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Published: 2012/04/20
by David Schultz

Levon Helm Remembered: Larry Campbell Talks (2007)

Campbell’s road to discussing 6s and 9s with Lesh began in New York City when he picked up his first instrument, a guitar, at the age of 9. “Like 2 million other people, that night the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan . . . that changed my life. That was the impetus,” he says with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. In 1966 though, music grabbed a hold on his soul and he really started to concentrate. “In the mid-Sixties, there was so much great music on the radio, it was so fertile. FM radio was playing amazing things you would never hear anywhere else. I went from being a devoted AM radio fan to searching out the roots of where all that stuff was coming from. I went way deep into the old bluesmen until I hit Hank Williams, and then I went back from there to the country music of the 1920s and 1930s. By the early 70s, I started to get a little disillusioned with where radio was headed. Somehow, the formula had been discovered and tinkered with and everything was back in its box again. There was depth to groups like Cream, the San Francisco bands like Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane and even Zeppelin that seemed to be missing from the bands of the Seventies.”

“I started to get really deep into country music,” Campbell says of his musical awakening and evolution. “I saw Garcia with a pedal steel at the bandshell in Central Park and that blew me away. Then I started hearing the Burrito Brothers and listening to what the Byrds were doing. I became enamored with all things country and bluegrass. It really got under my skin. I had to learn the fiddle, I had to learn mandolin, I had to learn banjo, I had to learn pedal steel. But I didn’t want to start learning these instruments and do it halfway. So I really busted my ass. There’s no two ways about it. There are people out there, very gifted people who can put in a little time on an instrument and make it sound wonderful. That’s not me. For me, it’s all about hours and hours of work.” In 1974, Campbell left his hometown of New York City for Los Angeles. “I just thought for the music I was into, it would be more conducive being out in L.A.,” he says of the move. “Well, I starved there for about six months.”

The Los Angeles described by Campbell predates the city that would later churn out such glitzy and glamorous bands like Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses. “There was a huge country music thing going on in the bars and nightclubs and they had talent nights where you could win from $20 to $100,” describes Campbell. “There were country bars all over the place. I discovered if I go in there and play Orange Blossom Special’ on the fiddle, it wouldn’t matter how great I played; it’s “Orange Blossom Special” and that’s going to win first prize. So I plowed through all these contests winning first prize by playing Orange Blossom Special’ on the fiddle.”

It’s unsurprising that Campbell would find success with a tune often described as one of country music’s defining songs. “I deliberately set out to learn a traditional style. I started out a bluegrass zealot on the fiddle. If it wasn’t pure bluegrass it wasn’t something I wanted to play,” he says of his infatuation. “Then you hear something else that interests you that’s not bluegrass but you check it out and before you know it you’re incorporating it into your style of playing. The perfect example of where that can go is Vassar Clements. He never lost his country attitude on the fiddle but added stuff that has now become standard to country or bluegrass fiddle playing. He got a shoehorn and stuck these different influences into the bluegrass thing and it worked because he brought it there with the correct attitude. Eventually, you’re going to put yourself, your own personality into your playing. People who are attracted to and influenced by a lot of different types of music hope to end up developing a style that transcends all those genres.” The prominent roles played by String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang, Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone or Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthew Band seem to prove Campbell’s point. “You knew it was going to happen someday.”

Even for an experienced musician like Campbell, joining Phil Lesh as one of his Friends presented a whole new set of challenges. “I was certainly a Dead fan from many years ago, but until then, I’ve never had the quintessential jamband experience,” he says of joining up with the San Francisco bassist. When Campbell came on board, Barry Sless had the Jerry Garcia parts well covered. “That gave me a lot of freedom; Phil wanted me to play just like me,” which turned out to be exhilarating. “I didn’t know until I did it. We would play these four hour shows that felt like they went by in about 20 minutes. Once you give yourself over to that let it be it’s the most liberating musical experience you can have. Phil will dictate broad parameters: jam in B for a while and on my signal go to B minor; when I count go into Franklin’s Tower’ or let the keyboard play and then Larry you come in. Anything that happens between the songs, the segues, the morphing is all on the fly and the lengths of the songs who knows? He is very willing to take things where they go.”

Playing with such a wide variety of musicians has given Campbell great insight into what works on stage and what falls flat. Using John Scofield as an example, Campbell explained why his recent performances with the talented guitarist were so special. “He’s a ridiculous musician. He is so generous, his whole vibe. There’s not an ounce of condescension or superiority. For him, it’s all about sharing the moment.” It’s the musicians that are open that make performing so rewarding. “My observation, for what it’s worth, seems to be that it’s about security in what you’re doing. There’s room for everybody. What really works for me is musicians communicating; not seeing someone alone when there are other great musicians around him. It’s that communication, that interaction that’s the most interesting aspect to me.” Campbell sees how that communication fuels the jamband scene. “In playing recently with Jimmy Vivino, we’ve fallen into a really relaxed give-and-take and you walk away feeling great. If I do a show with another great guitar player and I’ve been playing through all night, I walk away feeling guilty about that. If I do a show with another great guitar player and he’s playing through everything all night, I walk away feeling a little slighted,” he explains. “When there’s an equal give and take, you walk away feeling completely fulfilled and so does the audience.”

At the present time, Campbell has been busy in the studio, working with a variety of artists as a producer and performer. Having produced and played on Ollabelle’s recent Riverside Battle Songs, Campbell has become the Helms’ producer of choice and is currently working with Amy Helm on a new Levon Helm album. “We’ve done like 28 songs, so we have to whittle it down,” he explained. “Most of the overdubs and most of the tweaking are done. We’ll probably get it down to 12 or 13, mix them and hopefully have it out by late spring or summer. There are a lot of stones to pull out of this road yet.”

In addition to manning the boards, Campbell will also be playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin and resonator guitar. While the album won’t be entirely comprised of new compositions, it “will be a mix of really good acoustic music.” He’s also producing an album by Marie Knight, a gospel singer who used to sing with Rosetta Tharpe, on a collection of Reverend Gary Davis songs. Playing the songs of Davis, a guitarist who’s an influence on Campbell, poses a challenge. I’m trying to play like Gary Davis put not too much like him, it’s a thin line to walk. He has such a distinctive style and you want to pay homage to it without just copying it.”

Campbell is also “way overdue” in putting together his CD with his wife, Teresa Williams, which will feature his first recorded attempt at singing. This will be Campbell’s first time in the recording studio on his own behalf since Rooftops, an album of fiddle songs that Campbell played on acoustic guitar. “It was something I did to unwind after the shows with Bob. I’d get on the bus and play acoustic guitar for hours. Without any goal of doing anything with it, but then the songs started to develop and become something cool. I thought, well, why not record these things. To produce Rooftops was easy, I had a defined concept and I’m objective enough about my guitar playing to know what’s working.” With his new album, it’s like an old dog learning new tricks, “As a vocalist, it’s a new thing for me. I have trouble looking at my singing in an objective manner.”

Campbell surely has enough to keep him busy while Lesh recuperates from his battle with prostate cancer. While the plans were for Phil & Friends to take a year off, Lesh recently reconvened the Friends, including Particle’s Steve Molitz, for a pair of sold-out shows at S.O.B.’s, one of the Latin clubs on New York City’s Lower East Side. In his typically modest fashion, Campbell, who has become one of the more-identifiable Friends, does not presume that he’ll be invited back when Lesh takes to the road again. “There’s no reason to think I wouldn’t [be asked back], but no reason to think I would either.”

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