What the Blues Can Do

An Interview with Kate Campbell

by Nikki Tranter

'The heart of blues music is about feeling. You're trying to get to the root of the matter. You're just laying it out.' Kate Campbell's talks about art, Elvis, Internet distribution, and the beauty of the blues.

PopMatters Books Editor

“Same ole heartache since the day I was born,
Same ole notes from the same ole horn,
Same ole tune rolling round my head,
Will I have to hear it ‘til the days I’m dead?”
—Kate Campbell, “New Blues”

When New Orleans native Kate Campbell recorded her stirring version of “Lord Help the Poor and Needy” for Blues and Lamentations, she had no idea it would become an anthem honoring her ravaged home city. So it goes, the Jessie May Hemphill classic, and the reaction to Campbell’s version in light of Hurricane Katrina, is the essence of Blues and Lamentations, and, indeed, Campbell’s career philosophy. “This record,” she tells PopMatters, “is really about questioning everything. Like [in the songs] “Free World” and “Pans of Biscuits”—I’m talking about a lot about inequities. It’s interesting to me that in America we are in denial about poverty and its reasons. It’s not good that a hurricane hit, but I have to hope that [now] people cannot turn around and look away from that kind of situation. I’ve been starting shows with “Lord Help the Poor and Needy”, singing it with just a tambourine. It’s been a release for me to stand up and for the audience to stand up—the song does what the blues can do for us.”

If there’s one thing Campbell knows, it’s what the blues can do. She’s built her career on investigating its connections to music, emotion, and art. With each new album, she uncovers more and more about what it is that draws us to each other regardless of our backgrounds or our hopes. Campbell’s international success—she’s played to audiences across the US, Ireland, England, and Australia—has solidified for her the notion that wherever shape takes her music, she fits in. Because while her feet rest firmly in the American South, through blues, folk, and country music, she can speak to all sorts of people. Ask her and she won’t tell you this is due to her majestic voice and poetic lyrics. She’ll tell you it’s simply the blues. “The heart of blues music is about feeling,” she says. “There’s something very earthy—what I call swampy—with traditional blues music. Not [just] the lyrics, but the feel. You’re trying to get to the root of the matter. You’re just laying it out.”

Blues and Lamentations is Campbell’s tenth album. Though it contains some traditional blues, much of the record blends blues with country, gospel, bluegrass, and Dixieland. Listening to it is like reading Steinbeck or Stegner—her ultra-American stories are about folks trying to get along. “Wheels Within Wheels”, for instance, is about Burrell Cannon, who nearly beat the Wright Brothers at designing the world’s first workable airplane. “Shallow Grave” is a haunting dedication to heartbreak-revenge. “New Blues”, “Lay Back the Darkness”, and the future standard, “Peace Come Stealing Slow”, are all songs grounded in despair, but together they create a sort of cultural branching, bringing people together and uniting them through struggle. It’s the kind of blues that brings contentment; that assures the listener they’re not alone.

“Any writer or songwriter—there’s a reason why [they’re] interested in a particular story,” Campbell says of her songs. “Whether that story comes from your life or your friends or your family, or is story that you’ve read, or you’ve heard that is fascinating to you, then that’s saying something about you personally ... In all the places I’ve been to, the cool thing has been that there are some things that we all feel connected to. And it’s not just English. That means that hopefully I’m writing about the human condition—even if I’m describing the South, talking about people in their individual lives, like ‘Wheels Within Wheels’, that translates no matter where you are. You might have a different history, but the human condition and how we relate to each other, how there are people who have and people who do not have, and sections of society that are always trying to control others. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from—those things have been common through history.”

Campbell links art to her work the same way she links her philosophies and personal interests. Every project is more than simply an album of songs—like novels, Campbell’s albums are thematically specific. This time around, she’s discussing the fundamental sadness of striving to get a leg up. Her love of art features heavily on the record’s packaging. A painting by abstract artist Michelle Mackey appears on the cover, and its inlay is a poster-sized sheet with lyrics printed on one side with another Mackey painting on the other. In the bottom corner of the painting is a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, that includes the sentiment Blues and Lamentations is founded on: “Work all day for money. Fight all night for love.”

Campbell says he’s been chided for her concentration on her album art, (Ames Arnold on Richmond.com recently labeled Blues‘s inlay design an “atrocious ... waste of energy”), but such criticism misses the point. “I’m not just doing CD booklets just to have the words written down,” she says. “It’s all very important to me. I understand that sometimes I have taken the artistic approach rather then the easy-to-read approach for lyrics, but I also know that people can understand every word I sing. So I’m not really concerned about that. I want people to see [that] this is what has inspired me and this is what goes into my whole process of making an entire album.”

Campbell notes the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach as a specific influence on her own artistic desires (2001’s Wandering Strange cover is her most evocative to date). Holding an old LP and considering its artwork was, for her, part of the album’s enjoyment. She says of working with Mackey: “It was kind of two different kinds of artists—me a songwriter and her a painter—not truly working together, but, artistically, seeing what would happen from these two different visuals.”

The cover painting is a gloomy interpretation of “Wheel Within Wheels”. An aircraft appears to be sailing to Earth in the same way Burrell Cannon’s plane did so many years ago. Interesting about the picture is its stark mix of deep blues and purples and reds with a flaming white color at the top right corner. It’s a jarring, unsettling image that doesn’t immediately bring to mind Nashville and roots music. This, in a way, suggests yet another drawing together of ideals and visions and styles as Campbell connects abstract art and the Mississippi Delta. It’s a trait she picked up from her mother, who introduced young Campbell to varied music mixes.

“My mother plays the piano. She has this kind of low alto voice and, ever since I was a little girl, she played different tunes on the piano. Some of it was the pop music she liked in the 1950s—Rosemary Clooney and other pop tunes she heard. But she also had sheet music to Elvis Presley tunes and Louis Armstrong tunes. We lived in the Mississippi Delta, and so [music] was all around me.”

Campbell’s introduction to Elvis created a lasting impression on her personal tastes as listener and her eventual evolution as a songwriter. “The thing that’s so great about Elvis Presley is that combination of blues and country music—the storytelling, and gospel: those things are all in there together.”

One musical combination Campbell’s not so hot on is country-pop. It’s not that she doesn’t like the music as a whole, she just finds herself disappointed at the shift away from country’s roots. “What set [country music] apart in the past was that mixture of values and white gospel music, especially in the American south. Blues and gospel music and storytelling—country mixes those together at its best. Think about Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, and what he writes about. No matter where you’re from, it’s that mixture of storytelling ... and that sadness. And I think that when you lose that, at some point you’ve ceased to be country music.”

On the plus side, Campbell is pleased that bluegrass is back at the forefront of the more traditional musical styles. She puts it down to cycles that, she says, occur within all genres. “I’ve noticed that bluegrass usually moves up any time country music leaves a gap for it,” she says. Campbell wonders if the current ultra-commercial country music has alienated listeners in such a way as to draw them back to something more time-honored. “Bluegrass fills the hole for the more traditional artist. I’m thinking thank goodness somebody’s saying wait a minute we don’t want to leave all that behind.”

If the resurgence of traditional blues and country doesn’t bring her music to a wider audience, Campbell’s not fussed. She’s still reveling in the doors opened to her and her fans via the Internet. “I have always been under the radar,” she says. “I’ve kind of always been an independent, out there on the edges. It’s very hard [to get heard] at first, but now because of the Internet and downloading and distribution possibilities the people that really like my music can get my music. That’s cool—obviously a lot more people know Lyle Lovett than know me, but I’m in that John Prine, Lyle Lovett [group]. Bonnie Raitt was there before for 20 years before she ever broke through, but she kept doing what she always did. It’s not a competition. As long as there are people willing—my fans early on had to work hard to get my records and they did. Now they come to my website and to my concerts. Its definitely more available, and not because of top country radio or videos. People have to be discriminating and they have to work harder to get my music and that makes me feel really honored.”

Kate Campbell’s fans seek her out for a reason. She’s a traditional country/blues artist with traditional values and a profound understanding of life, love, and the core sadness that stops us from doing either of these things without fear. If that’s not worth the extra mile to find, what is?

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