BY JONATHAN VALANIA To the average man (or woman) on the street, the names Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams might not mean much — not yet anyway. But to anyone who keeps an ear to the ground when it comes to American music — alt-country, No Depression, roots-rock, whatever you want to call it — they are something approaching Nashville royalty and widely regarded as The First Couple of Americana.
In addition to being one half of the Larry Campbell/Charlie Sexton guitar trust in Bob Dylan’s Neverending Tour band during its 1997-2004 annus mirabilis, Campbell has played on recordings by Dylan (Love & Theft), the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, the Black Crowes, folk/blues wunderkind David Bromberg, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Paul Simon and Levon Helm’s Grammy-winning 2007 album, Dirt Farmer, which he also co-produced. He’s shared the stage with the likes of Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash.
From 2005 to 2012, Campbell and his wife, the acclaimed Nashville singer-guitarist Teresa Williams, were touring members of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band (for which Campbell served as musical director). In 2015, they released their widely-praised eponymous debut LP, and followed it up in 2017 with the even better Contraband Love. They headline the 9th Annual Haverford Music Festival on Saturday September 7th. Recently we got them on the horn to talk shop about touring with Dylan, losing Levon, jamming with Jorma, covering Reverend Gary Davis, and recording their next album.
TERESA WILLIAMS: You tell it, Larry.
LARRY CAMPBELL: Okay, so, it’s 1986, and I got a call from a friend of mine from the [Nashville] music scene. A journalist. And he said he had a friend of his who needed to put a band together for a gig in New York and was I interested. My reaction initially was skeptical, this was at the tail end of that all that urban cowboy nonsense in New York when everyone with a guitar thought they were a country singer, but he told me this woman was a great country singer. I was totally skeptical and but after enough prodding I went to the rehearsal, and when I heard her sing and I was immediately smitten. Then, we didn’t see each other for about a year after that, and then she came to a gig I was doing at a bar and I turned to the bass player and said, “I’m gonna marry that woman right there.” And that’s what happened.
PHAWKER: Nice. Let’s talk about the 2015 debut. Were these songs you guys were working on together for, like, years on end, or was this stuff you guys kinda wrote specifically for the recording?
TERESA WILLIAMS: We used to play together just for fun, not professionally, when we started dating. It was just kind of for fun and mostly down with my family in Tennessee, and with some of the local people around there at the holidays. You know, in Tennessee, every tree you pass, there’s somebody sitting under it playing music and singing. And then, when we were playing with Levon, he needed people in the band to step up. Most people in the band had solos in the show, like several, because he couldn’t always sing very well, and he liked the ensemble thing, and that kind of called on us to pull out some of these songs that we’d been doing really since we, you know, were dating and then that kind of formalized what Larry and I would just do for fun, you know. And so some of the songs on the record are some of the first songs we ever sang together and others we wrote for the album
PHAWKER: So, I love your version of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” on there. I’m curious of how that got on your radar and what the motivation was for that winding up on the record?
TERESA WILLIAMS: Well, Larry had produced a record of Reverend Gary Davis’ stuff for Marie Knight and they were supposed to perform [Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna] Jorma Kaukonen’s farm in Southern Ohio, where he has this guitar camp, and they have concerts but she got sick. Jorma called me to see if I would come pitch in and I thought “Yeah, it’s Jorma. Absolutely. I’ll show up anywhere,” and then we hung up and I realized, “Oh, they’re expecting this revered elderly Black Gospel singer and they’re gonna get chirpy, little white girl.”
But when we got into the material, I was really worried about it at first. And then I started listening to the Reverend Gary sermon that I have– I have, you know, probably almost all of his material– and I realized it wasn’t that far from how I grew up in the white churches. This was very, you know, they just throw their heads back and sing and the preachers sounded just like Reverend Gary only they were white. I realized it wasn’t outside my life.
PHAWKER: Can I ask what denomination you were brought up in?
TERESA WILLIAMS: I was brought up Cumberland Presbyterian, which I like to say is the happy-middle between Baptist and Methodist. But my mother was brought up Missionary Baptist and we went out to all the revivals and sang with the band. It’s just the joy of singing, and not like the little kind of prissy quiet singing that you get when you go to church these days — I mean really throwing your head back and singing full out. The whole church did. Back then, there wasn’t all the stuff to do that there is now, so it was packed. The place would be packed, you know. It was the social event of the year
PHAWKER: So moving on to your second album 2017’s Contraband Love which definitely takes it to the next level for you guys in terms of songwriting, production, arrangement, for everything, in terms of complexity and creativity, or widening your sonic palate. I really love that song, “Delta Slide.” Can somebody tell me a little bit about how that came to be on the album?
LARRY CAMPBELL: Well, it’s a tune by Tommy Jackson. Old blues guy. I mean, there’s a bunch of “Delta Slides” but his is the most well-known. To me, it’s a little more haunting than the others. And I was just sort of messing around with it, and then Teresa started adding a harmony and–
TERESA WILLIAMS: ‘Cause I couldn’t help myself! I really liked it better with just Larry. He was just hollerin’ that thing. I’d heard him down in his room. And I’d just hear him like hollerin’– I’m like “What is that! What is that? What are you workin’ on?” I just loved it.
LARRY CAMPBELL: Yeah, but when she chimes in it became this other thing and I thought it was a neat way to present a traditional blues tune. It just was fun. It was a lot of fun. And kind of, outside of our- well, I don’t know what our normal parameters are.
TERESA WILLIAMS: We don’t have any! That’s what’s fun!
LARRY CAMPBELL: For some reason, we haven’t pulled that one out live yet, but thank you for bringing it up, because I’m gonna try.
PHAWKER: Maybe you can play it when you come to Philadelphia.
LARRY CAMPBELL: Maybe we can.
PHAWKER: That’d be awesome. So, a quick aside here for Larry. You play an instrument called a cittern, which apparently dates back to Renaissance times. For the benefit of our readers, could you just explain the instrument a little bit, and how you came about to start playing it?
LARRY CAMPBELL: Yeah, I first became aware- you know, in the late 70’s, I went to Europe and toured with all these folks from Woodstock, people I admired and loved working with ‘em. And we’d play these Folk Festivals and I became smitten with what was going on in the modern Celtic folk tradition and they had- with this Celtic revival- they had the actual cittern which had been a Renaissance instrument and part of ancient Celtic music. They were very few of them around anymore, and these bands were using bouzoukis to take the place of that instrument. And a guy named Stefan Sobell re-designed, from plans of an ancient cittern and a Greek bouzouki and a mandocello, he put together this instrument. He virtually reinvented the cittern, the modern cittern. And it’s just- it’s fascinating. It’s just a great sounding instrument, and I don’t think there’s any musician in the Americana genre who is not completely enamored with it.
PHAWKER: Excellent. You guys played with Levon Helm, rest his soul, for many years. Teresa, I’ll throw this one to you, off the top of your head, what’s your fondest memory of that time, or that period working with him? Go anywhere with this you want.
TERESA WILLIAMS: He was an artistic touchstone for me because he was so honest in his work as an actor and as a singer — it blew my mind. So I never dreamed I would meet him, much less work with him and it’s just funny how the universe works that, for years people would ask who my favorite artist was and I would say ‘Levon Helm!’ [laughs]. You just can’t make up this stuff, you know, if you put it in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it. He comes from the exact same background that I come from. I fondly remember just sitting around a fire with Levon and his wife Sandy on Sunday nights. You know, like I would sit around with the folks when I was growing up around the fire and tell tales. Larry and I would just sit with Levon and Sandy and do that on Sunday nights. When we lost him, it was obviously an artistic and professional loss, but it was personal for me.
PHAWKER: Right on. I was lucky enough to catch a couple of those shows over the years and it was, you know–
TERESA WILLIAMS: They were magic!
PHAWKER: They were magic. They were.
TERESA WILLIAMS: It’s over-used, but they were, yeah.
PHAWKER: Larry, I’m a big Dylan fan. I have to ask you a Dylan question, if you will indulge me please.
LARRY CAMPBELL: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Did you guys ever rehearse? I’m curious.
LARRY CAMPBELL: Oh yeah.
PHAWKER: With Dylan or just the band alone?
LARRY CAMPBELL: Yeah, with Bob.
TERESA WILLIAMS: But then, would you actually do the song you rehearsed in the show? No.
TERESA WILLIAMS: [laughs]
LARRY CAMPBELL: It was a parallel universe out there, you know. When I started with [Dylan’s] band, we rehearsed for three days, but mostly playing old rock ‘n’ roll and old country tunes. And then we started the tour, and most of the set lists were tunes I had never played before. Before every tour we would rehearse, and then at sound checks every day we’d run through stuff. Sometimes relevant to the show, sometimes not at all relevant to the show. But we certainly learned how to play together.
PHAWKER: Was there a firm set list every night? Or would he just call them out?
LARRY CAMPBELL: Yeah, there would be a written set list every night. Bob would write out a set list.
PHAWKER: Would they differ every night, or every few nights? Or was it like one set list for a whole leg of a tour?
LARRY CAMPBELL: No, well, there would be certain songs that would be regularly done during a specific tour, and then others that were just thrown in there randomly, night by night. But there would be setlists, yeah.
PHAWKER: I had the chance to see that line-up played a couple of times — and I’m a big fan of Charlie Sexton’s guitar playing, as well as yours. Seeing you guys play together was just magical. And also too, I wanted to point out — and I don’t know if you get this much — in addition to your respective guitar playing, I loved hearing you guys sing together.
LARRY CAMPBELL: Thanks.
TERESA WILLIAMS: There was more [backing vocal] singing when Larry was in the band than in any other time.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I miss that. I miss that in the later line-ups, just between you and me. Don’t tell Bob Dylan.
TERESA WILLIAMS: I think Larry was a big instigator of all that, you know, ‘cause of his- just stuff that he loved.
PHAWKER: I was blown away when you guys came out and did those ‘down from the mountain’ harmonies on his songs. It was completely unexpected and it was great.
TERESA WILLIAMS: Enter Larry Campbell.
PHAWKER: Those harmonies were a beautiful thing to behold.
PHAWKER: I just checked with the judges and we will allow it. So, last question here and then I’ll let you guys go. What’s next? Is there an album in the works or?
LARRY CAMPBELL: Well, we are getting ready. September 20th and 21st, we’re gonna record a live record at Levon’s barn in Woodstock.
TERESA WILLIAMS: And, for all your readers out there, there are some tickets available, so if anyone’s interested, please come to see us. We need a lot of people to make some noise up there and it’s a great- You know, just being back in that barn, it’s just — for the both of us — it’s the perfect place to be doing this because it’s kind of, you know, where we honed what we do together and his ghost is still walking around that place, you know. So, we’re gonna do that first. And then hopefully before we get too far into the new year, we’ll be in the studio doing another studio record.