Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Guitarist Mike Campbell on Fronting His Latest Band the Dirty Knobs

The founding member of the Heartbreakers recently unveiled his new album 'Vagabonds, Virgins and Misfits'

<p>Chris Phelps </p> Mike Campell of the Dirty Knobs

Chris Phelps

Mike Campell of the Dirty Knobs

For over 40 years, Mike Campbell was an integral member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as their lead guitarist, co-songwriter and co-producer. After Petty died in 2017, Campbell took on a new role in his long musical career: singer and leader of his current band, the Dirty Knobs, who just released their third album called Vagabonds, Virgins and Misfits.

“I've gone through a bit of a metamorphosis,” Campbell, 74, tells PEOPLE ahead of the Dirty Knobs’ tour, which began on June 21, in Skokie, Illinois. “[With] the Heartbreakers, I had the easiest job in the world and I didn't realize it. Tom did all the work. He was up there directing the circus, and I just sat there, ‘la-di-da, play guitar here, play guitar there.’ Now [with the Dirty Knobs,] I've got to remember lyrics, sing on pitch, lead the band. But I'm embracing it and I'm getting a lot of confidence doing it.”

Vagabonds, Virgins and Misfits is a continuation of the classic roots-rock sound that the Dirty Knobs – whose most recent lineup consists of Campbell, bassist Lance Morrison, guitarist Chris Holt and drummer Matt Laug – have mined since their 2020 debut album Wreckless Abandon. Campbell says his goal for the new record was just writing good songs and getting better at it.

“It's all about the songs,” he says. “The direction of the record is defined by the direction the songs take, and they come from wherever they come from. It's a mystery, but I just follow the muse.”

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Lyrically, Campbell’s songs are like short stories about other people and not necessarily about himself, like on the yearning-sounding track “Angel of Mercy" off the new record. "My songs tend to take the shape of the characters,” he says, “and then I use my own experience to maybe feed the character. 'Angel of Mercy' is a good example. It's about desperate people, misfits in some kind of bad situation, and the song is trying to move them through it to some resolution at the end. This guy [in the song] is struggling and he's hoping his angel of mercy will get him back home safe."

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Several well-known artists appear on the new album, including Graham Nash on the very hopeful “Dare to Dream”; Nash had earlier appeared on Campbell’s talk show The Breakdown on SiriusXM. “Graham Nash was such a godsend for this song,” Campbell says. “He had done an interview with me, and I embarrassingly asked him, 'Would you consider singing harmony or something?' He said, ‘Sure.’ I had already finished the song and I sent it to him and he sent it back to me twice as good. I love his voice. So for me, it's like a gift from heaven.”

Another legend, Lucinda Williams, guests with Campbell on the reflective ballad “Hell or High Water.” “I had finished the song from the guy's point of view. There's a storyline: this guy's wandering through the night, gets into this situation, and is trying to get out of it. Then there's a second verse about this girl who's in the story. And I thought if I could find a woman to sing that, it would really make the song better. I asked [Lucinda] and she was very shy about it, but I pleaded with her to do it. And she did the most phenomenal job. She brings so much soul and vulnerability in her voice.”

The rollicking rocker “Don’t Wait Up” features Chris Stapleton and Benmont Tench, Campbell’s Heartbreakers bandmate who gives a scene-stealing performance on piano. “Chris and I met on the last record [Wreckless Abandon],” Campbell says. “We met and became fast friends and did some things together. We stayed in touch. I think he was in town winning another Grammy or something, and he had an afternoon free. He came by and I happened to have that song. I said, ‘Do you want to sing a verse on this?’ He said, ‘Sure, man.’ So he just jumped right in and did it. He's probably the best singer out there right now in his genre.”

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He adds: “I was so thrilled that [Benmont] had time to come over and pop a piano on there with one take. He plays this great s--- all the time.”

With Campbell and the Dirty Knobs out on the road for their tour, there’s a very good chance they’ll play “The Greatest,” an anthemic rocker written as a tribute to fans. “It's a thank-you song to the crowds that have been so sweet to us," says Campell. "It was written in three minutes — 'I’d-like-to-thank-everybody’ in a song — and then turned [into] this great kind of 'Strawberry Fields' drone-y cool vibe. It is a difficult song to do because of all the harmonies, but we're going to buckle down and try to put it across on stage.”

Campbell has been keeping busy in addition to leading the Dirty Knobs — he also participated in Petty Country, a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tribute album featuring country stars such as Stapleton, Dolly Parton, Brothers Osborne, Wynonna Judd, Luke Combs and Lainey Wilson. For that album, which was released on June 21, Campbell is paired with Margo Price on “Ways to Be Wicked,” originally co-written by him and Petty and first recorded in the 1980s by the band Lone Justice.

“I'm really glad that song resurfaced," the guitarist says, "because I think it's a really good song, great lyrics and rocking music. Then this country thing came up and [Margo] thought, ‘Well, I could do that song.’ And she came over and I put some guitar and a little harmony on it, and it rocks really good. I'm really proud of that song. And she did a bang-up job on it.”

As appreciative of the music he made with Petty with the Heartbreakers, Campbell has welcomed being the frontman of the Dirty Knobs, which initially began over 20 years ago as a side project with fellow Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone (who will be drumming with the Dirty Knobs on this tour) and bassist Ron Blair.

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“So there's a thread of Heartbreaker's soul,” says Campbell, “and we have that bond between us and all those years of playing with Tom, who we miss terribly…I've gotten more confident with running the [Dirty Knobs], talking to the audience, and writing and playing. I really like the role I'm in now. It’s a challenge, but it's a good challenge.”

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