As soon as Larry Campbell’s bright lead slides into a minor chord on the first verse of this album’s opening song, “The Other Side of Pain,” you know you’re entering a darker and more shadowy world than the world of their eponymous debut album, which opened with a luminous paean to the joys of love, “Surrender to Love.” Just a look at most of the album’s song titles — “Save Me from Myself,” “Hit & Run Driver,” “When I Stop Loving You,” “It Ain’t Gonna Be a Good Night,” “My Sweetie Went Away” — already signals that we’re not heading down the bright side of the road, but rather that we’ll be meeting at the dark end of the street. Still, in Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams’ hands and voices even the darkest ballad about loss or despair or depression somehow turns into a bright beam illuminating dark corners with honesty and maybe even a little hope. Their music has healing power; it’s a redemptive force that urges us that no matter what kind of despair we’re facing down, and going through, we’ll come out of, in their words, on “the other side of pain.”
“Hit & Run Driver” features Campbell’s driving guitar and his powerful, soaring voice on the verses; Williams joins him on the chorus, and the song turns from a tale of hopeful love into a screaming, accusatory story of failure to recognize what’s right beside you or the direction that you can travel together. “Hit and run driver/Hit and run driver/We could have found the golden road/But you’re just a night rider/Hit and run driver.” Campbell’s skittering lead runs on the bridge propel us into a can’t-sit-still moment of transcendence when we’re lost in the music, forgetting that we’ve been victims of loss. “Turn Around,” written by Carl Perkins, comes at the center of the album, providing not only a momentary respite from the ravages of the previous songs but also a promise of constancy, of longing that can be fulfilled. It’s a slow-burn country song dropped among the debris of scorching rockers and country blues. It’s followed by “When I Stop Loving You,” co-written with William Bell, whose lyrics combine George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” with a Stax soul sound. “Baby, the sun won’t rise/The moon won’t appear/The stars will fall/When I stop loving you…/And my heart will be no more.” On “It Ain’t Gonna Be a Good Night” Williams delivers a powerful gospel shout to an apocalyptic tale of light and darkness; Campbell’s call-and response guitar runs on the bridge bring to life the back and forth between dark and light.
There’s a palpable raggedness to our lives; we’re torn down, we’re pulled apart, we’re tumbling down, but we seek repair, fervently hoping for at least a modicum of wholeness, and maybe a stitch of love. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams evoke our vulnerability, our woundedness, and our hopefulness on Contraband Love. When you lose yourself in the music of each song, you’ll find yourself healed or carried to the other side.
I caught up with Larry and Teresa recently for a chat about Contraband Love and music and songwriting.
Why a new album? Story behind it?
Larry: Well, that’s a good question. Why go through this again? (laughs) Because you have to. Actually, a couple of years ago I realized I hadn’t finished writing every song I was ever going to write. I’d start with a melody and then I would find an idea, lyrics, a verse, a chorus to fit the melody; little moments of success start fueling the inspiration machine. When I had finished a couple of songs and heard Teresa sing them, I knew “here we go.”
Tell me about the song “Turn Around.” Levon Helm plays drums on it.
Larry: Teresa and I did it together; we were both attracted to the tune, though it took Teresa a little time to get on board with it. It’s a straight-ahead, stone-cold country song, and singing a song like this is like breathing to her. We started doing this with the Ramble Band. We were doing Levon’s Electric Dirt album, and he suggested that rhythm track for our own album. We ended up not putting it on our first album, but I had the track and we finished it up for this album.
Teresa: I’m waiting for us to do a full-on, stone-cold country album.
With one or two exceptions, this is a dark album.
Teresa: We had some friends who were going through some dark times with their kids going through some dark times with drugs. I watched that go down with my brother. I could see all that was affecting Larry’s writing.
Larry: We were surrounded by tragedies. When I was young I had these bad years, too. Mark Moskowitz, a filmmaker in the Philadelphia area, started following us around with the intent of doing a documentary on us.
Teresa: He wasn’t familiar with us, but his son was; so, his son brought him to the show in Ardmore the night we played there. I think Mark is trying to tease out the spark that’s happening between the artist and the audience.
Larry: Yeah; Mark was encouraging me to talk about these experiences, and I was pretty reluctant because I thought, “Man, the world doesn’t need another story about a musician with a drug problem.” When I was in the midst of my drug problem, though, it was the hopefulness of music that spoke to me. It was listening to songs, and I was able to interpret the pain and adversity I was going through. The danger of having a platform for singing about drugs is that it can glamorize drug use. But Mark encouraged me to get it out there.
How does the title song deal with this experience of drug use?
Larry: Well, looking back at my own experiences I realize that somebody lost in addiction has a hard time accepting love from family and friends. Everybody around you is trying to help but you don’t want it; you’re not ready to accept it; it interferes with your daily agenda. You watch the pain of those who love you, you know you’re causing all this pain, but you’re not ready to give up your addiction. That’s why the song’s called “Contraband Love” since the person’s trying to smuggle love across a wall that separates them from their loved one.
You mentioned earlier that you started with melodies for these songs; did you then go out and try to find melancholy lyrics to fit the melodies? It’s a bit of a mysterious process.
Larry: Man, it is a mystery, and it’s not easy to talk about it. I’d play these melodies, and then these emotions would come up. It’s operating on something of a subconscious level.
Teresa: I need to be at home in Tennessee. I need a lot of quiet alone time for that mystery thing to kick in. That mystery freaks me out. When I’m interpreting someone else’s words, I’m in my comfort zone.
How did you end up working with William Bell on “When I Stop Loving You”?
Larry: William came and played a Ramble. He fit like a glove with the Ramble Band.
Teresa: Amy Helm and I got to sing duets with him.
Larry: His manager called and asked if I’d like to do some writing with him. We wrote three songs. The other two he had words for. This one I had written the music and maybe a verse and a chorus. We sat down and finished the song, and we thought it would be for him on his record. If we had done it with William, we’d have done a full-blown Memphis treatment. I’m no soul singer, though, so this arrangement is more honest to who I am.
Teresa: The audiences are loving this song.
How did “The Other Side of Pain” get written?
Larry: I got to thinking about betrayal.
Teresa: Why, Larry? (laughs)
Larry: There’s the person who gets betrayed and the person who does the betraying. Everybody’s felt the pain of betrayal. The person being betrayed is in a dark, shadow world while the betrayer is in the world of sunshine and happiness. That’s an interesting irony to me, and the chorus captures that irony, I hope.
Teresa: Good time music. (chuckles)
We’ve talked about your writing, Larry, but it’s Teresa’s voice that elevates these songs.
Larry: Definitely; once Teresa gets her voice in this thing, that’s when the song come alive.
Teresa: I think the song lets you know what it wants to be. You have to ride that and stay out of the way. Be open to that; some nights might be different than other nights, but as long as you open up to a song, you’re inhabiting it and not forcing it to do what you want it to do.
Larry: Teresa has an innate talent to put it out there honestly. Unfailingly, when she knows a song, there’s no filter.
The last time we talked, Teresa, Larry was trying to get you to write some songs for the next album, but I don’t see any on the new album.
Teresa: I’m all about the words and Larry is about the music. I honestly think I’m lazy. (chuckles) I don’t think I have anything pithy or original to say. I think sometimes I avoid writing out of fear and laziness. I once wrote a paper about the theater of country music; I cited any sources I used, but it was an original idea, and it was well written. The professor told me there’s no way I could have written the paper, and I was stunned; I think that’s when I gave up trying to write. Plus, when I was growing up I always got the message that the songs I made up were “pretend” and not as real as the ones on the radio. Still, I surround myself with the word. I really identified with the lead character in the TV show Flesh and Bone who has moved to NYC and at one point covers herself in this book. I have piles of books in every location. Reading is its own creative process.
Larry: I’m not giving up waiting for this to happen. (chuckles)