Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams (photo by Mark Seliger)
Larry Campbell has a most impressive musical resume. He sang and played lead guitar (and other stringed instruments such as the mandolin, banjo, and pedal steel and slide guitar) as a member of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour band from 1997 to 2004. He’s performed and recorded with such talented luminaries as Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, and Keith Richards. Campbell also won three Grammys for his production of three different albums by Levon Helm.
Teresa Williams grew up picking cotton on her family’s West Tennessee farm and first began singing at church. She’s sung with such great Southern vocalists as Mavis Staples, Rodney Crowell, and Bonnie Bramlett, as well as with the bands Hot Tuna and Little Feat. Williams and Campbell have both spent much of the past seven years playing with Levon Helm. The two recently recorded their first duo record, simply titled Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams.
They spoke together from their Upstate New York home, each on different phone extensions. The two frequently finished each other’s thoughts and sentences. They laughed at themselves and each other in a sweet way; there was a palpable warmth between them, as if they were in the first flush of love. However, they met back in 1986 and have been together since.
Williams explained, "I was getting ready to play the Bottom Line [a New York City nightclub that sadly no longer exists] and sing country music in Manhattan for the first time, but I did not know any players. A friend of a friend suggested Larry."
Campbell took over telling the story. "I didn’t want the gig. Playing behind another female country singer seemed less than challenging, so I asked for more money before I showed up. However, the first moment I saw her, I was smitten."
Giggling, Williams interrupted. "Ha, at least I heard you play before I fell in love with you!"
Campbell continued, "And then she sang and . . . "
Williams broke in again, "I heard him play pedal steel and I knew everything was gonna be okay, and I said to myself, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, whoever you are, for your gracious playing.’ " Campbell admitted that the connection was there from the very beginning.
The two will perform at CSPS in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, July 19. They will be joined by Justin Guip on drums and Byron Isaacs on bass, both of whom play on the new record. Guip also engineered the disc. "We jokingly call ourselves the fierce-some foursome," Campbell said.
Campbell and Williams live together, travel together, and work together. That much time in each other’s company would drive some people crazy. While the two attest to arguing over things like household chores, they say they are at their best when they are playing with each other. Campbell said, "By the time we met, we were already well-groomed in our professionalism. Our identities were well established as separate entities. We do with each other as we do when we play with other musicians."
"Sometimes I think what we could have done with the time if we’d met 20 years earlier," Williams said. "But I agree with Larry, we wouldn’t have clicked the same way as we did because of our experiences. I probably would have avoided him. From what I’ve heard, he was a rough and ready guy in his 20s." She subtly implied in a flirtatious way that he may not be all that different now.
The two also write songs, and both complain about how hard it is. "I’ll be headed to the dump or doing the laundry when I get an inspiration, but it takes time to write and I don’t always have it, so the song gets lost," Williams said. "Larry puts elbow grease into the effort and gets more accomplished."
He responded, "I find writing lyrics extremely difficult. Writing the music comes more easily, but to write lyrics you need to have a love affair with words, which I do not have." He said he finds his greatest inspiration in hearing Teresa sing. The new disc contains eight original songs and three covers.
"She’s a muse who can sing and provide good fuel for my labors," Campbell said. "She opens a window to the world."
Williams responded, "But you take it farther and go out of the window."
The couple’s sweetness would be cloying if it were not clearly genuine. They do not write personal songs about each other. Instead, they imagine themselves in different situations. "For example," Campbell noted, "there’s a song on the new record called ‘Did You Love Me at All.’ It has nothing to do with what I went through with Teresa, but I wondered what would happen if she were that person. It would be devastating." He described the songwriting process as starting with a core truth or idea, and then going down a side road to dress it up rather than just offer a blatant relating of the facts.
Still, Campbell and Williams’s personalities shine through their material. They expressed admiration for other male-female country duos such as Dolly Parton and Porter Wagner, Buddy and Julie Miller, and Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, but said they are more interested in creating their own sound.
Campbell explained, "We do this because we have it to do it. We don’t try to make it more this or less that; it’s going to be what it’s going to be. It comes from a place inside us, and if people like the music and come to hear us, that’s great. But even if they didn’t, we would still do this." Williams picked up the conversational thread. "It’s our natural form of expression. We just let it flow."