A saloon musician gets his due

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 10:00pm

”Bear down on that guitar, Houlihan,” said Jon Campbell from the stage as we were performing a benefit on Block Island for the moving of the Southeast Lighthouse.

My response was a sneer at my music mate as I bashed down a solid G chord on my Guild guitar. That’s how Campbell rolled when we played music in those days. We are both thick-headed guys who don’t like to be told what to do. In those days we somehow were able to get decent-paying gigs while keeping the stage mayhem to a minimum. Sometimes we could afford to cut in players like Ed McGuirl and Everett Brown to play mandolin, fiddle, and other instruments. What kept me in the ring — a boxing metaphor is all I have for Campbell — was his musicianship, songwriting skills, intelligence, and, most importantly, his wit.

Campbell’s talent is far-ranging and I respected him for that, but the guy could drive you crazy; his jab was always working and he was fast — too fast for me.

In the late ‘70s, Campbell and I got booted from a band we were in and decided to work as a duo. We pulled this off for a few years in the local saloons and could pay rent and keep our junk cars running. But then the gigs dried up — for us and many other local saloon musicians. One night Campbell walked into the place where I was living in Narragansett and proceeded to tell me it was getting hard “scraping up some jobs.”

Between us we had one can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, 50 cents, and a pack of smokes. We were tapped out.

Both of us changed tacks that night and sailed off in different directions. I went on to put my teaching degree to work, and Campbell went to work in the film business as a camera car rigger and driver, grip, and pyrotechnic guy.

Once we got on our feet in the ‘80s, we started to play and record music again. We share a love of language. That’s been our bond for more than 42 years.

Campbell’s love of words can be heard in 75 songs which — many of them funny — cover coastal themes and issues. He’s recorded many of his own songs. Once we produced a 45 with a song called “Winnebacome, Winnebago,” (Google this one.) I wrote the B side, “Going to the Island.” Listen to “Winnebacome” and you can imagine what it was like working with Campbell; the background vocal babbling is worth a listen and the song still cracks me up.

His writing can also be grounded and provocative. One particular song of a romantic nature Jon wrote is called “Restless Waters.” One day our friend Capt. Grant Parker picked me up at the ferry so I could hear a song in his new car’s stereo. The song was haunting, well written and beautifully produced. “This is great!” I said. “Who wrote this?”

Grant looked at me, smirked, and said, “Campbell.”

I shook my head and said, “Expletive Campbell” over and over again as Grant laughed and drove me back to the ferry dock. (Yup, I was jealous of Campbell’s writing.) The band Pendragon recorded the song. It was also covered by the singer-songwriter Geoff Kaufman. Both versions are solid treatments of a great lyric.

“I’m an essayist who plays instruments,” Jon Campbell has said. This is precisely what he is; however, his knowledge of musical performance and production are also noteworthy. His multi-instrumentalist capabilities have earned him the respect of musicians near and far. I’ve witnessed these talents on stage and in music studios for decades. Jon Campbell is a formidable musical character, and I’ve been telling him this, and many other people this fact, over the past 40 years. Campbell never tooted his own horn — he just shrugged and grunted at compliments — so I tooted his horn for him.

Of late, Jon has had a tough go of it with some medical issues. A bunch of friends are helping him by setting up a GoFundMe page.

But there is also some good news.

Last November, Campbell came down to the car shack at the ferry dock and told me it looked like he was going to be inducted into The Rhode Island Music Hall Of Fame; he’s finally getting the nod he rightfully deserves. I was ecstatic for him. “It’s about time” I said. “Congratulations, Campbell.”

He grunted and shrugged. I would have expected nothing less.