Friday, September 7, 2007
Guitarist's musical dexterity Leads fans to Ramble
Larry Campbell rides into town for another Helm get-together

The voices of the three female singers sounded like one pipe organ.

The fiddle played by the man with the long, straight, dark hair sounded like a droning bagpipe.

The vocalists - Teresa Williams, Amy Helm and Fiona McBain - sang "The Beautiful Lie" by Dolly Parton. The setting was Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which sits on the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Fair.

Standing where Midnight Mass met an Irish feis, where Bethel crossed wires with Nashville, was multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell.

Campbell juggles musical genres as easily as he switches instruments. A New York City native and former member of Bob Dylan's band, Campbell has been spending a lot of Saturday nights in Woodstock, playing music in a barn with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer.

Campbell, along with Williams, his wife, is a member of the Levon Helm Band, which is fronted by the former drummer and vocalist for The Band. Campbell is also a regular at the Midnight Ramble, a semi-regular house concert held at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock that features the Levon Helm Band.

You can hear Campbell on Helm's upcoming CD, "Dirt Farmer," which will be released Oct. 30. Campbell performs on the record - he plays guitar and fiddle - which he co-produced with Helm's daughter, Amy.

You can see Campbell perform in the fall with Phil Lesh, the former bass player for the Grateful Dead. Phil Lesh and Friends are set to play nine shows at the Nokia Theater Times Square starting Oct. 31.

"To play with Larry," Lesh wrote in an e-mail to the Journal, "is to tap into some ancient stream of pure universal music; at once exhilarating and terrifying, it sweeps us along with it, carrying us farther and deeper than ever before."

And you can catch Campbell Saturday, when he rides into town for yet another ramble.

"He's one of those guitar players who has the finest tone on anything he's playing," said Rick Schneider, morning host on WKZE (98.1 FM) in Red Hook. "He's always spot on the money.

Campbell called Helm "ground zero of all things Americana in music."

"The guy, with total legitimacy, performs any rock 'n' roll tune, any blues tune, any bluegrass tune, any country tune, any Cajun tune, anything that's roots-American music, with more authority than anyone else out there."


You can trace Campbell's star-studded music career to The Beatles, circa 1964.

"It was all about The Beatles to me back then, that first Ed Sullivan show," he said. "The next day, the world was a different place.

Campbell in 1966 was playing a lot of baseball when an older guy showed up at the field one day with a guitar and played a bunch of Beatles songs.

Campbell went home, got his father's old guitar "and never looked back."

He learned Beatles and Rolling Stones songs. Then, got "really intrigued by the folk thing."

"I started seeking out the roots, Doc Watson, Rev. Gary Davis," he said. "... At this time, I was playing the guitar. ... I was determined to start playing the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, pedal steel guitar. I devoted myself to learning these things. There's something in all those instruments that was attractive to me. To be able to describe what it is, you hit those chords and it just evokes something in me."

Decades later, Campbell evokes something in Helm.

"The first thing that comes to mind about Larry is, besides his character and his musicianship, he's just a master musician - on about a dozen instruments," Helm said. "You think he's about the best mandolin player you ever heard until he pulls out the fiddle or whatever he pulls out."

Campbell graduated high school two years early, then moved to California to pursue music.

"I dropped everything, saved money and went out there with a couple of friends, just to see what would happen," he said. "What happened? Nothing. I starved for a couple of months."

Campbell earned money — $25-$100 a night — playing talent contests at country bars in Los Angeles.

"If I played 'Orange Blossom Special' on the fiddle - there was no one else playing fiddle - I would win," he said.

Then, he played in a band that performed Top 40 country hits and originals in "hotel lounges and honky tonks all across the country. It was nothing but fun."

That ensemble became the house band at a club in Mississippi, and Campbell played there for two years.

He said he could have stayed for the rest of his life but realized if he wanted to go further, he would have to return to New York.


Campbell played with the late John Herald of Ulster County and as a result got to know a lot of Woodstock musicians such as Happy and Artie Traum.

Campbell left Herald's band after about two years. Around the same time, the Lone Star Cafe in New York City was a major hot spot for musicians and Campbell sat in often with the house band. He also played with musicians passing through who might have needed a pedal steel guitar player or fiddle player.

He worked as a studio musician around town and performed on Broadway. He toured with Shawn Colvin, Johnny Winter and Cyndi Lauper and first met Helm informally at the Lone Star.

"That was just casual," Campbell said, "sitting around playing."

Campbell's good friend was Tony Garnier, Dylan's longtime bass player. And the two would cross paths at the Lone Star often.

"He had been telling Dylan about me for a while and eventually that opened up," Campbell said of the slot he took in Dylan's band. He played with Dylan from 1997-2004, leaving the legend to pursue other projects.

"At the top of the list was Levon," Campbell said.

The Rambles, he said, "are comfortable. There is nobody trying to be anything other than what's going on. There are no egos involved. It's about sharing the joy of playing music. And nothing else."