Stories and songs and treasures of the past
Jan 01, 2015 06:20PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt
A magazine rack painted by Zane.
Gallery: Stories and songs and treasures of the past [8 Images] Click any image to expand.
By John Chambless
Everything in the Childs Store comes with a story. That includes the 1906 building, the hand-crafted wooden furniture, the off-kilter folk art paintings, and the store owners themselves.
Greeting visitors with a smile and a handshake, Hugh Campbell shows off the array of furniture that he creates out of cast-off boards, old windows and hardware -- the kinds of things that other people might throw away, but he can't let go. Hugh's sturdy furniture echoes past generations, and it retains the marks that time has left -- a knothole or nail hole, a few touches of old paint, perhaps some glass that has the rippled surface of centuries past.
But here and there, on a door or a tabletop, there are paintings by Hugh's brother, Zane, that give a witty new dimension to the one-of-a-kind pieces. Get both of the Campbells in the same room, and things get interesting.
"My grandfather was a gunsmith and a wagon maker down in North Carolina," Hugh said. "The other grandfather was a schoolteacher, so that's where the wordplay and songwriting came in. Both grandfathers were fiddling champions. Our parents were both musicians, too. With the woodworking, I didn't seriously start making stuff until I was about 40. That was right around the time Zane came back here from New York, and we put the two talents together."
The roots of the Campbell family are in the North Carolina mountains, but they've been a presence along the Maryland/Pennsylvania border for so long that it seems they've always been here. Campbell's Corner store in Oxford was a landmark for generations. Ola Belle Reed, the aunt of Hugh and Zane, achieved renown on the bluegrass circuit and played on dozens of recordings. The Campbells turned up at Sunset Park, the much-missed live music venue in West Grove, many times.
Hugh spent years in Austin, Texas, plugging away as a songwriter. Zane went to New York City to play in a string of bands and as a solo act. Now, with their cousin Jerimy Campbell minding the business end of things, the brothers are the creative force behind the Childs Store, which sits in the center of the tiny village of Childs, just north of Elkton. Hugh bought the building in 2003 after his aunt had run an antique shop there since 1973.
Hugh said his years in Austin just came to an end naturally around 1991, and he longed to return to his home. Zane spent 20 years in New York before feeling the same pull to come back to Maryland in 1998. The new version of the Childs Store opened in the spring of 2013.
Jerimy said, "I'm here as much as I can be. I've been in retail since I was old enough to see over the register drawer at Campbell's Corner. So I know how to deal with people in retail situations."
Zane, stretched out on the couch at the back of the store in a T-shirt spattered with old paint, held forth loudly with rapid-fire jokes and verbal detours. "My internal editor is broken," he said with a hint of a grin. "I'm an idiot savant with a capital I.
"I was in New York for 20 years," he said. "I worked in the World Trade Center for a while, in an office. I worked in a boardinghouse as a janitor, and later as a manager, when I was in my 20s. I did graphic arts, bounced around. I also played music -- I had an album produced by Tommy Ramone that did not get released. He was a big fan. I opened up for Meat Loaf a couple of times, Joan Jett, people like that. I also did folk and country music up there as well."
Zane's days at the boarding house -- home to an array of street people and addicts -- are documented in his "Tales of an Alcoholic Janitor," a graphic novel he wrote and drew that was excerpted by Kitchen Sink Press. "It was about all this outrageous stuff that happened while I was living in this Manhattan boarding house in the early '80s. Three excerpts from it were put out in Death Rattle Comics," Zane added with a hearty chuckle. "I said, 'You're putting my autobiography in a horror comic?' And they said, 'Yes, we think it fits in quite nicely.' You know your life is bad when it ends up in a horror comic book."
Now sober, Zane has pursued both his painting and his music. In the shop, about half of the furniture pieces have a painting by him somewhere. Hugh decides which pieces need some artwork, but once he turns Zane loose, the results are spectacularly good.
"I'm starting to sell a lot of art. There's a backlog now," Zane said, adding that he's not a pure "outsider" artist because he had two years of schooling at the University of Maryland. His folk art, however, is the kind of naive, straight-from-the-heart style that collectors love.
There's a wall of his work in the shop that regularly sells out and has to be replenished. Much of it shows Zane's funhouse sense of humor. A rolling pin is placed on a plaque that reads, "Husband Adjustment Device." A small painting shows a man nervously looking sideways at others, and it's captioned "Everybody IS out to get you." Over in a corner, a rack is painted like a monster's face in mid-bite.
On the other hand, a slab of wood hanging like a mobile in the middle of the room has pleasant local landscapes painted on both sides. Zane used the darker spots in the wood as lakes in the painting, leaving the raw wood to show through and adding his paint only where necessary.
"I look at the grain to see if I can incorporate the grain in the piece," he said. "I see if it brings anything to mind. I like to see something in it, like a sculptor will look at a block of stone. I like to do regional stuff about our area -- boats and cattails, mountains, old houses, rivers."
On a tabletop, a painting of a guitarist sitting on a moonlit porch looks like it could have been painted in the 1930s. A view of boats on the North East River shows a place he played as a young man.
In the shop, Hugh walks among the furniture he has rescued or built from scratch. All of it reflects a homespun sensibility while also being flawlessly constructed. One sideboard is made up what looks like a dozen of kinds of wood. Two small cabinets were only mismatched pieces when Hugh got ahold of them. He designed and built the resulting matching side tables, and passed them over to Zane for a little painting.
"I've been reclaiming wood for 30 years, before it got trendy," Hugh said. "We go to auctions and get stuff that's in disrepair, and put it back together. We try to give folks a bargain on these things. We're not trying to grab every nickel."
The prices in the store are reasonable to the point of being a steal. Clearly, the Campbells enjoy matching up customers with furniture that they'll love and that won't break the budget. "I like to think about when somebody buys a piece that we've done and it's in their home, hopefully it'll get passed on to their grandkids," Hugh said. "See, when we're dead and gone, it'll be worth something," he added, laughing.
"It's always wood that comes by way of auction that was going to be discarded anyway, or it's reclaimed. This right here," Hugh said, "was a slab of wood, going nowhere fast. A fine cabinet maker wouldn't use this because it has a knot in it. But for my purposes, that's like natural beauty. I can do anything with that. And this corner cupboard here started with a window I got, and I built the cupboard around the window."
There's a full-size coffin leaning by the front door. "You'd be amazed how many people want to get in there and have their picture taken," Hugh said with a smile. "I built it for Halloween one year. Over the years I've probably built a dozen that people have purchased. I didn't ask any questions. Our brother was a licensed mortician for many years, and we grew up next to a funeral home. It's not as taboo a subject with us."
The back room of the store is where the music end of their lives tends to show up. A large mural of the North Carolina mountains is bracketed by LPs, framed photos and posters, CDs and other memorabilia of the generations of Campbells who have played music. Alex Campbell and Ola Belle founded the New River Ranch music park in Rising Sun in 1951. Ola Belle married Bud Reed and she achieved fame as a songwriter and performer. The Campbells played regularly at Sunset Park and at New River Ranch. Herb Campbell, Jerimy's father, is known for writing "Don't You Call My Name," a standard that has been covered many times by other artists.
In November, the Campbells will be prominently featured in the 400-page book and two-CD package "Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music," produced by Dust to Digital, a company that specializes in documenting and preserving Appalachian music and arts. It's a monumental honor for the family, and Hugh showed off a photocopied preview of the finished product. The book should go a long way toward cementing the Campbell family's place in Appalachian music.
Hang around long enough at the store and you'll probably get a song or two. Bringing out his battered acoustic guitar and notebooks packed with handwritten lyrics, Zane launched into his "I Can Write a Song" as Hugh added harmonies from across the room, where he was working on a piece of furniture. The song was inspired by Jerimy's father, who walked into Campbell's Corner one day in 1969 and told Zane he could write a song about anything. At the end of the song, Zane improvises words about whatever strikes his fancy, with results that can easily go off the rails in a highly entertaining way.
Then it was "Don't You Call My Name," as Hugh pulled up a chair and added his own guitar and harmonies on the high, heartbroken chorus. Tapping his foot on the timeworn, burnished floor, he blended seamlessly with his brother until Zane, in mid-song, interjected, "It's draggin' ass! Pick it up!" and doubled the tempo. "My Little Vessel" was next, a comic tale of cutting ties and taking off, with timeless bluegrass harmonies and the warm interplay of the two guitars.
By the time Hugh and Zane kicked off the poignant "Springtime" and "High on a Mountain" by Ola Belle Reed, their full-throated singing filled the shop, echoing down through the decades, straight to the hills and hollers of their ancestral home.
"High on a mountain, standing all alone, I'm wonderin' where the years of my life have flown," Zane sang, glancing over at Hugh with the smile of a contented man.
The Child Store (1375 Blueball Rd., Elkton, Md.) is open Friday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 443-553-1070 or e-mail email@example.com or visit facebook.com/childsstore for more information.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.