones.
Campbell persuaded Cones to dial back on the intro during the mixing process — the original version was loud enough that it didn’t leave room for the song to grow — and he also made the final vocals a snap. Cones had warned him at the outset that he’s a perfectionist on vocals — “I’ll spend eight hours on one song if we have to,” says Cones — but Campbell was so prepared, and so forceful, that they were done after three run-throughs.
Campbell took it to BBR Music Group president/CEO Benny Brown and debated between “Outskirts” and a lighter, uptempo alternative, “Winnebago,” for their summer song. Campbell ultimately called “Outskirts” a recording he would be willing to gamble his entire career on, and Brown gave him a thumbs up.
BBR’s Red Bow imprint sent “Outskirts” to radio through Play MPE on March 21, and it debuts on the April 30 Country Airplay chart at No. 56.
“After we were done writing it, I was very proud — almost to the point where I don’t even feel like I wrote it,” says Campbell. “It was like a divine kind of one.”
Will the counterintuitive plan for “Outskirts” match up to that otherworldly inspiration? Heaven only knows. The answer will come, but through more earthly channels.
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.