California Report: Johnny Campbell & the Bluegrass Drifters

Fourth-generation, award winning fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Johnny Campbell is a tried-and-true bluegrass traditionalist. Originally from Nashville, he has made his way to and from California several times while playing with San Francisco’s Windy Hill. He and his wife, Whitney Campbell, hold down the Bluegrass Drifters, a self-proclaimed good time bluegrass party band that started in Santa Cruz, California.

You have an interesting bluegrass background. Tell us about it.

I was lucky enough to be born into a bluegrass family. My dad was from Kentucky, and his dad was from White House, Tennessee, and they both played the fiddle. Needless to say, bluegrass was the only music I heard growing up. It was the lure of factory work that drew my family and many others to the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area, which also happened to be a hotbed for the Michigan bluegrass scene. So many came from Kentucky that the area was nicknamed Ypsitucky. By the time I was born, my brother, Jimmy Campbell, was already playing fiddle. One day I came home from school, and Jim and Jesse’s tour bus was in the driveway to recruit my brother. The next week he played his first Nashville gig on the Grand Ole Opry!

Your brother Jimmy had a storied career. How did that impact your playing?

Jimmy and I never had any formal lessons; we would listen to records and play along. Once Jimmy got drafted into the professional bluegrass world, it reaffirmed for me that we were practicing the right notes the right way. We were always Kenny Baker fans. Jimmy had an opportunity when he was sixteen to stay with Kenny over Christmas vacation, where he got to meet all the Nashville greats and, of course, to learn and play.

What do you think makes Kenny Baker a step above all of the other great fiddlers?

When Jimmy was eighteen, his band opened up for Bill Monroe, and that was the first time I got to meet Kenny. I was twelve years old, in the front row, and I could feel the adrenaline from his playing. It was like no other. and all I wanted to do was go home and play. I thought I was already hooked, but then when I heard him play live I was truly hooked! Kenny Baker had a way of playing with such simplicity and with the most soulful and subtle phrasing.

What are your favorite Kenny Baker tunes?

All of Bakers tunes are my favorite lol. I like First Day in Town, Denver Belle, Windy City Rag. Hi Dad in the Morning is also a fave.

How many instruments do you play?

As the story goes, my brother told my mom to hurry me up so I could be his rhythm guitar player. So that’s where I started. By age twelve I was playing mandolin, and by eighteen all I wanted to play was the fiddle. I’ve since gone back to playing mando, and I purchased a Gilchrist last year. It’s hard to put it down!

Who are your biggest musical influences?

My earliest recollection of music was the Stanley Brothers. Carter was, and still is, one of my biggest influences and inspirations. As far as singing, I love the classics – Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, and the Osborne Brothers. As for fiddling, hands down my all-time favorites are Kenny Baker and my brother.

Who are your favorite singers?

Carter Stanley is my favorite. I love his phrasing and the soul in his singing. He sang like those things really happened to him. I also love Pete Goble because his songs tell a story and still sound like bluegrass. I used to make cassette recordings of Pete at the small clubs he would play at with Jimmy in Michigan. Another favorite is Charlie Moore – who I think is under-recognized in the bluegrass world – for his amazing songwriting. 

Tell us about the bands that you’ve played in.

I started a band around ’97, with my buddy Travis Stinson, called the Volunteer String Band. I played a stint with James Monroe from ‘98–99. I was playing with Windy Hill in 2010–11. I got Windy Hill a gig that turned out to be not good for that band’s calendar, so I started my own band with my wife, Whitney, to fill that gig. Shortly after, I talked Whitney into moving to Nashville. Once there, I played extensively with Chris Henry & The Hardcore Grass, with a brief cameo as “Longbow” in his Gangstagrass Band, while making waves with my own band. As most Nashville musicians can attest, everyone’s in a couple of bands at a time. Our core group has consisted of Jeff Burke on mandolin, who has been with us the longest, Kyle Tuttle on banjo, who got his first “on Broadway” gig with us on Thanksgiving, Frank Rische on guitar, known for playing with his family band, and Whitney, who learned to play bass on stage once we moved to Nashville. For my solo project, the band I put together was completely different. I had Chris Henry on mandolin, Chris Hill on banjo, Todd Phillips on bass, and Ronnie McCoury on guitar! That was a stellar combination!

What’s the secret to being an effective band leader? 

When you find out, would you let me know? Lol. I’ve always found that allowing each band member to show off their strengths gives the band its character. I don’t hog the microphone, and I encourage bandmates to sing or pick their favorite tunes. We switch around our harmony parts, which not only keeps us on our toes, but entertains us as well. I try to make sure the band is having fun, ‘cause when we’re having fun the audience is having fun. 

How does it work, splitting time between Nashville and California?

I started coming to the Bay Area for work in 1995. I came out to weld in the refineries that first year, and went to every festival from Strawberry to Plymouth. I met a bunch of folks who went on to become lifelong pickin’ friends. I loved the California scene so much that I transferred to San Jose Pipefitters Local 393, which meant commuting back and forth every six months, depending on work and the festivals I wanted to go to! While I was playing with Windy Hill, I met my wife, Whitney, at the Strawberry Music Festival and convinced her to move to Nashville in 2012. While I’m semi-retired from welding, I still have to return in order to fulfill my union obligations. And, of course, to visit my pickin’ buddies!

How do you approach a new song?

I start a new song by listening and writing out the words. Often by the time I’ve finished writing, I have the words memorized. After I figure out which key is best, I’ll play it on the guitar till the words are smooth. Then I match my fiddle kickoff and break to the simplest form of the melody. Sometimes Whitney and I play around with different keys, and we switch our harmony parts on the chorus so that she’s singing a lead and I’m singing a baritone. Or if she’s singing in a key that’s a little low for her, she’ll switch up to tenor and I’ll sing the lead on the chorus. It’s all relative to the particular song.

What is your process for composing?

I have occasional melodies that pop into my head as a fiddle tune. I usually start with the chord progression on the guitar and then move onto refining the melody on the fiddle.

Do you play anything other than bluegrass?

Though I haven’t turned down gigs to play other genres of music, I don’t practice anything but bluegrass. I consider myself a traditionalist, and feel like playing other genres will muddy my bluegrass.

Do you have any recent or upcoming recordings?

Our most recent album, In the Heart of Old Kentucky, is a tribute to my dad, Bob Campbell, who passed away towards the end of the recording. It’s always hard to pick the songs we want to include, and often we make a last-minute choice based on some unknown inspiration. We included a few originals as well as some classics. It’s available on our website as a physical CD or digital download, at johnnycampbell.net. This was our fifth album – third as the band, and Whitney and I each have solo projects. We also have some really cool merch, including a bobblehead of me. In fact, several of our fans have travelled over the world with their bobblehead and sent home the pictures.

Tell us about your touring experiences.

The Bluegrass Drifters have toured as far west as Las Vegas and as far north as Wisconsin and Maine. I love meeting new people, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a cafe show or summer concert series, I just love to entertain. There’s also an amazing freedom to traveling in our Silver Eagle. It’s like having a hotel on wheels. Of course it comes with its challenges, like the generator stopping and causing the a/c to go out. It’s amazing how quickly the “hotel” turns into an oven. Sometimes we have all day to get somewhere, and just a “little” repair can make us almost late for the gig. I’m chief bus driver and head mechanic, but every Drifter has helped at one time or another. That’s road life!

Are there any tours that really stand out?

We had a blast when we played the Bluegrass Underground Cave. The sound was incredible and the audience was awesome. We have one particularly memorable trip when the bus got pulled over by a North Carolina state trooper and we unfortunately missed our show. The middle part of the story involves a little time in that police car, but that’s a long story that has to be told in person. 

Do you feel that bluegrass music will continue to thrive?

Well, as I mentioned, I’m a traditionalist, and I like the simplicity and raw energy of the bluegrass forefathers. I find that modern bluegrass strays a lot from the melody and is a lot of flashy notes. My brother taught me to play less notes with more feeling. To that extent, a lot of today’s bluegrass seems busy and frantic. I understand that bluegrass festivals have had to loosen their definition of bluegrass in order to gain and keep new audiences. But I think that has distorted the genre of bluegrass. I’m always disappointed when I ask young pickers who their influences are, only to find out that they never actually studied Bill, Lester or Earl, for example. Lol, you can tell which camp I’m in.

What’s the best way for a player to continually improve?

Play what you love. Don’t assume you know every trick and every lick. Sometimes you gotta go back to playing with a metronome or with a recording. Keep playing with new people, ‘cause it’s easy to get in a rut with the same old crew. Jimmy also taught me to try to play with people who are better than you to keep you striving to play your best. While it’s fun to be a big fish in a little pond, you get better by jumping in the bigger pool. 

What fiddle tunes do you love and play when you first pick up your instrument?

I tend to pick up the fiddle and play the newest song that’s on my mind, the one I’ve been practicing. Whitney says that when I pick up the guitar I always play the tail lick to Preachin’ Prayin’ Singin’. When someone says, “here, play my fiddle,” I usually play Katie Hill.

What instruments do you have, play and love?

While I still feel like I’m looking for my perfect fiddle, I’m happy with my ’56 Amedee Dieudonne. However, I do absolutely love my 85 Gilchrist, which I recently purchased.

Do you remember your first instrument?

Yes! My dad gave me an Ovation guitar for my tenth birthday. I still have it.

What interests you when you’re not playing music?

In addition to some fixer uppers that seem to never be finished, my wife and I have a 7.5-acre farm. We started out with just our goats that used to live with us in east Nashville, but we quickly acquired pigs, cows, geese, ducks, quail, rabbits, etc. Sometimes we find new critters that just show up on the farm. We raise all our own meat and are getting into charcuterie. 

Any final thoughts or things you want to share?

I can’t wait to get back to playing after this COVID stuff settles down. Who knows, maybe we’ll even be coming out to play some CBA events! We look forward to it.

Thanks for your time, Johnny.

Thank you Dave and in the famous word of Johnny Campbell, “Let’s Pick”.

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.