A Tribute to Machines: The Music of Jerry Campbell

by Various Artists

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Jerry Campbell is easily one of the most accomplished songwriters in Nashville, of any genre; he has been for years. He is also one of the most gifted players, and a thrilling performer on stage. Have you seen him live? If so, then you have wondered whether one and the same man was about to pass out drunk, explode with a discharge of violent energy, or take a girlfriend gently by the hand, and all within the span of a mere ten minutes. Anyone who has followed the local alternative music scene for the last 20 years must be thankful for Jerry’s presence. Older and more celebrated musicians recognized his prodigious artistic gifts immediately upon his formation of Spider Virus in 1992, and as his talents matured and his skills sharpened they respectfully accepted him as their peer. Today Jerry is acknowledged by those who know as one of Nashville’s most prolific and inventive songwriters and musicians. And while other musicians have exhausted their potential as they have aged beyond their mid-twenties—the sorry fate of the species—Jerry Campbell, now forty, is writing the best music of his life.

One cannot accurately communicate the depth of Jerry’s talents by employing the critic’s lazy trick of comparing his music to the work of his better known peers: he writes the tunes Brian Wilson would have written had he come of age in 1978; his music sounds like GBV with an admixture of ELO. Nor can one do justice to his songs with adjectives like “edgy” or “melodic.” Such clichés are true as far as they go; the trouble is that they don’t go far enough. They provide for the uninitiated some little insight into Jerry’s music, but they obscure far more than they illuminate. Your typical critic is, I suppose, limited to this approach, for he is rarely personally acquainted with his subject. But I am writing as a friend, so let’s be specific.

Over the years Jerry has worked with a relatively stable core of collaborators. These men are all talented in their own right; indeed, they are exceptional players, and one of them is himself a remarkably gifted songwriter. Nevertheless, even in this company Jerry Campbell stands out. His band-mates would be the first to admit this; I expect they would even insist upon it. They have experienced Jerry’s seemingly inexhaustible talent up-close over the course of many years, and they are all honest men. And however jealous one may be of one’s own claim to respect and recognition, an honest man always knows when he is in the company of a superior.

Employing a sardonic combination of admiration and admonition, one of Jerry’s band-mates recently remarked that “he is a genius, but only with respect to music.” Now it may be that “genius” is a word with meanings too deep to apply to a writer of popular music; perhaps we should reserve the term for the likes of Plato, Michelangelo, or, to concede more to contemporary intellectual tendencies than I would normally be inclined to do, Einstein. Still, Jerry does indeed posses an undeniable musical-artistic brilliance, and this is much more than most of us mortals can claim for ourselves. And as for that qualification, “only with respect to music”: is it not always so with the artist? Never was a great artist a perfect man.

This is not to say that Jerry’s soul is soil for vice. He has passed through the murky and pockmarked landscape of the rock and roll wilderness and emerged relatively unscathed. (Sadly, one cannot say the same of many of his friends and acquaintances.) But despite his physical health and spiritual well-being, there is an underlying mood of something unsettled about his work, of aspirations unaccomplished, potentialities unactualized. This mood, I am sure, is unjustified, for the gift of beauty given to friends is as significant as the same gift showered indiscriminately on the heads of nameless multitudes. No—it is even more significant. Nevertheless, this is often the way with artists: they know that the true heart of their being, and thus their ultimate value and worth, reside within themselves and their creations, but still they are human beings, and the lesser element of their humanity longs for others in large numbers to acknowledge the great things they have done. So, as I say, the melancholy mood is there. This temper is the source of the autumnal, and more specifically the October emotion that suffuses many of Jerry’s most successful compositions. It is what colors even his raucous tunes with the subtle hues that set them apart. One is energized, lifted almost into masculine flight, while simultaneously being moved to cast a contemplative eye inward upon memories of childhood twilight, or upon the twilight that hangs even more ominously over our fullest maturity.

So Jerry Campbell is a sound-poet, and like all great poets he has a way of inspiring psychological ascent and descent simultaneously. This is why, to be honest, I find his music sometimes hard to bear. It makes one feel alive, as does the summer; but it intimates death as well, as does summer’s inevitable passing. The sun is high, we are young: we don’t have to get wasted, but we do! The sun descends: breaking up’s so hard to do, so let’s be separated…

One can learn something of the developing maturity and diversity of Jerry’s artistic achievements by considering the song “Down the Wall” from a mini-masterpiece of a cd that he recorded not long ago with several of his long-time collaborators performing under the name Millionaire Magicians. There is a line to this tune from Spider Virus’ youthful “Kiss My Fist,” but the line is not straight, and only a master could have plotted its coordinates. The titles alone indicate much: the older song has lyrical humor, but it lacks subtlety; one can surmise the content from the title. But, “Down the Wall”? What can this mean; what can it signify? The thought is incomplete; one’s mind reaches out for the missing verb: to climb (down the wall); to break; to fall; to…? The title tells us little, but it hints at much. And the song does not disappoint. It is surprising, jarring even; yet it is also melodious and moving. But how can this be? Usually we prefer to relax and settle in to a melody, to feel at home, to experience it as if—or almost but not quite as if—we have heard the song before. But here we have a composition that subverts our expectations while satisfying us completely. Here we have a tune approaching very near to an accomplished nuance of form.

Jerry has recently been writing and recording mostly on his own, though always with the assistance and participation of his friends. He has begun even to summon bands into being from thin air, writing in the style of their fabricated personalities and recording under their made-up names. Here we have yet another side of his surprisingly boundless creativity: his physical self is too confining to contain his continually outflowing talent; he must divide into multiplicities simply to collect the overspill. The songs of these invented bands are bathed in the sound-colors of Jerry’s own artistry, but if this signifies a limitation to his talents as an actor—well, we would rather not have him so gifted a thespian as to veer away from the writer-musician who has moved us all these years.

I have mentioned Jerry's friends. He has many friends, and this is so because he is as good a man as he is inspired an artist. Also a loving and attentive father, brother, and son. Those of us who know him well are thankful for all he has given us, personally as well as musically. These songs recorded in his honor manifest our admiration of his artistry, and our being moved to offer such tribute is an indication of the depth of our friendship. - Mark Anderson


released April 9, 2013

Matt Moody w/ Matt Mueller
Michael Carothers & Paper Cameras
Ryan Ervin
Todd Kemp
Sam Powers
Andy Willhite
Mark Anderson (words)
Hunt Adams (artwork)

All songs written by J. Campbell
Happy Birthday, B.



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A Tribute To Machines Nashville, Tennessee

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