The Lonesome Ballad of Jim Campilongo

In which an instrumental guitarist finds his voice in musical history

All she wanted was to hear "Mustang Sally," and Jim Campilongo wasn't having any of it.

The guitarist was playing one of what's been many nights at the Paradise Lounge over the years. And while he's best known for the exuberant country-jazz instrumentals he plays with his band the 10 Gallon Cats, this particular evening a couple of years ago was different. Campilongo was playing songs from his 1998 album Table for One, a dark, introspective, and lovingly crafted collection of romantic ballads. Still, the woman in the audience wouldn't shut up about "Mustang Sally."

Campilongo stopped the show. "Y'know, I know what you want to hear," he told her. "You want to hear 'Mustang Sally.'"

Campilongo, master of country-jazz and bleak-but-beautiful guitar excursions.
Akim Aginsky
Campilongo, master of country-jazz and bleak-but-beautiful guitar excursions.

"Yeah."

"And you want to hear 'La Bamba.'"

"Yeah!"

"And you want to hear 'Rock Around the Clock.'"

"Yeah!"

"Well," he said, staring her down, "I know that because you're so obviously transparent. You may not realize this, but I know what you want to hear. And there is absolutely no way we're going to play any of those songs."

Eventually, the woman and her companions got up and left. If Campilongo remembers correctly, she was crying.

Campilongo doesn't run into incidents like that very often, nor does he get heckled much -- he's too good for that. Somewhere between modern blues of the late Danny Gatton, the out-there jazz of John McLaughlin, and the western swing jangle and twang of Jimmy Bryant, Campilongo's guitar work is precise and studied, but always stoked with something intangible and deeper. He doesn't do the clichéd Passionate Blues Guitarist Wince when he bends the high E string on the 14th fret; he plays like a composer. Still, instrumental guitarists like Campilongo tend to get treated like walking jukeboxes -- or worse, hotshot gunslingers whose immense fretboard skill can't mask an utter lack of ability to evoke a genuine feeling.

While he takes no great pride in relating a story about driving an unwitting concert patron to tears, Campilongo believes in his own talents as a musician, bandleader, and songwriter -- and he doesn't feel he has to answer to anyone. "People come up to me and say, 'Hey, have ya ever thought about gettin' a singer?'" he says. "It's so childlike, as if they think I don't understand what I'm doing. What I'm doing is exactly what I shouldbe doing."

Campilongo's Brisbane home is a simple and efficient one: Old family photos grace the walls next to his kitchen, and vintage country records hang in the living room amid rows of LPs and videotapes. His music room, where he spends his time composing, practicing, and tutoring, is about the size of a walk-in closet, littered with handwritten charts and other musical detritus. There are plaques for his Bammies nominations, and the one actual trophy he's won (in 1998 for Outstanding Americana/Roots Artist), a phallic representation of a vintage microphone, is doing double duty as a paperweight; he respects the awards, but says of the trophy, "I always thought about putting a condom on it." A few guitars hang on the walls, including one custom-made for him by former student and country crooner Johnny Dilks, but the only one he's played regularly for 12 years is a 1959 Fender Telecaster. There are signs that the battered thing is on its last legs -- he's beyond wearing down the fret on some parts of the neck, and the strings now start to dig into the raw wood when he plays. Asked if he's considered having it refretted, he gets a look on his face like he's just been handed a kitten and told to drown it. "That would be like cheating on a woman," he says, a little incredulously.

Growing up in South San Francisco, Campilongo was almost scared to play his first guitar, a cheap thing the kid down the block got by cashing in Green Stamps. "I was keeping it under my bed and not playing it until I had my first lesson," he says. Instead, he listened to records constantly and developed a particular affinity for albums that had only one or two songs per side, a purchasing method that gets you mediocrities like Rare Earth in Concert, but also John Coltrane's Live in Japan.

Campilongo's teenage suburban kegger nights were filled with Montrose and Bad Company, but his days were filled with Django Reinhardt and Merle Haggard records on loan from his high school ceramics teacher. He took lessons from a woman named Bunnie Gregiore, who still lives not far from him. And he'd hang out with high school pal Ken Owen, who'd play drums while Campilongo worked on his playing. "It was him just learning the guitar, smoking an incredible amount of pot, listening to Cream, and just going crazy for hours," Owen recalls.

Campilongo, now 42, started playing in bands when he was 17, mostly funk groups and other good-time party bands. "I think I was drunk for about 12 years," he says. "I played in bands and I was a musician, I guess. I thought I was." About 10 years ago he gave up drinking, and while he respects the musicians he worked with, he divorced himself from them. Which meant Campilongo was forced to do two things: figure out what his voice was, and find a band that could accommodate it. In early 1995, he just dove in, booking four Thursdays at the Paradise without a band. At that time, Owen was playing drums in a country band, Mental Revenge, with bassist Chris Kee and pedal steel guitarist Joe Goldmark. When Mental Revenge's singer, Gary Claxton, decided to move to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, the band became free.

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