Interviewed by Neil Slaven
G-The Guitar Magazine (UK), Volume 3, Issue 2, April 1993 p 14
With an acclaimed new alubum, Howlin' Mercy, out now, American Bluesman John Campbell tells Neil Slaven of the demons that drive his music.
"As I became aware of the lives of the men who made the music," John Campbell says of the Blues, "I realized that this was going to be my life's work. This was not something I was going to understand in a couple of years, or twenty - or maybe never!"
"I thought the only way to get there was to keep the guitar in my hands for as many hours of the day as I could. At the same time, that was the only time I felt complete."
The hard fact behind that simple statement is that, while in his teens, John's life was irrevecobly changed by a car accident outside his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, that left him minus his right eye. John's grandmother played an Hawaiian lap steel but she also liked the the Blues, which she called 'native' music. While he convalesced, the young John listened to Blues records: "I would try and connect with this music and I would bend the string in an effort to duplicate what I heard. In that process, something would stir inside of me and I would suddenly be removed." For hours on end, he played Blues riffs as if they were mantras.
Shreveport is in north-west Louisiana, close to the border of Arkansas and Texas. To locals, it's known as the ArkLaTex. When he felt ready, John took to the road and kept moving for nearly 20 years.
"I stayed in the ArkLaTex, played all sorts of bars and joints, shot pool, gave blood, anything to get money for strings or pay the bus fare. I didn't stay in one place. I had to work and have relationships that allowed me to show up and say, 'I'm here, I wanna play tonight'."
He moved to New York in 1986 and got a regular gig playing his traditional Blues set at the Abilene Cafe. One night in April 1988, after opening for LittleJohn, a reunion with Ronnie Earl, leader of the Broadcasters, led to his first album, A Man and His Blues (for Crosscut), a collection ofh is own songs and Blues by Lightnin Hopkins and Elmore James.
He was discovered at the Lone Star Cafe by Elektra records, who put him with songwriter/producer Dennis Walker, known for his work with Robert Cray. Walker helped him to realize the dark visions that made up One Believer, a set of songs that John believes exorcised the demons he'd carried with him since the accident.
"I'd considered myself a disciple of the classic Blues for so long. I'd been restless and rambling, and I think that was reflected in the sort of stream-of-consciousness thing that I was doing. That record didn'd celebrate the performance, it was a very shadowy, vapoury thing."
That can't be said of his new album Howlin' Mercy. John and his band played 230 cities in 1992, working in the songs that make up the new album.
"The band developed some road muscle. I've got to the point where I can sing my own song and this record celebrates the magic of the Blues as performance music."
Onstage, Campbell plays a '52 Gibson SG Southern Jumbo (tuned down to Eb) through two Fender Twin Reverbs. "For slide, I use a 1934 National Steel Duolian with a $50 Barcus Berry pickup superglued to the top. I have another National that I tune to open Gb, and one to open Db. I also have a solidbody National Resophonic, which has a resonator cone that goes through from front to back with a Barcus Berry and a Danelectro pickup on it. My strings are D'Addario, generally a .13 for top E, then .16, 1 .24 wound G, a .32, .442 and a .52 bottom E."
Now when he begins a gig, Campbell feels like a Shaman, a figure of mystical power. "Every time I go onstage, I have to confront my pain and my mortality and be willing to evoke that and invite people into it. I have to be prepared to lead. It's hard to describe but it's very much like a ceremonial ritual for me."