Sublime Performances Straight From The Heart
Nick Lowe is to Ron Sexsmith as Kate Campbell is to Claire Holley. It reads like the answer to an SAT question, but it explains the relationship of these two artists perfectly, with Holley as an admirer of Campbell, and the two eventually touring and recording together, as did Lowe and Sexsmith.
Campbell kicked off the laid-back evening with a new song, as yet untitled from an album in the works, with a basic message: “when a heart is wide open, it can’t help but sing,” which she referred to as a traveling song, following it with another traveling song, her now-classic “See Rock City” from 1997’s Moonpie Dreams album. The Sledge, Mississippi, native and current Nashville resident confessed to a love/hate relationship with Atlanta (loves Coke, hates the traffic), a city which she said has been under re-construction since Sherman burned it down. Appropriately, she followed with “New South.”
Campbell is a storyteller of the finest stripe, with serious musical bona fides, having recorded an album with Spooner Oldham (For The Living of These Days) at the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and forming a close personal friendship with the keyboard legend. Chatting with her after the show, I was treated to an insight into “Spoonerville” which she and Holley performed on this night, an ode to the man himself, especially about Spooner and a cousin visiting a small Alabama church with a Spooner-generated prayer request for the speedy recovery of Neil Young from brain surgery, which explains the lyric “don’t forget to pray for Neil.”
Holley stayed on stage with Campbell for “Signs Following” (aka “The Snake Song”) inspired by Dennis Covington’s book Salvation on Sand Mountain (a National Book Award finalist), as well as “Look Away,” with Campbell clarifying the song’s meaning, often mistaken for a love for the confederacy, but in reality an admonition to look away from the rampant racism of the past. It was an extremely emotional and moving moment, especially in light of the recent murders in Charleston and, well, you name it, the cities are too numerous to mention. (Oh, if only artists ruled the world.)
Campbell finished her set with “Sorrowfree” linking the song to the final paragraphs of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a message to love one another and to love your neighbor, no matter how foreign they may seem to you.
Supernaturally talented guitarist and singer-songwriter Claire Holley opened her set with the first five songs from her stunning latest release, Time In The Middle, [read album review here] opening with an inspired reinterpretation of the Bob Marley classic “Three Little Birds,” completely transforming the song with near-genius artistry. “Boat of Dreams” elicited deep emotions for me, destroying any professional objectivity I might have had going into this show.
Needless to say, and judging from the audience’s response, Holley’s work is universally relatable on an emotional level, with her hypnotic delivery on both guitar and vocals. Local guitarist and singer-songwriter Marshall Ruffin accompanied her in one of the most captivating performances I’ve seen at this venue. Holley’s songwriting is poetic beyond belief, and her voice is as pure and nuanced as any this reviewer has ever heard.
Holley also included the delightful southern gothic “Wedding Day” from her 2008 album Hush. She then featured an as-yet-unmamed song about the friendship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese in 1948, a song about race relations told through a baseball lens. She said Campbell had always told her “If you’re a southern writer, you eventually have to write about race.” Clueless as to a title, Holley asked for suggestions, and without missing a beat, Campbell replied, “Raise Cain!” Holley said it was perfect, and it appeared that a song had been named right before our eyes.
Holley finished her set with a song she’d sung years ago to a woman in hospice care, the gospel classic “Old Rugged Cross” with Campbell joining in, ending the night on a simple and sublime note, straight from the heart.
Photo by Scott Parmenter.