“I don’t know what that means!”
Guitar virtuoso and longtime sideman of choice for the likes of Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash and many others, Larry Campbell isn’t sure what to make of a recent media assertion that he and Teresa Williams are the First Couple of Americana.
“We’re playing music we love to play,” he says. “If it’s called Americana music that’s great, that’s fabulous.”
What is clear is that Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, the debut album for the husband-and-wife duo, draws its sound and feel from deep domestic musical tradition.
“We both gravitate towards music is that is born out of complete honesty,” Campbell continues “And that could be bluegrass, it could be rock ‘n’ roll, it could be gospel or jazz -- as long as it’s speaking the truth.”
The album seamlessly winds its way through the music of the American south in songs like the back-porch pickin’ “Everybody Loves You” to jaunty rockabilly of “Bad Luck Charm” and the Memphis soul of “Another One More Time.’”
“You know where I’m from,” says Williams, a native of Peckerwood Point, Tennessee. “I’m like in the center of it all. You go two hours and hit Nashville. You down and hit Muscle Shoals. You hit Tupelo, the Delta, Memphis and on up to Kentucky. I’m surrounded by all of these! We got rock out of Memphis, blues on the radio out of Chicago … and the old folks were playing country honky-tonk all the time.”
Williams certainly had the Americana pedigree, but how did it go when the strikingly urban Campbell (6-foot-plus, often dressed in black, born in New York City) rode into rural Tennessee?
Campbell: Fortunately, I had lived in Jackson, Mississippi, through a series of events. Since I was a kid, all the music that got under my skin was all born in the South. Growing up in New York, everything about the South is presented to you as parody, you know? It was Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith and all the charming stuff, but it’s not the real thing. [In Jackson] I was able to absorb some Southern culture and understand the vibe.
And when I first got down there with Teresa, I could feel suspicion. Her immediate family was great, and I could feel the suspicion around me from the locals. But I feel like I had enough understanding of how to conduct myself in this environment to win them over eventually, and I played the fiddle.
Teresa Williams: Yeah, the immediate entrée.
Campbell: Two minutes of playing the fiddle and, all of a sudden, I’m OK. (laughs)
Williams: I wouldn’t have entertained the notion of this relationship -- I mean in a serious way -- unless he had that time in the South. He couldn’t have understood it.
Campbell: She said it was a little bit like me being in My Cousin Vinny.
So one being from rural Tennessee and one from New York City, how does that manifest itself in your music?
Williams: Well, I was actually in New York City, needing country players for this thing I was doing. … And to be honest with you, I thought “New York musician” and “country musician” was an oxymoron. I needed a pedal steel player for some Hank [Williams] tunes in my set. That’s how I first even looked at him was that he was playing inside the music, and I didn’t think I’d be able to find that there. [He was] doing it right, and I was like, “Whoever you are, you’re saving my life!”
Campbell: As long as that stream of honesty in any music that we’re listening to or performing together … if I’m getting off the track, she’ll let me know. If she’s getting off the track, I’ll let her know. And though we may not want to hear it, we can see, you know?
Williams: There’s not a lot of that that goes on
Campbell: That is the common thread. And regardless of North or South.
CMT: I heard that you resisted the idea of doing an album together for a while.
Campbell: I always wanted to do it. It was just getting a concept in our heads of what the material should be, understanding who we were as a musical duo and then finding the time to do it. We’re with Levon all these years, we’re with Phil [Lesh]. We’re with Hot Tuna …
Williams: Which is all the stuff you wanna do. It was fun!
Campbell: Yeah, and records I’m producing that kept coming up and Teresa kept saying that I was like the cobbler that kids have no shoes because I’m producing everybody else’s record. (laughs)
Williams: I love to sing. I grew up singing, but my mother gave me a hefty skepticism about [the music business]. I never came to Nashville. I hopped, skipped, jumped the industry. But this happened organically, and it wasn’t like, “Let’s make a record and be somebody!” (laughs) It wasn’t like that.
“Surrender to Love” seems to refer to both the process of making the album and your love story as a whole. Or is that too easy?
Campbell: When Teresa and I first met, neither of us were looking to get involved in anybody, but I was just smitten immediately and I couldn’t get her out of my mind. … And this song comes out of a humorous way of expressing what was going on back then: trying to keep it at arm’s distance but -- no, man -- we gotta give into this!
Williams: And I was kind of becoming known as the runaway bride at this point. I had canceled two weddings. So when I told my mother we were getting married, no congratulations! She said, “Well, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Campbell: It was hypnotism.
Williams: It was imperative. … It really was. I knew before we even had the date, I knew this was it.
Another important figure in your story and your music -- one from just across the Arkansas line to you Teresa -- was Levon Helm of The Band.
Williams: For me being off from home, just the personal side of it, my parents would come up, and we couldn’t get him onstage because he’d be back with my daddy in the kitchen talking about tractors. Because they both came up the same way.
Campbell: Levon was a guy that could play and sing and make music in any of these genres that Teresa and I are wrapped up in --with complete authority. If it was American music and he was performing, it was as honest as the day is long.
Williams: He didn’t know how to be phony. Period. In life, you know? And that’s what I grew up with. Almost honesty to a fault.
Campbell: I always say, there was absolutely no distance between who he was and what he did. There’s no pretense whatsoever. And that really rang true in the music. What a great place to be for almost a decade.
Williams: I keep calling it music utopia. He was like true North for music.
Many people talk about what real country music is these days, and your music is certainly steeped in it. What do you consider country music?
Campbell: Country music, to me, is just something that comes out of the dirt and is just raw expression. Raw, emotional expression. With no flowers on it, with no perfume.
Williams: Honest to a fault, like we said.
Campbell: There’s Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and there’s George Jones and there’s Loretta and anybody who’s up there spilling their guts in an unforced way just because it’s coming out of them. And keeping it simple. … That’s country music.
Campbell: As Hank would say, “Keep it vanilla.”
Williams: “Keep it vanilla, boys!”
Campbell: Everybody can have their own version of what country music means to them.
Campbell: And you’ve gotta be able to picture a farmer in his overalls
Williams: And that’s coming from a New Yorker!
Campbell: But if you keep that thread of honesty in there!
Williams: That’s the crux.
Campbell: If you can find that, I think it belongs in the club