The guitarist & ambient steel player of the Lost Bayou Ramblers shares his favorite records featuring pedal steel.
Jonny Campos is the guitarist and ambient pedal steel player for the Cajun band Lost Bayou Ramblers. After releasing their Grammy-award winning album Kalenda in 2008, the band went on hiatus. Jonny used the time to make new music, and got together with Kirkland Middleton, the Ramblers’ engineer (and drummer) at Middleton’s apartment in New Orleans’s Pigeon Town, to produce an EP called Droste. Mixed by Turk Deitrich, it was released as a digital download and via streaming services April 4 on Nouveau Electric Records.
Jonny’s steel playing on Droste, wrote Will Coviello in New Orleans’s Gambit, creates a “meditative, ambient electric sound, almost like the magnified murmur of water flowing down a bayou.”
Droste is named for the Dutch term which describes art in which an image recursively appears within itself, as in the work of M.C. Escher, creating a visual loop which seems to go on endlessly.
Weeks Island takes its name from a Louisiana salt dome that rises up out of the surrounding flat brackish marsh, offering the widest perspective possible, in the same way this music does for the listener.
As guitarist for Lost Bayou Ramblers, his ambient guitar and steel sounds play a prominent role on Kalenda, as well on the soundtracks for the award-winning documentary Rodents of Unusual Size, and the feature film Lost Bayou.
Asked to name five albums which made a major impact on his music and life, he wrote the following, which he titled himself.
The Road Map to Droste
By JOHNNY CAMPOS
1. “Find A Hidden Door,” The Misunderstood
I’ve always loved garage and psyche, and this scratches all of those itches for me. I came for the stacked harmonies and brash attitude but dove deeper because of the slide guitar sound. I believe Glenn Campbell (not Glen Campbell) is credited as the first psych steel player of all time. The idea of using a steel to push a rock & roll song out further into weirder territory was more than intriguing to me.
2. “Hey Babe,” by Neil Young
What can be said about Neil that hasn’t already been said? This is such a beautiful, simple love song. The riff that Ben Keith plays is so straightforward and classic, plus the response to the lead vocal line he plays in the outro is just…tasteful. He’s the guy that flipped the switch in my brain and made me think maybe pedal steel was something I’d like to try and learn.
3. “No Sense in Lovin’,” by Uncle Tupelo
It feels like I first heard Uncle Tupelo’s “Anodyne” in high school when my older sister came home from college. Maybe for winter break? The steel player, Lloyd Maines, is more traditional on this one but it takes an otherwise straight folk rock sound and pushes it past the boundaries of country and folk rock. I knew I couldn’t play this well, so I decided to start figuring out new approaches to pedal steel.
4. “An Ending (Ascent),” by Brian Eno
Eno’s Apollo: Atmosphere’s & Soundtracks, for me, was like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Everything changed after it was released. I’ve always felt the sound of string sections is the sound of pure human emotion. Eno and Daniel Lanois figured out a way to emulate the raw emotion of discovery and wonder. My favorite memory of hearing this song in the wild is when I inadvertently walked into a sound cone at the WWII museum here in New Orleans, where this track was playing for an exhibit about the U.S. involvement on the Pacific side of the war.
5. “Calamus,” by Chuck Johnson.
My friend Marty shared this record, Balsams, with me quite some time ago, and I can’t recommend it enough. The opening track is just so warm and inviting. The whole record brings my mind into focus and into the present moment. How he blends texture and melody into an almost-narrative was an inspiration for me when it came to the Weeks Island material.