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For Marshall Campbell and Music, The Beat Goes On

For Marshall Campbell and Music, The Beat Goes On

In his day job as director of engineering for Baxter Health, there’s little to give away Marshall Campbell as a guitar hero. The Illinois native has toned down his playing considerably since his younger days when he would lend his talents to multiple bands at once.

But as the song goes, “Rock and roll never forgets,” and neither does Campbell when it comes to the joy that music brings him and has always brought him. And it all started with a father’s faith and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

“For Christmas one year, my father bought me a Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar,” he said. “It was $25, which was a lot of money when you’re talking 1968. And I remember asking him years later why he did that, and he just said, ‘You just acted like you were a guitar player, so we bought it for you.’

“I will say, it’s one of the things I will always thank my parents for, the ability to play guitar. Because when anything happens in life, that’s what I do.”

Guitar lessons followed, as did his first electric guitar at age 10, thanks again to his father. Not long after that, he played his first gig and landed in his first band. It was about as far from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as one could get, but Campbell was hooked.

“I started playing at age 7, and at age 12, I started playing in church,” he said. “At age 15, I got into my first local band around town. There was another gentleman in church who had a band, and he asked me to play with them.”

Each performance fed Campbell’s ambition to make music, and he practiced constantly. By the time he hit college, his chops matched his desire to play, and over a 10-year period he’d play lead guitar and sing in four bands, spending a lot of time on the road to boot. The crowds wanted Top 40 and dance music, which meant a lot of covers and a lot of genres he wasn’t wild about, but he was gigging nonetheless.

“I grew up listening to music,” he said. “Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, Rush, that good, healthy, hard rock. But when I played guitar back then, it was America, Poco, Bread, Huey Lewis and I scarcely remember the names of all the disco artists. That was my least favorite; I didn’t listen to it, but I had to play it.”

It was also during this period that he finally got his rocker credibility, both onstage and off.

“I’ll be honest; I got kicked out of school for playing too much guitar and not studying. It’s all documented. You can write that down,” he said with a big laugh. “It actually took me five years to get my four-year degree because I had to sit out that year. But I still played music the entire time.

“I figure it’s one thing to do something bad, it’s another thing to do something bad really well and to get in trouble for it. Anyway, it was not a pretty sight for my parents, but they were OK with it. They knew my love of music.”

At 25, Campbell got married and hung up his traveling axe. Before long, though, he was back out there, this time by himself. He played steadily in local coffee houses, even as work and family responsibilities were starting to take their share. Finally, one day he suffered an accident with a table saw, badly injuring a ring finger. Playing became something less for public consumption than for personal enjoyment.

“There’s a lot that happens when I play guitar, and I struggle with a lot of different things,” he said. “Not necessarily rhythm or anything like that, but I have to work at playing guitar. It’s not the easiest thing in the world.

“When I cut the finger off, it’s like, ‘Well, that doesn’t work anymore.’ It’s the ring finger on the right hand. I’ve still got the finger; it’s attached but it doesn’t work. It’s kind of a hindrance, really. I can’t hardly fingerpick, I have to use a lot of flat-picking.”

The functional loss of a digit didn’t fully derail Campbell’s musical career. These days he and his pals get together for guitar night. They sit around and jam, heard by no one but each other and the family members that are there by invitation. That includes Campbell’s son, Mason, who’s got a regular seat at guitar night when he’s not outplaying with one of his own two bands, Mellow Mountain and Whiskey Halo.

Today, the elder Campbell would much rather focus on his son’s playing than his own.

“Eons ago, back when I was playing guitar and playing in all the bands, my mother came to me and said she wanted to learn how to play,” Campbell said. “So I spent time with her, and I taught my mother how to play just baseline notes, very simple. When my son came along, she drug him in there and said, ‘Let me teach you how to play this guitar,’ and that’s when he actually learned how.

“We do these guitar get-togethers now; my son shows up and we sit down side-by-side and we play. I’m proud of him. He’s very good at it, a good guitar player and a phenomenal vocalist.”

Even though his playing has whittled down to this small circle of friends, Campbell is acutely aware of how responsible the guitar is—and music in general, for that matter—for his development as a person.

“Learning to play the guitar made me not afraid to stand up in front of people and discuss things I understood,” he said. “Eventually, I also learned to talk about things I didn’t know anything about and still feel comfortable.

Playing the guitar made me not so shy because I’m an honest-to-God introvert. But those skills with the guitar and learning how to sing got me to open up and have full-on discussions with people and stand in front of a crowd and share things.”

Photography by James Moore