Larry Campbell has been a fixture in the roots music circuit for 40 years, as a three-time Grammy-winning producer for Levon Helm and more than a dozen other artists including Jorma Kaukonen and Richard Shindell, as a session player supporting everyone from Willie Nelson to the Backstreet Boys, and as a tour-band stalwart, highlighted by a seven-year stint as part of Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour”. Teresa Williams has built an equally varied and successful career, from embodying the role of Sara Carter in several theatrical and film projects, touring with artists such as Phil Lesh and Friends, and recording with an array of top-tier performers including Emmy Lou Harris, Mavis Staples, and Little Feat. Despite all this, the married couple of Campbell and Williams had not found the opportunity to work together in any extended manner until Helm called them with an invite to join in on his well-known Midnight Rambles sessions.
The seven years they spent as part of that ongoing project contributed to Helm’s late-career renaissance and served, for Campbell, as a capstone apprenticeship to a lifetime spent learning his craft. Campbell calls their time with Helm “the most pure musical experience I’ve ever had,” and credits the legend, who passed away in 2012, with giving him “the template for how to make music for the rest of my life”. Those lessons and that template are in full display on Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, the couple’s debut record, a pure distillation of blues, country, and gospel traditions and a serious contender for the title of this year’s best Americana album.
Campbell establishes himself as a songwriter of note, here, penning eight of the album’s 11 cuts. A back-country blues lick opens the album as “Surrender to Love” reveals Campbell’s wry way with words: “Tell me what you’re trying to show me. / Show me what you’re trying to say.” Teresa joins in on a song that questions the point of arguing when both partners want the same thing anyway. Playing with the imagery of fugitives on the run, the singers find their solution in the song’s title. The honky-tonk inflected “Bad Luck Charm” follows, the kind of gasoline and matches relationship song perfected by Buddy and Julie Miller, whose combative harmonies Campbell and Williams readily evoke here. The yearning in Williams’ voice on “Another One More Time” and Campbell’s self-recriminatory baritone on “Down on My Knees” demonstrate the intuitive perspective that these artists bring to their narrative explorations of relationships.
Their erudite selection of covers further displays their lifelong immersion in America’s sonic heritage. Their cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild” features one of Helm’s final recorded performances and evokes the vocal intimacies of Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris, who were among the first to reintroduce that sublime and tragic duo to the pop market. They offer a mournful version of the Grateful Dead’s “Attics of My Life” to close the set, Campbell’s delicate guitar work echoing Jerry Garcia’s telltale style. But it is their version of the Reverend Gary Davis’ apocalyptic hymn “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” that reveals the burning passion at the heart of this recording. Williams sings with the conviction of one possessed of otherworldly vision, each verse rising in an intensity of ecstatic longing until she finds herself just this side of speaking (or singing) in tongues. It’s the kind of vocal performance that can define a career.
Midnight Ramble veterans Byron Isaacs (bass) and Justin Guip (drums) are joined by Little Feat’s Bill Payne on piano to form a monster backing unit for Campbell’s arsenal of classic guitar licks and Williams’ dynamic voice. Hearing this collection, countless Americana fans will understandably wonder why we have waited so long for this duo to commit themselves to record. But the more interesting question in my mind is: What’s next?