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Transcript - Interview with John Campbell

Recorded on Track 2: “Candid Campbell”
© 1993 Elektra Entertainment

From the Elektra promo: “Ain’t Afraid of Midnight.”


Okay, that was “Ain’t Afraid of Midnight,” from John Campbell’s forthcoming record, Howlin Mercy. And sitting across from me is John Campbell, the man himself. Before we start talking about the new record, John, let’s get a little background history.

Where you born, for instance?

J.C. – I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana.

A normal upbringing – childhood?

J.C. – Well, so to speak. My father was in the construction business and he traveled where the highways ran. And he built railroads and highways. And we kind of followed the roads, you know. And, I went to a lot of schools and moved around a lot. I was born in Shreveport, but I grew up in Greenwood, Louisiana on a farm outside of Shreveport.

What music were you listening to when you grew up?

J.C. – Well, it was pretty eclectic bunch of music. My grandmother listened to what she called native music, which was the sound of Hawaiian guitar, you know, the crying guitar. And my mom listened to flamenco guitar of Montoya and that kind of stuff. And so, it was just the sound of the strings, you know. And I loved music and I loved machines.

So you grew up in a musical family?

J.C. – Yeah, I did.

When did you realize this could be a career for you?

J.C. – Well, it was what I wanted to do. I was interested in guitars and I was interested in motorcycles. You know, I had a job. I started working in a motorcycle shop when I was 13 years old. And I worked five days a week, you know. And, in Louisiana, at that time, you could get a permit for a motorcycle at 14. So I was working I had a five-six day a week job, money in my pocket and my own wheels. But, we were playing in bands. I started playing professionally when I was 13. And we played what we called field parties. You know, somebody would get a generator, hook it up in a field and we’d take our little ensemble out there and you know and play for some of the clubs around.

But, I guess the real point for me that I realized it’s what I was going to do with my life was my affection for machines developed into a dragster. And one night I was in an accident and that pretty much changed my life. I was about 16 years old. And, I almost lost my life in that accident and I was taken out of school and at the time of recovering from that I turned more to the guitar. And I became, kind of just- you know - I was alone. I was at home. I’d lost my right eye. I’d had plastic surgery. You know, and a fifteen – sixteen year old kid with a couple thousand stitches in his face and a patch and I found the guitar, you know, I started listening really closely to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and attempting to learn this vocabulary and play this music. And, at that time I realized that I could get in touch with feelings that I couldn’t verbalize. I couldn’t feel any other way. I could feel anger, I could feel pain, I could feel hope.

The Blues was your salvation really?

J.C. – Absolutely, It’s really hard to describe. But, I can recall just sitting on the edge of my bed and playing the guitar and it was almost like a mantra just to repeat these figures and suddenly I could feel things and I felt like I was touch with something and it was like I was exorcising my pain. I was learning to live again really. And I realized that that was what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I never went back to school. I tried. I left at 16 and I caught a Greyhound bus.

And ended up where?

J.C. – I ended up in Nacodoches, Texas.

What was that like?

J.C. – It was a town of cowboys, horses – not much going on. But, there was a sense of music there. There was a college campus nearby. And bands would come play there. Also though, in that area there were people that were really extensions of the first generation blues players. You know, older men that had played that had known Lightnin Hopkins that had traveled with Lightnin Hopkins and you know in that part of the country there was that school of music so to speak and you know in Shreveport, you know, John Lee Hooker recorded there for Jewell records. Lightning Hopkins recorded there. Lowell Fulson. You know, I’d run into a buddy and I’d say hey man what’s up and he’d say Lightnin’s cutting down at Stan’s place, you know.

And you know it was there. We had a lot of music on the radio, in Shreveport, when I was a kid. I mean, KOKA radio, they had the Blues hour every day at noon on AM Radio.

Tell me about your first gig, you know, for money?

J.C. – Okay, well my first nightclub gig for money. I had been playing those field parties since I was really young. But, I remember I had loaded up my car and I was heading out of town, Shreveport, Louisiana to hit Highway 1 and I was going South. I had my guitar and I had some clothes and I was out of there. And there was a nightclub on the left which used to be the old Chef Lounge and Highway 1 went to the right. And I don’t know what made me do it.

But, I turned into that parking lot instead of taking Highway 1. And I stopped and I walked in the door and they were sweeping up the place it was about one or two in the afternoon and I walked in. The Guy looked at me and said, “You look like you just stepped out of catfight, what are you doin in here.” I said, “Well, I play guitar. And I was on my way out of town, but, if you put me to work, I’ll stay. And he said, “What do you got?” And I said, “Well, I don’t have much, but I have this.” And I sat down and I played, John Lee Hooker, Hobo Blues. He said, “You start tonight – you make ten dollars and a bar tab.” I remember I did Hobo Blues, sat down on that stage and I had an acoustic guitar with DRM pickup Same thing I got now. And I started up with I’m 16 years old and I took a freight train to be my friend. And then somebody whipped a pitcher of beer across the room and man, the biggest fight broke out you ever seen.

Any weapons drawn?

J.C. – None that you could see. But, it was just a little rowdy place and so, you know, I started working there. And that was the way I handled my business, you know. If I felt like I wanted to play, man, I’d just step outside my door. And whether it be a gas station, a pool hall, or a street corner or a club. And, you know, I didn’t have any agencies or anything like that. I’d just go knock on somebody’s door, and say, “I hear you that you have people here that like music, well I play guitar, and they’d, you know, go, “What do you need?

I would play, you know, I’d play five-six hours, man. And when it was over, I’d go to what we call a ‘House Party’ and I’d play over there. And if I had a place to stay, I’d stay. If I didn’t, I’d go to the bus station. And if I had money for a bus ticket, I’d take it. And if I didn’t I’d take a job the next day to get it. There’s been more than one time I had to sell a pint of blood to buy guitar strings before a gig.


So, what brought you to New York City?

J.C. – Well, I was living in Center, Texas. And I kind of ended up just being based out of there. I had worked the roadhouse circuit for 22 years from Houston to New Orleans.

Roadhouses are what?

J.C. – Roadhouses are places that are mainly frequented by truckers and people on the move and they lie outside of cities. So, they are called roadhouses and it’s kind of a no-man’s land. You know, there’s kind of a lawless element to them, as far as I am concerned. It’s a little bit rowdier and a little bit looser and that’s kind of what I did and I never cared much for the cities. You know, I’d occasionally run to Houston to do a club or something, but I just didn’t really like it that much. I lived in the country, man. I had a big old dog and a blue mailbox and I stayed there, you know, and I’d drive into the city when I needed to.

A friend of mine, to get back to what we’re talking about, urged me to come to New York and so I left from Center, Texas to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and my lucky stars were with me and I met some good people and I found myself working on Second Avenue with the men that had made me want to play music in the first place: Hubert Sumlin (one of the Howlin Wolf Band), Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins (from the Muddy Waters Band), you know, at that time, I was playing totally acoustic guitar, man. The reason I started playing with a pickup was because the subway ran out of the ground in front of the building in Williamsburg and if I didn’t have a pickup, I couldn’t hear my guitar when I practiced.

So you – when you moved to city – you started playing on a regular basis in blues bars, clubs, wherever you could pick up a gig?

J.C. – Well, so to speak, I walked into a place, which was the first bar I’d ever had a drink in New York, and I walked in there and I said, “I play guitar,” and they didn’t have stage, no PA system. It was a VietNameze restaurant. And they liked my music. I pushed a couple of tables aside and sat down on a bench and started playing and I made twelve dollars. And I stayed there for a year and a half.

How did you get to know Dr. John?

J.C. – Dr. John was somebody that affected my very strongly. I’d been hearing his music my whole life and I’ve always considered him to be one the greatest musicians in the world. I was fortunate enough to meet his road manager, a woman named B.B. and I just always was impressed with the way they were. You know, the music was so much there life and it was always a labor of love. It seemed like they were – it’s really what it was about, you know. I was impressed. Everybody was smiling. Everybody was playing the music and it was just so smooth and it seemed like so much a way of life. The spirit was beautiful.

I asked B.B. if she could maybe give me some advice and some guidance of how to, you know, maybe make my music more of a part of what’s going on and be more involved in that part of world and through her, Dr. John became aware of me and my music. And when I started my first record, One Believer, and I was living in my basement apartment and I was writing music and working on it, there was a knock at my door, and I saw this cane step in the door. It was Dr. John.

And he came in. Tt was a really beautiful moment. He wanted me to know that he liked what I was doing and that he thought what I was doing meant something and we sat and we talked. You know, and his insight and his spirit and his support focused a lot for me and it just mean so much for me for one of my mentors to be that much in my corner. It just solidified that many things with me and gave me a real good feeling.


Well let’s talk about One Believer a little bit. You got signed to Elektra.

J.C. – Well, it was kind of funny, and I say funny for lack of a better word. You know I had been doing this for gosh 22-23 years and when I was younger, man I use to dream of being on Electra Records, you know, I’m telling you. I was opening up for Albert King at the Lone Star Café and Peter Lubin introduced himself to me, and said, “I’m with Elektra Records.” You know, I was like, it’s kind of – a little unnerving, 25 years later for somebody to tap you on the shoulder and say remember that stuff you dreamed about 25 years ago?

Whether I was aware of that or not, that record was something that I came face to face with whatever had was chasing me or I was chasing on those roads for 25 years. And it’s something that I had to address.

It was your exorcism?

J.C. – It was. It was my exorcism. That record was exactly that. All the skeletons came out of the closets and danced in front of me.

You must have felt pretty fortunate to get Dennis Walker who produced the Robert Cray records. It was quite a coup. You must have felt pretty fortunate and maybe a little lucky on that one?

J.C. – Well, I did. You know, I really did. I was a big fan of Dennis’s and of Robert’s as well. He’s a very fascinating person. He and I just hit it off right away. He’s got quite a background as well. He’s played bass with the great Lowell Fulson. He’s been around for a long time. He’s a real blues man. If it wasn’t for Dennis, I might not have found the clarity to really speak clearly what I was feeling.

Okay, so the record comes out. That’s One Believer. You hit the road?

J.C. – That’s it, man.

You did America with Buddy Guy.

J.C. – That’s right.

And didn’t you go to Europe with him?

J.C. – Sure man, it seems like we spent half the year with Buddy. That was another dream come true for me. Buddy Guy is always been one of my favorite guitarists and he’s someone that really helped create the modern blues sound. You know the guitar work that he did with Muddy Waters and those incredible sessions with Willie Dixon. You know that early stuff when he was a young man. And Buddy was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Okay, and I’m from Shreveport. So we had a lot in common. He was a great hero of mine. He was as gracious a human being as he is a musician.

So then after the Buddy tour you went out to Europe yourself?

J.C. – Right.

By all reports that I’ve seen and heard, you were quite a hit over there?

J.C.– Well, who’d a thunk it, you know. I don’t know what it is. The Europeans have always embraced the blues in a way that comes from the heart. I mean every man that I’ve worked with has told me “Just wait til you get to Europe.” It lived up to everything I’d ever heard. When I was growing up and I was listening to music most of the awareness that the Americans had about the blues came over from the Europeans in a way. Sometimes people have a tendency to ignore what’s in their back yard. Europeans embraced this music and the efforts of so many great Rock players: The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and these men took this music and expressed it in their own language and really made so many people aware of so many of the great bluesmen, that when we got there, there was a great tradition. To step into that forum and to be welcomed was a wonderful experience.


So the new album, Howlin’ Mercy. We got Dennis Walker back in the production seat. We got the rhythm section from some of the One Believer sessions, Davis McLarty and Jimmy Pettit and a guitarist called Zander Kennedy. You got a band now?

J.C. – That’s right.

This is something that I guess you’ve been working towards for a long time. Obviously from the sound of the new record, this band is raring to go?

J.C. – That’s it.

There’s a different feel on the album. When you made this record, what difference did you want to bring to it as opposed to the first album?

J.C. - Well, that’s a good question. There is a difference and I think the main difference is that the record reflects what’s happening in my life at this time. This is a band that did two hundred shows together in twelve months. This was a group that ran the roads, man. There’s some road muscle on this record. I think that music has to reflect life honestly and truthfully as One Believer did for me. I wouldn’t do that record any differently, nor this one. My life for the last year has been one of traveling around the world and showing up and slamming it down. In fact, when we started gearing up for this record - remember we took some time off touring – we worked up a lot of the songs. Dennis and I got together and wrote. Sonder wrote with us. We took the songs out on the road: worked them in clubs, worked them in theatres, [and] worked them at festivals. So when we hit the studio, it was show time. One, two, three, four – boom. I think that as the first record may have been emphasized with the song, there’s some songs here but it’s also a performance record. You know, it’s guys getting together and making music.

This one rocks.

J.C. – Well, I think there comes a time when you have to take responsibility for your wickedness as well as your power.

Let’s talk about a few of the tracks individually. Let’s start with the song that opened this CD up, “Ain’t afraid of Midnight.” How did that one come about?

J.C.– That gets back, once again, to talking about the spirit of this record. Maybe the things that I exorcised in the first record I got a handle on right now. Maybe, if there was a hellhound chasing me, maybe he’s sitting beside me right now. One of the things that always moved me, and I think one of the great powers of the blues is the fact that it states clearly and firmly without an apology for the situation. It lays it down, man. I’m not saying that I can presume to know what it was like to let’s say be Robert Johnson, to walk in Robert Johnson’s shoes. But, I’ll tell you what, I was affected by the magic that he spread around the world and the great Muddy Waters, when he would sing his song and state his case, you know what I mean. I think that one of the great powers of the blues has always been just the way it would address something – a nightmare as well as a dream equally. If I learned anything from these roads I’ve traveled and the men I’ve studied under, it’s that you gotta take responsibility, man. You gotta carry your own guitar case. I don’t claim to be this or that, but I don’t make no apologies for it.

Saddle Up My Pony, Now there’s a lesson in the blues really.

J.C. – That song, Saddle Up My Pony, is probably an accumulation of all my roots and my present as well. It starts with some lines from a Charley Patton song just solo guitar, old Mississippi slide style, and then it kind of goes into some Robert Johnson lyrics. I don’t even remember so much what they’re from, but it’s just something that over the years developed into a stream of consciousness thing. Then it goes into something that’s just something over the years that I’ve developed. I think that song is just kind of the roads my feet walked when I was very young and we just kind of grab a hold of it and ride it at the end.

Okay, Written in Stone


That’s reminiscent a little bit of Credence on that?

J.C. – It’s swampy. Written in Stone is a swampy thing. You know, being in Louisiana, that’s swamp sound man. Tony Joe White, Credence Clearwater, you know that’s swampy stuff, man. That’s from Louisiana. It’s got kind of that swamp beat. It’s just something that I wanted to get into.

Way Down in the Hole. How’d you find that?

J.C. – I found that on a Tom Waits cassette. You know, I have always been a fan of his. I think he’s a real poet and a brilliant musician. I heard that tune and his version of it is with an upright bass and some saxophones. His voice, it hit me man. It hit me close to the bone.

There’s some percussion that sounds pretty eerie. What is that noise?

J.C. – To me that song evokes certain things and being a conjurer and a hoodoo man; which I am. I wanted to do the real deal on that. What I used for the percussion on that song was real tribal percussion. I have a medicine stick, which is a stick with a coyote skull on it and from the teeth of the coyote are bones and beads and there are mojo bags on it with balls attached and eagles feathers. I am wearing buckskin Indian jacket with a war trophy on the shoulder and as I move and shake this percussion, you can hear the jacket itself. I also have a buffalo horn with beads and bags attached and I had the tail of the snake attached to it and so it was ceremonial shaking. This is a very ritualistic experience for me and this is my life. It’s something that I take very seriously. I carry my magic with me on and off the stage. But, its only when I am on stage doing music that I fully feel it. I feel the presence of it.


Copyright © 2003, Thomas Geiger
Revised: May 10, 2003