I first heard Kate Campbell in 1996, on her debut album Songs from the Levee. I liked that album, but not in a way I could get really worked up about. It was a pretty piece of Nashville countrified folk, with smart, better-than-average lyrics, but there was nothing about it that stood out particularly from a zillion other products of the singer-songwriter coffeehouse circuit. The most memorable thing about the album was Campbell’s voice, a sweet, twangy alto with a warm, conversational tone that leant itself well to her literary lyrics. The liner notes seemed touchingly naive in their admission that she had started her musical career late and in their professed desire that the songs might “merge history, memories and music”. Campbell, it turned out, was a former history teacher and doctoral student, which explained her somewhat bookish approach to her newfound profession. I saw her once in concert and her stage presence reinforced this persona—standing up there in a shapeless dress and granny glasses, introducing each song with a brief historical and/or personal dissertation on its origins, she came across as a junior college professor with a guitar.
For better or worse, Campbell takes much the same album-as-thesis approach on her latest project, a collection of new and traditional gospel tunes called Wandering Strange. Here again are the long-winded, self-conscious liner notes—“My tendency to write narrative songs probably comes from my father whose preaching was filled with wonderful stories”—and a pervading sense that Campbell is succeeding only in studying this music, not inhabiting it. Take, for example, her cornily prosaic lyrics on “10,000 Lures”: “Wasn’t no copperhead, wasn’t no cottonmouth / Just a garden snake that brought us all down”. Campbell may be a preacher’s daughter, but she lacks a preacher’s instinct for turning Biblical images into compelling, poetic language.
A bigger problem, however, is Campbell’s voice. It worked so well on her own gentle, low-key folk tunes, but it doesn’t quite have the oomph to really lift these hymns to those hallelujah-Jesus heights all great gospel music moves you to, whether you’re a believer or not. Where traditional songs like “There is a Fountain” and “Jordan’s Stormy Banks” strive for grandeur, what they get from Campbell and her capable-but-uninspired backing band are plaintive vocals and pleasant, toe-tappin’ country-pop. If you heard this in church, you’d probably think it was very nice, but there’s nothing about these interpretations that really cries out to be committed to disc.
There’s still no denying Campbell’s talent, which comes across best when she’s keeping her music simple and focusing her lyrics on telling a story, not preaching a message. The best examples of this come on the album’s last two tracks. On the first, “Dear Little Stranger”, a 1902 lullaby-like hymn to the baby Jesus, Campbell sings with an unaffected warmth she lacks elsewhere, accompanied only by Walt Aldridge’s campfire acoustic guitar. The last track, an original tune co-written by Campbell and Aldridge called “The Last Song”, is a bluesy number about Jesus leading the Apostles at the last supper in a singalong; it works because it sticks to a simple narrative, and thereby makes its point in a way Campbell’s other, more proselytizing songs don’t. These tracks stand as a reminder that, if Kate Campbell can learn to stop intellectualizing her work and stick to her strengths as a writer and singer of simple narrative folk ballads, she might yet put out a really good album—maybe even a great one. But gospel is not her forte, and Wandering Strange stands a long way on the wrong side of great.