A Long Time Coming
It’s fitting that the opening song of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams’ self-titled album (released June 23, 2015, on Red House Records) is “Surrender to Love.” Like the other great duos whose ranks they join – Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, Buddy and Julie Miller, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett – Campbell and Williams’ music both grows from and expresses their deep, abiding love for each other, as well as the passion they share for the music. As much as the singers are guilty of “desire in the first degree” and gladly open themselves to love (“drop the guns slow and easy,” they sing, “and reach for the sky above”), Campbell’s sassy, wink-and-nod guitar licks push along their soulful, soaring harmonies and disarm us, urging us to surrender to the music, to the love with which it’s been written.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” according to Barbara O’Brien, Levon Helm’s final manager, who’s worked closely with Campbell and Williams at the Helms’ Barn in Woodstock, New York, since 2005. “Onstage, they never get too soupy, but you can see and feel genuine love and respect between them.”
Indeed, we’d be wise to accept the warm invitation to feel the love – to curl up, dance, moan, testify, and embrace the musical journey on which Campbell and Williams want to lead us.
Speaking of journeys, the road to this album was long, but Campbell and Williams knew as soon as they met 28 years ago that they shared the same musical sensibilities. “Larry courted me with a Louvin Brothers mix tape,” Williams says. To which Campbell quips, “There weren’t a lot of women in New York City who understood the Louvin Brothers.”
While the Louvins’ music played matchmaker, the depth of the couple’s passion grew. “From the first day I met him and spoke to him in person,” says Williams, “I could see in his eyes the depth of his character, his soul, his wisdom, his patience, his kindness.” For Campbell, Williams’ “unabashed honesty was, and is, as delightful as it is painful as it is refreshing,” he says. “With Teresa, you always know what you’re dealing with; that’s what makes her such a great singer, too.”
"From the first day I met [Larry] and spoke to him in person, I could see in his eyes the depth of his character, his soul, his wisdom, his patience, his kindness." - Teresa Williams
In those days, they liked to spend their time singing under Williams’ great-great-grandmother’s cedar tree, the same one under which they got married. It may have seemed a musical collaboration was inevitable but, “after we got married,” says Campbell, “our paths kept diverging. I was playing in a number of bands and then touring with Bob Dylan for ten years; Teresa was playing Sara Carter in a musical [Keep on the Sunny Side] about the Carter Family.”
In 2005, when Campbell had just finished his decade-long stint with Dylan, Levon Helm asked him to be the musical director of the Midnight Rambles at his barn in Woodstock, New York, and to lead the Ramble Band. Campbell produced a record for Levon’s daughter Amy’s band, Olabelle, and Amy suggested that Campbell bring Williams up to the Barn.
“That was an immediate success,” Campbell recalls. “We did a couple of rhythm tracks – including ‘You’re Running Wild,’ on which Levon plays drums – around the time that I was producing Levon’s Electric Dirt. We began to explore our musical sensibilities. The Ramble Band was a perfect incubator for what [Teresa and I] were doing together.”
Despite the early musical magic, the idea of the couple doing a record together was still an abstraction, in their minds. In addition to the work they were doing at Helm’s place, they were also very busy playing with Phil Lesh & Friends and Hot Tuna.
Hot Tuna guitarist and frontman Jorma Kaukonen, for one, was grateful for that diversion. “Aside from them both being noble human beings, they are the ultimate team players,” says Kaukonen. “Almost immediately Larry … [felt like] someone I’d played in a band with for years. As a producer, he never tries to mold his artists to suit his vision. [That’s] rare – very rare. Teresa bathes any space she is in with light and brings the voice of an angel to the table … she always sings what is right – always.”
While those projects might have delayed any efforts to lay down their duo album, Campbell and Williams simply embraced these gigs as further opportunities to hone their already considerable skills. “Phil [Lesh] gave you the freedom to explore onstage without any fear,” Campbell says, and Williams emphasizes that she might “never have tried any of these songs [on this album] if I hadn’t been called to do this stuff [with Phil].”
As a result of their time with Phil and Friends, the couple closes their new album with a haunting, spare, and sonic rendition of the Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter tune, “Attics of My Life,” to which Amy Helm lends harmony vocals. The tune is more pure and chilling and memorable than the Grateful Dead’s original on American Beauty.
More than any other quality, Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams carries a purity of expression difficult to find on many other albums released in any year. Whether he’s playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin, or steel guitar, Campbell never wastes a note. Williams’ vocal phrasing is impeccable. Like any great soul singer – Maxine Brown, say – she controls her breathing, wielding the power of her vocals to deliver just the right emotional touch to a lyric.
As cathartic as this recording might seem to fans, Campbell admits that he never thought much about making an album or standing in the spotlight. “I wanted to be the best musician I could possibly be,” he says. “Every time I learned a new instrument, I realized how broad and infinite music could be. I wanted to be a studio musician in New York – one of those guys where, at the drop of a hat, I could play on anybody’s record.”
"I wanted to be a studio musician in New York – one of those guys where, at the drop of a hat, I could play on anybody's record." - Larry Campbell
Guitarist and producer Buddy Miller, Campbell’s long-time friend and bandmate, can speak to that. “Larry draws from many different wells,” Miller says. “He’s lived the different styles he plays, and this music is in him. His taste is impeccable. Teresa gives it everything, too; there’s no pretense with her. When they’re onstage, they just know what they’re doing. They don’t have to second-guess each other. Their music is humble, honest, and beautiful.”
Indeed, you get the impression that Campbell has never picked up a stringed instrument he couldn’t play. On Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, his astonishing multi-instrumentalism is on full display. So is his powerful songwriting, and Williams’ soulful, evocative voice that’s as capable of Tina Turner-like soul shouts and Dusty Springfield-like languorous smokiness as it is of the pure, crystalline harmonies that accompany Campbell’s gritty vocals.
Songs for All Seasons
The beauty of this album comes not just from its musical purity but also its range of musical styles, and the pair’s mastery of each. Campbell wrote six of the tunes on the album by himself, and co-wrote two others: “Down on My Knees,” which he penned with Louie Ortega, and “Midnight Highway,” on which he shares writing credit with Julie Miller. The couple also includes three covers on the album (“Attics of My Life,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” and “You’re Running Wild”), which were audience favorites at the Rambles.
“This was very likely the first time we sang ‘You’re Running Wild’ together,” says Williams. “I thought it was our song, until I found out that Larry had already sung it with another girl singer and band [Buddy and Julie Miller].” She laughs.
Campbell admits that the first time he heard Reverend Gary Davis’ “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” – an old gospel tune – he was terrified trying to follow Davis’ playing. Then he heard Kaukonen’s interpretation of the song. “After I listened to Jorma,” he recalls, “I went back to Reverend Gary Davis, and I understood that song.”
With their version, Campbell and Williams deliver a powerful anointing. Williams’ soulful shouting carries the tune. She preaches and testifies in her singing, propelled by Campbell’s driving electric blues guitar. The climax of the song comes in the final line – “for this old world is almost done” – as Williams holds “almost” for two bars before sliding down into the final word, “done.”
“Everybody Loves You” features Campbell’s Doc Watson-style, jaunty fingerpicking. With his tasty licks, Campbell creates a veritable orchestra that provides the sonic foundation for the tale of loneliness masked by adoration and love. With fist-in-the-glove lyrics that belie the happy-go-lucky instrumental, Campbell sings:
Everybody loves you, everybody wants you
All the women want to be you
And you drive the boys insane
Everybody’s for you, they stand there and adore you
But nobody’s gonna ease your lonely pain.
In the scampering blues moan, “Ain’t Nobody for Me,” Campbell’s blistering guitar weaves its way around a tongue-in-cheek mournfulness about hitting the bottom of the loneliness barrel; Williams’ harmonies make the ache even starker, since they haunt the singer with the just-out-of-reach possibility that there might be somebody for him after all. Campbell’s lyrics include ingenious references to other songs of desire, like the Allman Brothers’ “Sweet Melissa,” as they drive home how very low he’s gone:
I called little Susie
All she said was goodbye
I called Jenny Johnson
She said it’d be a cold day in July
I called sweet Melissa
She said, “Is this some kind of game?”
When I called up my mama
She wanted to know my last name.
“Midnight Highway,” Campbell’s co-write with Julie Miller, opens in spare fashion with Campbell’s guitar and Williams’ vocal. The entire song is reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “(I Ride an) Old Paint” from her Simple Dreams album.
Campbell’s starkly simple plunks on the guitar capture the mournful celebration of the once-entrancing nature of wandering that has lost some of its attraction, since what waits at the end of the journey is more attractive that the journey itself:
Out on the midnight highway
Longer than I meant to be
I rode high around the world
But all I wanna do
Is walk down the road that leads home to you.
The galloping blues guitar of “Bad Luck Charm” matches the down-on-his-luck lyrics of a singer who can’t live with his woman or without her. “Another One More Time” explores the pain, remorse, and I-can’t-quit-you nature of relationships in a straight-ahead country-blues dirge. The mournful tune captures the irony of the ingenious title line, which cuts at least two ways: “I’ll give my heart another one more time.” If the emphasis is on giving, the singer’s taking the plunge “one more time”; if the emphasis is on “one more time,” then the lover gets a second chance.
The spare instrumentation of “Down on My Knees” lends haunting shape to the tension lovers feel as they place blame and, at the same time, try to reconcile themselves to their own part in the making of a loss. Campbell’s song provides the perfect foil to Libby Titus and Eric Katz’s “Love Has No Pride.”
Perhaps their most perfect performance on the disc, though, is Campbell’s “Did You Love Me At All?” Williams jokes that she’s glad he wrote the song but often wonders who it’s about. In this country waltz – almost a shuffle, really – the opening verse packs such a punch that it leaves you breathless with beauty:
What’s the meaning of forever
When we’ve grown so far apart
When it’s easier to sever
Than to mend a broken heart.
That’s just the beginning of this mournful tale of unfulfilled love, broken down by disappointment and misplaced expectations. But that’s not all. The real sadness comes when the singer realizes her lover’s love might have been empty from the beginning (“And I wonder did you love me at all?”)
Campbell builds layer upon layer in this song and uses different images – a ship on stormy seas, a locust tree shaken in the wind – in each verse to capture the emptiness of the lover’s heart. He zeroes in on the tension in the penultimate verse:
Who will pull me from the ashes
Who will lift me from the ground
When the one who built my refuge
Is the one who burned it down?
Is there any more perfect expression of the disappointment and loss that’s often wrought by once-delivered but now-frustrated hopes of love?
Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams is one of the best albums of 2015 not only because of Campbell and Williams’ vision but also because of their deep love for each other, their passion for making good music together, building songs layer by layer vocally, lyrically, and instrumentally, their commitment to purity in musical self-expression, and their energetic and deeply felt desire for delivering this good music straight from their hearts to ours.
“I felt like we really said what we were trying to say [with this album],” Campbell says. “In its artistic essence, this is who we are: playing this great music with great people and with the person I want to be with.”