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Painful Past Drives John Campbell on to the Blues by Michael Point

Austin American Statesman, January 13, 1992
By Michael Point

If you go . . . John Campbell Opening: Toni Price When: 10 p.m. Tuesday Where: Antone's Tickets: $5 Information: 474-5314

John Campbell, a gaunt and brooding Gothic blues figure, is an imposing sight. The 39-year-old Shreveport native is a somewhat menacing presence who wears the scars of his hard-fought life proudly. But while his visual impact may get your attention, its Campbell's unique vocal style that keeps your interest.

Campbell, a masterful guitarist on a wide variety of vintage blues instruments, has a voice that resonates with a deep, dark tone seemingly dredged up from the bottom of the Mississippi River. It's closer to New Orleans swamp sounds, with more than a little midnight voodoo infused, than to traditional Delta blues; Campbell's debut recording, One Believer on Elektra Records, showcases it in fitting fashion.

Dennis Walker, one of the major movers and shakers behind Robert Cray's ascension to blues success, co-wrote nine of the 10 selections (Elmore James' Person to Person is the only exception) and co-produced the album. Members of Cray's band pop up in prominent backing roles and it also features Joe Ely Band stalwarts Jimmy Pettit on bass and Davis McLarty on drums, as well as longtime Texas saxist Joe Sublett. Despite the familiar names and associations, the music on One Believer carries its own special identity, that of Campbell's somber but searing blues attitude.

Campbell, who was playing professionally as soon as he was a teen-ager, was already on the road to a blues career when tragedy brought his life and musical goals into sharp focus. His non-musical passion was racing, and when he wasn't practicing guitar he was on the track or street pushing motorcycles, drag racers, or as Campbell says, "anything that was fast and dangerous," to the limit. When he was 15, a major race track accident cost him his right eye and required major reconstructive surgery that involved more than 5,000 stitches. Needless to say, his racing career was curtailed.

In the aftermath of the accident, Campbell said he got to know his guitar and the blues on a very personal basis.

"I probably would have continued with a musical career," Campbell said, "but I'm not sure it would have come out the way it did without the accident. For a while afterwards I retreated from the world and there wasn't anything in my life that seemed to matter except music. The music that mattered the most was the blues."

It wasn't too surprising that Campbell and the blues reached a new and more enlightened understanding.

"I had always liked the blues, but it was just a style of music until the accident," Campbell said. "After a few months of really digging inside myself and exploring my feelings through the guitar, the music took on a new meaning. I'm not saying I totally understood the blues - I don't think anyone can until they've got years of adult experiences to draw on - but it wasn't just a series of chord changes anymore. I realized the power and purpose of the blues and decided that playing the music, no matter what it cost, was what I wanted to do with my life."

Not long after his recovery, Campbell quit school and got serious about playing the blues. He caught the bus out of Shreveport and embarked on several years of playing wherever there was a crowd - sometimes in clubs but frequently in any available space where he could pass the hat around or leave his guitar case open for tips.

Campbell spent the '70s plying his trade on the circuit of roadhouses and beer joints between New Orleans and Houston, occasionally taking odd jobs such as laying pipe or, as a last resort, selling blood.

He moved to New York City in the mid-'80s on the advice of an old friend and landed a string of opening slots for touring blues acts, but soon was back to scuffling for steady work. His street music experience was put to good use until he was hired for a regular gig at a SoHo club and then things slowly but surely came around. Campbell began to attract larger and larger crowds on word-of-mouth recommendations.

He moved to larger clubs and in due time record company talent scouts started showing up at the shows. Ultimately Campbell, who never made a demo tape or submitted material to a record company in any form, had a record contract thrust upon him.

Despite his less than than aggressive attitude at procuring it, Campbell said the recording contract was a dream come true.

"I never worked toward landing a record deal or doing all the things you're supposed to do in the music business so it was a surprise. I just kept playing guitar and hoping it would happen. The fact that it did is something I regard as a real blessing."

One Believer has received positive reviews, but it's the exposure to Campbell's live show that has brought around even the most cynical critics. Campbell, who toured England with Buddy Guy late last year, views himself as a live performer first and foremost.

"I've only made one album but I've played thousands of live shows so I'm more familiar and comfortable in a live setting," he said. "With a record, you're removed from the audience and there's a different sort of musical challenge. In person, it's pretty much one-on-one, just you and whoever is listening, and that's what the blues is best at."

Copyright 1992 Austin American Statesman

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