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Longtime Believer John Campbell's Lyrics Are As Important As The Licks by Dave Ferman

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 12, 1992
By Dave Ferman

As a young man in Shreveport, La., John Campbell met the blues on its own terms, woodshedding on the music of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf when a serious car accident at age 15 left him with literally hundreds of stitches in his face and time on his hands.

"I'd already been playing guitar - Leadbelly, Jimmy Reed - but the accident forced me to spend a lot of time by myself," says Campbell, now 41. "The blues talked to me, even before then, but when I started playing Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf I realized it was a way to get in touch with myself."

The music Campbell has played for a quarter-century was much the same as the old Delta classics that sustained him then. Working solo in pool halls, clubs and festivals from New Orleans to deep in the Mississippi Delta to the Lone Star Cafe in New York, Campbell built a rep as perhaps the best of a small cadre of white acoustic bluesmen, a man who seemed sprung from the Depression days when Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie worked the sidewalks and taverns.

So a longtime fan might have been more than a bit surprised to put on One Believer, Campbell's 1991 major label debut. Yes, the razor-sharp acoustic slide guitar and steely voice were still there, but now they were buttressed by a rhythm section and keyboards reminiscent of a latter-day soul record.

What new and old listeners alike were hearing was a master bluesman stretching out, collaborating for the first time on his songwriting (with Dennis Walker, who has written with Robert Cray) and using members of Cray and Joe Ely's backup bands to craft what might best be called contemporary Delta blues.

"I wanted to do a band album but stay where I am," says Campbell. "This let me concentrate more on the song - it's like a concept album in that way. Now certain music or a certain guitar lick belongs to a song, forever. I'm really happy with how the album turned out."

He should be. Where many latter-day bluesmen (and you know who you are) seem content to just holler through a verse, a chorus, a verse and another chorus and then try to wow the crowd with hot soloing for the next five minutes, Campbell has long concentrated on the lyrics as much as the guitar playing.

One Believer - all originals except for a cover of Elmore James' Person To Person - continues this tradition. The Campbell/ Walker compositions include striking updates of blues imagery (check Devil In My Closet and Voodoo Edge) and a horrific tale of the aftermath of a drive-by shooting, Tiny Coffin.

"Peter Lubin, who signed me with Elektra (Records), introduced me to Dennis and we just clicked," Campbell says. "I'd never collaborated with anyone before, and I really got into it. It brought things out of me that I couldn't have done otherwise. Some of the things on the record I had been working on a little, but everything was written for the record - I wanted it to all be fresh. It's a concept record in that these songs are all designed to be together.

"The song has always been real important to me - to me, Muddy Waters' songs are great in what he's saying and in the music that's emphasizing it. Or Howlin' Wolf - Smokestack Lightning isn't just that guitar lick, it's the whole song, the words and all of it."

Campbell played with a second guitarist - Zonder Kennedy - on the Benson & Hedges Blues circuit last summer, and his current road band also includes drummer Davis McLarty and bassist Jimmy Pettit, both on loan from the Joe Ely band.

We've been on the road since September, so the band's really notched in good," Campbell says. "We're just doing it as everybody's schedules adjust. We just try to get after it and build it up and go in a direction when we play live. On the record I use a certain amount of restraint, but I'll attack those songs live and stretch out more."

Buddy Guy and John Campbell Tonight: Doors open 8 p.m. at Deep Ellum Live in Dallas.
Tickets: $18 at all Rainbow-TicketMaster outlets.

Copyright 1992 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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