When WERE they going to get together? An ironic question, to be sure. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams have been married for decades, though separated for most of that time by their careers. But, starting in the mid-2000s, they made grand music with Levon Helm.
Campbell was Helm's longtime bandleader at the Midnight Rambles in Helm's Woodstock home, and occasionally on the road. Williams lit up the tiny stage at "The Barn" with her renditions of "Long Black Veil," "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning," on Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith tunes, and in the churchlike "Attics of My Life." I heard them perform with Levon a hundred times and more, admiring Campbell's searing electric guitar on the intro to "Chest Fever" (never the same twice, and always longer) and his genius on the fiddle, mandolin, and acoustic guitar. I admired Williams's gorgeous voice, at once strong and fine, and the grace and generosity both performers showed to all the guests on the stage. They played and sang on, and Campbell produced, two GRAMMY-winning albums with Helm: Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009). Electric Dirt took home the first-ever GRAMMY award for Best Americana Album.
In all their spare time, Campbell and Williams toured with Phil Lesh and Friends, and Hot Tuna, to enthusiastic acclaim. They gave workshops at Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch, performed with a host of other musicians in Woodstock, New York City, and Tennessee (in which they currently live) -- and worked on that record together. Greedily, people wondered: where is it? When do we get to hear it? Campbell's page at levonhelm.com still mentions a forthcoming release date of 2011. Tantalized, impatient, we waited.
And now, it's here, folks. Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams (Red House Records, 2015) features eight original songs, written or co-written by Campbell, and three covers -- plus the playing of Bill Payne on keyboards, vocals from Amy Helm, and, on one track recorded during the Dirt Farmer sessions, Levon. Campbell joked about the long time comin' as he and Williams stepped onstage to whoops and cheering at City Winery last month, at a concert that was also their cd release party. The mood and the music was carnival-meets-camp-meeting. Williams's exultant cover of Rev. Gary Davis's version of "Keep Your Lamp," coupled with the guitar licks Campbell learned from Davis himself, led off the night and set the tone that stayed.
Blind Boy Paxton, who opened the show, traded joyful, flashing, flying instrumentals with Campbell. Justin Guip played drums, and Byron Isaacs bass -- both men fellow Levon Helm and Midnight Ramble bandmembers of Campbell's and Williams's, and both appearing on the new record. Williams and Campbell were at ease among friends and a sold-out crowd, and -- clearly and delightfully -- with each other. Introducing The Louvin Brothers' "You're Running Wild," Campbell announced it, with a grin, as "a courting song," and said, "yeah, I did all right," as Williams smiled back and began to strum. Later, before Williams launched into his mournful, elegant "Did You Love Me At All," Campbell joked, "I'm gonna hope this next song we're doing doesn't turn out to be a prophecy." As Williams spoke volubly about her Tennessee birthplace, Campbell, originally from New York City, teased, "I married Elly May Clampett."
They played a mix of songs from the new cd, and standards you know and love. "Big River" was a celebration, with Campbell relishing those rollicking internal rhymes like "cavortin' in Davenport" and singing beautifully -- something for which he's never been given enough credit, over his many years of being billed as one of the best sidemen in the business. I asked him once, "Larry, what do the lyrics of 'Chest Fever' even mean?'" He laughed and shook his head. "You tell me." Whatever they mean when you parse them, if you can, in his hands the song takes on life and raging beauty. You left City Winery that night full of gospel visions, words of love, and wondering both what the heck it feels like to have the freeze down in your knees -- and how Campbell can make a guitar sound like that, no matter how many times you've heard him do it before.
From now through the change of seasons, life remains a carnival for Campbell and Williams. Catch them this fall on tour with Jackson Browne, and in the Northeast and Midwest in July. On June 27th, they'll be at The American Roots Music Festival at Caramoor.
Photo of Williams and Campbell via ShoreFire Media