Making a Joyful Noise
Making a Joyful Noise
A Q&A with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams
By Geoff Gehman
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams are deeply, truly rooted. The musicians married in 1988 under a cedar tree planted by her great-great grandmother on her home turf, a seventh-generation cotton farm in Peckerwood Point, Tenn. She originated the role of Sara Carter, the matriarch of country music’s founding family, in the musical “Keep On the Sunny Side,” performing songs she was weaned on as a child. He spent eight years as the stringed-instrument maestro in the never-ending touring band of Bob Dylan, performing classics he cut his teeth on as a youngster in Manhattan, the borough where Dylan became infamous.
Williams and Campbell grew deeper, truer roots during their seven years in a roving, rotating ensemble led by the drumming vocalist Levon Helm, one of the deepest, truest, earthiest musicians around. Williams sang lead and Campbell harmonized, played a bushel of instruments and served as music director. They helped anchor the Midnight Ramble, a series of Saturday gigs with a galaxy galore of guests–Mavis Staples, Donald Fagen, Rickie Lee Jones, Trey Anastasio, Norah Jones, Pinetop Perkins–in the barn at Helm’s home property in Woodstock, N.Y. It was there that Campbell and Williams performed their barn-burning version of Rev. Gary Davis’ “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and their barn-building version of Campbell’s “When I Go Away,” a shuffling, swinging gospel-blues released on one of three Grammy-winning albums that Campbell produced for Helm.
Campbell and Williams describe “the Levon orbit” as musical nirvana, a safe sandbox for playing widely, wildly and, best of all, joyfully. Encouraged by his confidence in them as stand-out, up-front performers, they took a leap of faith and recorded their first duo album. Issued by Red House Records in 2015, three years after Helm died from an epic, heroic battle with throat cancer, the self-named disc is pure Americana—tuneful, colorful, soulful. “Surrender to Love,” Campbell’s finger-snapping, foot-stomping shot of Muscle Shoals R&B, shares space easily with an engaging, engrossing cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Attics of My Life,” a secular spiritual sung with Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter and another Midnight Rambler. Helm drums on an exquisitely bittersweet take on the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild,” a Campbell-Williams courting tune. Campbell’s playing is explosive, painterly and burrowing from bow to stern. His cracked, creamy baritone nests with Williams’ caressing, whiplashing, come-hither-and-thither soprano, which has shades of everyone from Sara Carter to Tina Turner.
The album cover is pure Americana, too. Photographed by Mark Seliger, a renowned portraitist of entertainers, Campbell and Williams stand side by side, stock still, hands locked together down at their sides, staring straight ahead, casually curious role models for the Eternal Union. Their old-fashioned, roughly formal black and white outfits give them the glow of a newly married, or remarried, couple in the early 20th-century South. They look ready to ramble, or rumble.
On Jan. 20 Campbell and Williams will return to the Mauch Chunk Opera House to turn the 19th-century classical/vaudeville house into a church, a juke joint and a grand ole opry. Below, in a lively round-robin, ping-pong conversation from their home in Woodstock, they discuss everything from Levon’s contagious, Tom Sawyer-like charm to a “Long Black Veil” epiphany, the bodacious catering on the Dylan tour to their secrets for staying sane on the road
GG: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
LC: I would have been about eight and it would have been “She Loves You.”
TW: It would have been a Beatles tunes for me, too. I remember playing in the tree house and screaming “Help!” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the top of my lungs. And I remember later, in the fifth grade, sitting in front of the heater, drying the pixie cut that my mom had given me, and hearing “Hey Jude” make its way onto my parents’ radio station. The song just cut right through me: I just grieved over that song.
GG: What was the first concert that rocked your world and made you think: Man, I need to be on that stage?
LC: Boy, I haven’t thought about this for a while. Oh man, there were so many concerts that rocked my world…
TW: While you’re thinking, I have to say that wanting to be up on that stage from an early age doesn’t work for me. I was four when I began singing in the little church where I still sing, so I feel that I’ve pretty much always been onstage. It wasn’t the Fillmore East and it wasn’t earth shaking but it was still real important. I was always singing even though I wasn’t thinking about having a career as a singer.
My parents took me to the Grand Ole Opry growing up and I knew I could sing like those people. I saw the Chuck Wagon Gang there and that was a big deal. You know, there’s a new Chuck Wagon Gang box set. Larry got it for me last Christmas and it’s fabulous.
LC: It was the Animals at Palisades Amusement Park [in New Jersey]. I guess it must have ’65 because “House of the Rising Sun” was all over the radio. It might have been the first time I saw a live band; I know it was right before I started playing guitar. The first thing that lit the fuse for me was seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show. Seeing the Animals live might have been the thing that really put the thing in motion for me.
Then there was the first show I saw at the Fillmore, with Blue Cheer and Country Joe McDonald. That had a profound impact on me because there was a stack of Marshalls [amps] and it was loud. Soon after that I saw Hendrix [at the Fillmore] and then it was all over. And seeing Dylan with the Band at the Woody Guthrie tribute [at Carnegie Hall in 1968]—that was a huge deal, too. Those years between ’66 and ’68 made me want to do this for a living. I just couldn’t stand not being up on that stage after watching these guys.
GG: I promise that this is the last of the “first” questions: What was the first song where you two clicked, and sparked, together? Did I read right that “You’re Running Wild” was one of your courting tunes?
LC: That’s the way I remember it.
TW: I remember when you wanted to do that at my little apartment.
LC: I was already playing it in Buddy [Miller]’s band.
TW: I really liked singing it with him until I realized that he was already playing it with Buddy. I was really disappointed it wasn’t quote “our” song [laughs]; I felt like Second Hand Rose. I felt better when he said he was only playing pedal steel on the song with Buddy.
To get back to your second question, I didn’t go to rock and roll concerts when I was growing up because I really didn’t get the chance. There weren’t any rock and roll shows around where we lived and we wouldn’t have gone all the way to Nashville or Memphis to see one. It didn’t help that for my first two years of college my parents sent me to a small Baptist school. Uh huh: let me tell you, you can get in more trouble at a small private school [laughs]. When I was a junior in college I saw ZZ Top—the Worldwide Texas tour!–at the Nashville Raceway [laughs]. I was about 400 miles from the stage but it was great.
Another big deal for me was seeing Tina Turner on TV in my living room. I just loved her rawness and freedom and joy. I felt the same way one night when we were working late and “Saturday Night Live” was on and this person was performing with such utter abandonment and joy. I usually don’t pay attention to credits but I waited until the end to find out it was none other than Lady Gaga. I never thought I’d say this but I just loved the way she gave it up.
GG: Levon Helm is another singer who could really give it up, although not as theatrically as Tina Turner or Lady Gaga. In fact, he’s one of my favorite singers, along with Louis Armstrong. Want to take a stab at what it was like singing with him? He was pretty damned gutsy–searching and specific and spacious.
TW: One thing I really admired about him is that he didn’t put himself above you, even though he was this seminal rock ’n’ roll singer/drummer. Even at the beginning, when he didn’t know me very well, he would make the space creative and really juicy. Everything was so true about him—his singing, his drumming, even his mandolin playing—that it would make something come out of you that was true and, very often, unexpected. Because the place was safe, you felt free to explore. It was like a sandbox.
LC: I have to second all that. I’ve said this a million times but I’ll say it again: There was no difference between Levon the person and Levon the musician and that’s contagious. If you’re in the same room with the guy, you’re just going to be who you are and just let this creative stream flow.
Many of the people I’ve worked with have this layer of pretension you have to get through. I don’t mean that critically; it’s just a natural human instinct, a sort of facade of protection. Levon was incapable of pretension, even to his own detriment sometimes. But what a great way to make music, stripping it down to its purity, not caring about how you can profit from it, or how it can boost your ego, or any of those other trappings.
TW: I would say that performing with Levon was full circle for me because I definitely came from his place. I started singing when I was a kid in this small country church where people live close to the dirt and they’re salt of the earth and the church is a place to let it all out and, boy, did they. You just throw your head back and sing and make a joyful noise. To find myself in the game with Levon–who had the same upbringing in the South, who came from the same neck of the woods—was really like coming home. It was like having a home up here in the North. That’s why I like to say that Leon was true North.
GG: Did you practice any of Levon’s lessons while you made your first duo record?
LC: Making the album was a way of getting out of my own way, getting rid of the road blocks that prevented us from making our first record together. My career has been pretty lucrative for decades backing people up; I’m comfortable in that environment. Working with Levon did wonders for me because it gave me the confidence to be a leader. One of the many things I loved about working with him is that he wanted everybody to step up front.
TW: He needed everyone to step up more and more as he was losing his voice. again. So we started pulling out stuff we’ve been playing under the tree at home where we got married. And then people started asking us “Where can we get that song?” and we’d say “Well, we never recorded that” and they were disgusted with us. They shamed us into doing a record [laughs].
LC: We started working on the record while we were making “Electric Dirt” [Helm’s 2009 CD]. We cut four or five rhythm tracks, with Levon playing on “You’re Running Wild.” After Levon was gone, we thought, OK, we’ve got to complete this now. We were trying for as many original songs as possible, with a few traditionals that are important to us. We decided to record “Did You Love Me at All?” because it was the first traditional Teresa and I performed together. We also did that a lot in Levon’s band.
TW: Levon would sing that with us; he’d throw in harmonies on the chorus
LC: I think that was the stone in the foundation of making the album. To answer your question, I think the record really has that joy of making music that I didn’t really discover, or understand, until we spent those years with Levon. He showed us it’s a joy even if you’re singing a sad song; even if you’re playing the blues, it’s a joy. Because it’s pure self-expression.
GG: An extra added bonus of your time at Levon’s place in Woodstock was spending Sunday nights with Levon and his wife, Sandy, swapping stories by the fire. Teresa, you must have traded tales with Levon about your families farming cotton.
TW: Oh my goodness, it was like sitting around with my uncles and my grandfather; talk about feeling at home. I would egg him on for tales. One of my favorites was when he had his childhood friends—they were there in the hospital when he died; they were like sisters to him—taking care of his 4-H calf. That was hilarious. And that was the extent of his really exceeding charm.
GG: Larry, how about a favorite fireside yarn from Levon about playing with Dylan in the Band?
LC: Most of them I couldn’t repeat in public [laughs]. The part he seemed to enjoy the most was hanging out with Bob in Woodstock when the whole band moved up here. He got along really well with Bob and the gang during the time period of “The Basement Tapes.” He was really grateful to Bob for bringing him up here; he felt at home right away. He loved Woodstock and never wanted to be anywhere else.
TW: I think he loved the tolerance up here. It was a great contrast to what he’d come from [in Arkansas], growing up with segregation and Jim Crow. I heard him talk about some of that and there are stories about that in his book [the memoir “This Wheel’s on Fire”]. I knew the same people he knew down there and they never let go of their prejudice, their hatred, their fear; it’s ingrained in them. That’s why Levon liked to sing the Nina Simone song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
GG: Larry, tell me one thing you miss and one thing you don’t miss about being on Mr. Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour.
LC: The one thing I really miss is the catering [laughs]. Man, the food on that tour was something; I looked forward to every single meal. In a musical sense, I do miss playing those songs. The one thing you can say about Bob is that he’s contributed to our lives as a songwriter in so many important ways. To be able to chew on those songs and get inside of them was a real honor.
The thing I don’t miss is constantly being on the road
TW: Well, you went from the frying pan into the skillet there.
LC: Teresa and I were on the road a lot last year and we’ll probably be on the road a lot again this year. Although we’re away from home, we’re away from home together; that makes a big difference. When I was out with Bob not only weren’t we together, when we’d make plans to be together, in what looked like off time, then you’d find out: Oh, we’re going on the road again. It’s a real obligation and it’s understandable but it got to be too much. I was getting all these offers to produce records, which I really loved getting, and that, combined with missing Teresa, meant it was just time to make a move and get away from that obligation.
GG: Teresa, Larry has said that his musical life came full circle the first time he and Dylan played “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a vital song for Larry even as a youngster. Can you give me one of your own onstage full-circle, I-have-arrived moments? Did that ever happen when you sang a Carter family song from your childhood when you were playing Sara Carter in the show “Keep on the Sunny Side”?
TW: I certainly sympathized with Sara’s struggle in dealing with the music business while trying to raise a family. She was hauling wood off the mountain with a mule while A.P. [her husband and the Carters’ song collector/promoter] was consumed with music and was away trying to earn enough money to get food for the family. I don’t have kids but my parents are aging and I have to be with them a lot. Larry has lost his family, sadly, but I’m deep in the midst of mine. Balancing a music career and family, that’s a huge issue for me.
My full-circle moment came with Levon during the Ramble at the Ryman [Auditorium in Nashville, former home of the Grand Ole Opry]. My daddy taught me the little guitar I know; things haven’t changed much since I was 12, sadly. He taught me a lot of old country standards by Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash. He and my mom would take me to the Grand Ole Opry and I can remember how I felt sitting in those pews with the grownups, that sense of inspiration and awe. When we were with Levon at the Ryman, I played “Long Black Veil,” which my daddy had taught me, the way the Band had played it, the way Levon had taught me. That night I was playing a guitar that Levon gave me, singing a song my daddy taught me, with both my parents listening to me. I was able, for once in my life, to be in the moment, to take it all in. It was just one of those exquisite moments.
GG: Here’s a lighter question: How do you two manage to stay sane on the road? The master plan evidently involves two hotel rooms with two bathrooms,
TW: That really helps, especially about midway into the tour when I show up at the front desk screaming “I don’t care what it costs–you’ve got to get me another room!” [laughs] Trying to stay sane is especially tough these days when I have a day off and I fly down to Tennessee to be with my family and fly back barely in time to get back to work. It’s a struggle, but it’s worth it. I’m honored to be with my parents as they’re aging. I’ve been up North for much of my adult life and I don’t want to miss gleaning any jewels of wisdom I can glean.
LC: I look at shows as gasoline that fills up the tank, literally and figuratively. By the end of each show I feel invigorated. That’s the fuel that enables you to put up with the chores and the pains and heaven knows what else to get to the next show. That’s what keeps me sane.
TW: That really is the only reason to do what we do.
LC: Well, money helps, too.
GG: So, folks, what’s at the top of your Bucket List? Mauch Chunk musicians have told me they wish for everything from traveling the world to world peace. How about establishing a version of Levon’s Midnight Ramble down on Teresa’s family farm in Peckerwood Point?
TW: I like it up here [in Woodstock] a lot but I’m just wanting to be with my family down there. If I was wildly rich and needed a tax write-off, I would like to reopen my grandfather’s country store, where I worked growing up, and turn it into a community center where kids would learn country music and other arts after school. Down there there’s not a lot for kids to do other than sports and TV and drugs. We could also have a venue for people coming from Nashville and Memphis and Muscle Shoals.
LC: I think I’m doing my Bucket List now; nothing grand about that. We made our first record together and we’re getting ready to make another one. When I started playing music the only goal I had was to be the best musician I could be and where that led, it led. The notion of writing songs and singing and being out front and doing your own act under your own name wasn’t unattractive; it just wasn’t on my mind.
TW: And that’s where he was when I met him. But I was confused. I thought: But you’re so good. Why aren’t you singing? Why aren’t you out front?
LC: Eventually I started seeing being out front as something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. Now, just following this path is the most important thing to accomplish the rest of my life. Although world peace is up there, too.
GG: And what tops your Fuck It List? Musicians have told me they wish for everything from an end to oppressive religions to eternal death and damnation for snakes.
TW [mock horror]: I can’t answer that.
GG: Because you’re still a good Baptist and good Baptists don’t curse, right?
LC: I would say an end to political pomposity and hypocrisy and hubris and dishonesty. That’s all I’m staring at right now every day on the news. I won’t mention any names.
GG: So, Teresa, how about the top item on your Gosh Darn, I Wish It Wasn’t So List?
TW: I would say putting an end to not putting education on the top. I think education is as important, if not more important, than the military We need education so our leaders can make wise decisions. Education education education: that’s what gives us wisdom and understanding and hope.
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams: The Scoop
They met in 1986 at the Bottom Line in Manhattan, where he accompanied her during a singing competition. She loved the way he played pedal steel. She also loved that he courted her with a mixtape of songs by the Louvin Brothers, one of her childhood treasures.
They helped Levon Helm win traditional-folk and Americana Grammy awards for “Dirt Farmer” (2007), “Electric Dirt” (2009) and “Ramble at the Ryman” (2011).
Campbell received a 2008 lifetime instrumentalist award from the Americana Music Association.
They performed the Grateful Dead’s “Attics of My Life” at memorials for Helm, Campbell’s mother and the road manager for Phil Lesh, the Dead’s founding bassist.
“His light would spread across the stage like a Santa Ana wind,” Campbell said during Helm’s memorial service, “igniting the flames of joy in all of us.”
Another reason they have separate hotel rooms while touring is that he likes to watch political shows on TV and she craves quiet; silence helps keep her serene and sane.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He really, really digs Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams’ renditions of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and “When I Go Away.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.