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Free Range Twang

June 22, 2006
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Getting the chance to record an album with a multi-platinum superstar is cool. But to have the New York Times review of that album call your guitar playing “disruptive and bizarre” is downright sweet. In this case, the guitarist is Telemaster Jim Campilongo, and the album is The Little Willies [Milking Bull]—a band project of the same name that’s soaked in the classic country of Bob Wills and Hank Williams, and is fronted by megastar singer/songwriter Norah Jones.

“I don’t mind that description of my playing,” says Campilongo. “I know what they mean.”

The reason Campilongo is unfazed by the “Old Gray Lady’s” account is because he understands that folks familiar with Jones’ smoky, smooth vocal stylings from hits such as “Don’t Know Why” aren’t used to hearing her accompanied with a snarling—even filthy—twanging Telecaster. Adding to an extremely unfamiliar “Jones sound” is the fact that Jones and company—bassist Lee Alexander, drummer Dan Rieser, and guitarist/singer Richard Julian—let Campilongo go off. He pounces all over the album’s 13 cuts like a freaky cat on a tasty mouse, with whooping behind-the-nut bends and growling de-tuned nastiness.

“When the Little Willies first began playing gigs around New York, it was really fun, because I think people thought I invented that stuff,” says Campilongo. “Obviously, they had never heard Roy Buchanan or Don Rich—or even Junior Brown!”

I think a lot of people will be surprised at how much freedom you’re allowed on The Little Willies.
Yeah. It’s the same live, as well. Some of Norah’s records may not be greasy, necessarily, but she’s a great musician. If you play something a little weird, it doesn’t ruffle her feathers because she understands it. Sometimes, I’ll reel off something really sick and think, “Oh man, I’m in trouble now.” But, usually, everyone looks up, smiles, and generally rewards that type of playing.

The dynamics between the players on the album are amazing.

The reason is that we tracked live in Lee and Norah’s home studio in their apartment in New York, so we weren’t blasting loud. In fact, we thought we’d have to stop tracking at 5 pm when their neighbors got home from work, but the noise was never an issue. Playing at a lower volume allowed us to hear every nuance in each other’s performance without having to get perfect headphone mixes.

As a result, we try to play quietly live, as well. If you keep the stage volume under control, you can manage the dynamics with your touch on the instrument, and everyone can hear each other without monitors. This is good, because whenever I can’t hear the instruments acoustically—and I need a monitor mix with piano, bass, and guitar directly in my face—I feel like I’ve left the realm of making music, and I’ve gone somewhere else entirely.

When you heard the playback of the sessions, were you surprised at some of the stuff you did?

Well, I couldn’t even listen to the album for a month, because I felt I could have played so much better. Sometimes, hearing yourself gives you the same sensation as when you see yourself on television: “Do I really look like that?” But I finally did listen to it a couple of weeks ago, and I enjoyed it. The whole experience made me realize that I don’t want to hear myself try to be perfect. That’s not the truth.

Is it strange to go from leading your own group to being a sideman with such a high-profile artist?

It’s not weird. In fact, it’s much easier. With the Little Willies, I can countdown and wait for the solo, and then blast-off and surprise people—most of whom aren’t there waiting for me to play. I love playing with vocalists—especially Norah. Often times, we’ll start a tune, and I’ll think to myself, “Wow, this sounds pretty good.” And then she starts singing, and I think, “Wow, we’re really great now!” The real estate of the whole band just goes up. With my own thing—which I love—there’s more responsibility, because I’m taking on the role of being a singer with my guitar.

Does a tune’s lyric affect how you approach it as a guitarist?

Very much so. An obvious example would be the track, “I Gotta Get Drunk.” I think you can hear I’m going for the feeling of someone who has been drinking way too much. I’m not acting or anything, but you’d better believe if I’m playing, say, “Stardust,” I’m thinking about the lyrics. It’s funny, because I’ve always dug the John Coltrane version of “Nancy with the Laughing Face” from his album, Ballads. That version is played very sad, so I figured it was about a guy who had loved and lost, you know? Well, I’ve been on a Ben Webster kick lately, and the way he played the same tune was exactly the opposite—pure joy. So I thought to myself, “Wait, maybe this isn’t a sad song. I better go check out the lyrics.” So I did, and it’s a tune about a guy talking about how beautiful his daughter is. The way Ben Webster played that song instrumentally gave me more of an insight into the lyric. That’s deep. So, you bet I listen to the lyrics. I want to play a tune correctly, and not just adhere to what the melody might suggest.

What did you use to record The Little Willies?

I started getting into Fender Princeton Reverbs a few years ago, and that’s what I used on the record—along with my same old ’59 top-loader Fender Telecaster. It’s amazing how big small amps can sound in the studio. They’re easier to carry, too!

On the album, your tone is drier than usual.

I’ve been turning the amp reverb all the way off these days—both live and in the studio. I know it’s a simple concept, but the end result is breathtaking. You get the unforgiving sound of the guitar where every nuance of the string on the fret is audible—and that’s a beautiful sound. Believe me, I’ve made the mistake of tracking with the amp’s reverb cranked, and I end up sounding like I’m playing in a different universe than the rest of the band. It’s kind of silly—a lot of players talk about swapping different guitars or effects, and here I am, marveling at what a difference turning the reverb off can have [laughs].

You’ve been teaching guitar for almost 30 years. . .

. . . and I will probably teach for the rest of my life. I may not want 25 students a week like I used to have, but I try and do at least three lessons a week. At this point in my life, it’s a privilege to share my ideas with players in the hope that some of my concepts will help them become better guitarists.

You also teach every level of player, from advanced seminars at the National Guitar Summer Workshop to young kids. Given your own command of the instrument, isn’t it a little frustrating relating to beginners?

Oh, no! I gain invaluable knowledge by teaching children. For one thing, I need to make the act of learning guitar enjoyable for them, and that simple lesson helps me teach adults more effectively, as well. Keeping things fun is an especially important skill with kids, because they may not learn much when they’re eight, but if the experience of learning was pleasant, they may come back to the guitar when they’re 12. So I talk about movies, or make them laugh, and I make sure I exude kindness more than severity. I try to convey ideas with humor—or analogy and metaphor—that relax and disarm the student. As an instructor, your main goal is to make something that’s complicated seem simple. That’s what teaching is all about.

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