By David S. Rotenstein
©1992 D.S. Rotenstein
The Daily News
Atlanta, Ga., January 1992
The measure of virtuosity for contemporary blues guitarists is usually found in the recordings of traditional, country blues artists such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, or Son House. But the problems and promises of daily living expressed by the blues written and recorded over half a century ago are now being replaced by blues with a foundation that is entirely urban in character. Such is the blues of guitarist John Campbell, 39, who was born and bred in Shreveport, La., but who now calls New York City home. Campbell's debut American LP, One Believer, was released Sept. 17 on Elektra Records. After spending 22 years on the road performing in clubs and at festivals across the US, Campbell delivers his roadhouse blues to an eagerly awaiting public.
"I don't play 1930s blues guitar," exclaims Campbell. "I live in New York City and I'm not or never presume to be the men that created the blues. I'm playing my style of guitar today that I was given the opportunity to develop."
And that style of guitar playing is quickly earning Campbell a reputation as one of America's greatest newly discovered guitarists. His first LP, A Man and His Blues, was released on the German CrossCut label in 1989 and was nominated for a W.C. Handy award. For the past two years, Campbell's chops have stunned capacity crowds at the Benson & Hedges Blues Festival in Atlanta.
Campbell's career has been a lesson in serendipity, a peculiar combination of luck and talent. On his way out of Shreveport at 17, he turned into a roadhouse rather than onto the highway toward Baton Rouge.
"Rather than taking a right, I took a left and walked into their parking lot and said, 'I play guitar.' I opened my case and they said, 'What you got'? And I played this song and he said, 'We'll pay you $25 a night. You start tonight.'"
Campbell was leaving town to make a new start for himself following a car crash that left the guitarist without his right eye and with a deeply scarred face. Today, both his music and scarred sharp features reflect the impact of the accident.
"I ended up dropping out of school and had to recuperate at home for the best part of a year," recalls Campbell. "And over that period of time, the guitar became not only something to do when I was alone, but something I could communicate with myself and that's how I feel like I met the blues."
Playing guitar at home alone was therapeutic for Campbell and it helped prepare him as a solo blues guitarist. "It was real therapeutic because it got me in touch with things I was feeling. I would sometimes just bend a string and just hold it."
Campbell's live performances continue to reflect his earlier days. He quotes fellow guitarist Buddy Guy to describe the feeling of playing before an audience: "When you stretch a string, you stretch your life."
As an instrumentalist, Campbell's style draws from a wellspring of inspiration from blues patriarchs John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Son House. He describes it as a combination of old and new musical influences.
"It's just kind of a finger style, somewhere in that you take Louisiana swamp and Texas funk and some slide -- I don't know what you'd call it, [but] it's mainly acoustic, solo-oriented guitar."
With the release of One Believer, Campbell finally hits his stride as a songwriter as well as performer. Except for one cover, Elmore James' "Person to Person," Campbell co-wrote all of the songs on the LP with Dennis Walker of Robert Cray's band.
Each of the tunes, though clearly rooted in the tradition of classic blues guitar, have an underlying tone of urban reality that mirrors how Campbell views life.
Campbell says, "Some of my songs are about letting the good times roll, and other songs are looking at something square in the eye, and a lot of my songs are about the dance between men and women. As a writer, I just try to just be awake, with my eyes open, but at the same time I don't presume to be a preacher."
Through song, Campbell conveys his feelings toward the music, as well as life. "The blues has always addressed hopes and fears, despair and joy, and dreams an nightmares." And what ties these polarized emotions together? "Honesty. Honesty and vivid reality," Campbell offers somberly.
Collaborating with Walker on One Believer enabled Campbell to expand his writing horizons beyond focusing on the instrumental statements he made in past efforts. "On my first record, it's very few original songs. I really hadn't broken through as a writer, and I'm not saying that I have now, but I'm able to complete a body of work. I like being able to bounce ideas off people now."
Campbell demonstrates just how effectively he's capable of filtering the world around him into a meaningful body of music. As an example, Campbell explains that one song from the new LP, "World of Trouble," was written after playing a free concert for the homeless at Atlanta's St. Luke's Church soup kitchen in 1990.
"At that time in my life, I was concerned with this or that, day-to-day living, the problems we all have. But I walked in and started playing guitar and these people were having soup and they literally didn't know where their next meal was coming from or where they were gonna sleep.
"It was really touching and I went home and I wrote 'World of Trouble' and it kind of made me look at things. There's more problems in the world today than inside your own little room."
Another song on the LP Campbell co-wrote with Walker is "Tiny Coffin." Campbell says that when Walker approached him with the idea of a song about the 6-year-old victim of a drive-by shooting, the lyrics that Walker handed him were "the most chilling" he'd ever read.
Lyrics from the title track of One Believer show just how much of Campbell's inner self can be found enmeshed with the world he portrays in his songs: "One man walks slowly, alone in the park/ His mind is full of visions only he can see/ Lord, Lord, Lord, he looks a lot like me. One Believer's all he's praying for... to open just one door."
So, now that Campbell has found many believers in his visionary blues, will One Believer be this guitarist's elusive hit now that the door is open? Though Campbell denies preaching, he does make some powerful and convincing musical statements about our world and one artist's place in it.