BluesWax Spotlight on
By Kim O’Brien
On the East Coast of Canada, jutting out into the North Atlantic, lies Nova Scotia. The name is Latin for New Scotland, and the province shares more than just its name with the home country. It was the destination for the first waves of Scottish immigration to Canada. Most of these immigrants settled on Cape Breton Island because of its uncanny resemblance to the highlands of Scotland. The music they brought to its shores, played on fiddles, bodhrans, and guitars, evolved into its own sub-genre, much as it informed country, and especially Bluegrass, music in the United States.
Indeed, if Nova Scotia is known for any style of music it is most likely the modern day version of this Celtic music which became popular with the World Music boom of the early 1990s. (Nova Scotia’s Ashley MacIsaac made quite a name for himself when he famously lifted his kilt on Late Night with David Letterman revealing to Dave and the TV audience that he was wearing it “regimental” style – i.e., sans underwear.)
This was the milieu into which John Campbelljohn was born and raised.
But John’s musical tastes, like so many who grew up in the1960s, were shaped by influences that were rocking the world – in particular the Fab Four from Liverpool. “I was a lad when The Beatles hit North America, and there was a bluesy feeling in their early beat that twigged something.”
But the departure from his Celtic roots didn’t really take flight until he was at a high school dance. He was about to leave when the band started playing “Statesboro Blues” by the Allman Brothers Band. “I can still hear them clearly announce the tune,” John says, “then they started playing. I stopped in my tracks, turned around, and walked toward the stage and just stood there, listening. That fully-fledged shuffle beat nailed me to the floor.”
He was now on the path to becoming a professional blues musician. He realized he needed some guides to help him find his way. B.B. was the first of the Three Kings he followed, with Freddie and Albert just slightly behind. “I loved them all, but B.B.’s were the first licks I stole,” he remembers. “Didn’t we all? For me it was Indianola Mississippi Seeds, my first B.B. album. I wore the grooves off that record, playing along.”
This day, I’m sitting with the affable Bluesman in his home studio. He sits surrounded by the tools of his trade – five electric, four acoustic, two dobro, and one bass guitar, as well as a small keyboard attached to his computer array, and a microphone. And there, sitting under a gooseneck lamp like a frontman under a spotlight, was his pride and joy: a double pedal-steel guitar.
John has earned a reputation as a master of blues slide guitar, so “moving to a steel is a natural progression,” John says. He now adds steel virtuoso Buddy Emmons to his list of influences (“the Wayne Gretzky of the pedal steel,” John calls him).
His penchant for slide goes back to the sound that stopped him cold at the dance. The Allman Brothers were blending rock with blues and a dab of country, and Duane’s blistering slide work prompted John to teach himself how to play it.
“I started trying to play it in standard tuning until I read that Duane played in open E or G. That made it considerably easier,” John recalls with a chuckle. Since then, John has carved out an impressive career in a genre that traditionally has a narrower audience than the day’s popular music. “I’m pretty passionate about the blues,” he says, “it’s how I make my living.”
When asked what the secret to his success and longevity, he is typically humble. “I try to serve the music, to get out of its way. And I play with musicians who have the same ethic.”
Lately those musicians have been Neil Robertson on drums, and Andrew Lambert on bass. “These guys are groove players, not flash players. The thing about good blues is not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play. I’m always telling myself to stop playing too much and get to the point.”
Keeping the sound lean allows John to play guitar, slide and, increasingly, the pedal steel. “I’m playing the steel more, having a fabulous time adapting its country sound to my style of blues. It’s frustrating sometimes, but it’s a lot of fun.”
John says that working with the pedal steel has gotten him listening to country music, “real country music, not this ‘today’s country’ stuff – that’s just pop music with big hair.”
“The blues is a feeling, not a style.”
He sees some “real” country in blues and some blues in country, particularly in artists like Hank Williams. He also notes that Ray Charles had a couple of country-laced hit albums and that Lyle Lovett has incorporated western swing and blues into his repertoire.
“Good music is good music, and you can find it if you look for it,” John asserts. For him, it’s about defining the sound you want, even as he brings new influences and new instruments into his palette.
He especially enjoys performing this new sound live. John is very busy around the East Coast of Canada, but he has also found a growing, appreciative and knowledgeable blues audience in Europe. He regularly tours in Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy. His record label, ZYX Peppercake, and his agent are both based in Germany.
“They’ve been taking good care of me since 1999,” says John. “It’s a very good relationship I have with the label and the fans.”
He recently added Scandinavia to his European conquests, particularly Norway. “It’s very rugged country and the fjords are both incredible and daunting. I wanted to fly from gig to gig there, but I was told it was too tricky to repeatedly land and take off, so we drove around fjord after fjord to get to the next gigs. It was like driving Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail over and over. Took forever,” he remembers.
He says it’s worth it. “The fans are among the most knowledgeable I’ve ever seen. They know blues history and discographies better than I do, and I thought I was up on most things.”
He also loves the audiences. “Blues clubs there are more like nightclubs rather than smoky bars. There, the people come out to listen to the band. In North America, people come out to socialize with the music being little more than background noise. In Europe, they come for the music.”
“That’s reflected in CD sales, too. They come with money because they really want to buy the music of authentic North American blues bands. They really make an evening of it and aren’t afraid to spend. It’s wonderful.”
When asked if he had any tips for North Americans playing in Europe, John says it’s essential that you do your homework. He says that Europe is very expensive – food, accommodations, gas – so you have to make sure you have a full slate of bookings before you go.
“I would get hired to play a festival or two, then I’d be on the phone or emails booking as many gigs as I can. I go for a month with a couple of festival gigs as anchors and fill the rest with pubs, clubs, and other venues. I like to have about 22 to 24 gigs over the month. That way, you can earn some money, sell some CDs, and lay the groundwork for your next tour.”
I asked him how he got a European label.
“It was 1999 and, again, I did my research. Germany had the best economy and a reputation for liking the blues, so I found a few German record labels and sent out an email that more or less read, ‘I own all my own music, are you interested?’ A few days later I got a reply which I expected to be my first rejection e-mail. Instead, it read:
‘Thank you for your submission. We enjoyed your music, it reminds us of a few of our current artists. Here’s our offer.’
One month later, they signed the deal. John found a German booking agent who was booking Canadian acts in Europe, and as a ZYX Peppercake recording artist, he got enough bookings for an inaugural tour. He hasn’t looked back.
He loves the fans, the people, the countryside, the experience. And there are some great players there, too, says John. “It’s unusual to hear the blues sung with a pronounced European accent of some kind, but they can really lay it down.”
“Then, when I come home, I go into the studio again,” he says. He does his own recording, editing, mixing, and mastering in his home studio, working hard to get the sound he wants.
“I’ve been lucky. Record companies always want you to define a ‘style’ that they can market. But ever since my first record I’ve been able to combine blues, blues-rock, a dash of country, even a hint of reggae. It was my diversity that sold them on that first album and everything since.”
“I’m completely comfortable with whatever comes out, whether it’s something that was influenced by Deep Purple in 1972 or Freddie King in 1975 or Buddy Emmons in 2004.”
“But that’s the thing with the blues … Blues is a feeling, not a style.”
He should know. John Campbelljohn, winner of the 2007 East Coast Music Awards (and a nominee again 2012) for Blues Recording of the Year, shows great style in everything he does, on stage and off.
Kim O’Brien is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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