Interview: Q&A With Larry Campbell And Teresa Williams

Interviewer: “Lots of musical experiences, lots of adventures, collaborations, productions, gigs…and now it seems you’ve found much satisfaction with Teresa. Tell us how it started, and how it’s going.”

LC: Teresa and I have always had a musical relationship, ( we met performing together) but we didn’t start singing together in public until we started working with Levon Helm in 2005. That gave us a safe environment to develop the thing we do now. Levon liked everyone in the band to step up front and Teresa and I took that as an opportunity to do publicly what we had been doing at home and with her family in Tennessee. When Levon died in 2012 we decided to concentrate on our own material and performances which resulted in our first record. Out of all the wonderful musical experiences I’ve had in my life, doing this now with Teresa is the most fulfilling and satisfying in so many ways. We get to do something that we’ve created and to do it with the person we most want to be with.

Teresa, after a brilliant career as a singer and vocalist, with lots of experiences everywhere, what do you think about the new success as a duo with Larry? Is a starting point or an arrival?

TW: An arrival.

Your first duo album was an unexpected success, now everybody recognizes you as “The Americana couple”. Do you feel like an “ambassador” for this genre?

LC: To me the Americana genre is a very broad and big tent and I like to think that the only qualification to be welcomed in there is authenticity and honesty in your music. It encompasses all of the genres that I find most appealing, Blues, Country, Gospel, Bluegrass, Folk, Rock and anything else that feels homegrown from the soil of America (and other countries as well). I like the idea of being considered an “ambassador” for this music only because it has the fewest limitations of any other musical category

TW: People put labels on you.  We both like a lot of American roots music and music from countries that influenced American roots music.  It’s flattering for you to ask if we feel like an “ambassador” for Americana.

Teresa, can you tell us about your beginnings? Who were your musical heroes? Your favorite female voices, and songwriters?

TW: I grew up in West Tennessee working the fields on a subsistence cotton farm, as did most of the people around there. (The photos in the artwork for Contraband Love, as well as my side of the first record were taken on that farm and in the original log cabin there.) I learned my music from my parents in the living room at home and at church.  They had me doing solos at church by the time I was 4 years old. There was music playing at all times, either someone on the piano or guitar or just the radio playing.  I absorbed the country, country gospel, country blues, rock n roll, rockabilly, bluegrass, R&B that was all around us. If you reached out 2 hrs from our farm in any direction you would hit Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Nashville, Kentucky bluegrass – it was a great place to grow up.

Musical heroes were Hank Williams, Johnny Cash. I was surrounded by the sound of Loretta Lynn, and that Nashville crowd, but I was wowed by early Tina Turner, her rawness.  I liked real and raw. I took the music for granted and studied acting for a profession, but am now back to doing what my parents taught me as a child.  It’s funny how things come full circle.  Same with our marriage.  We  worked together in the very beginning and are now working together again.

Larry, you’ve had a 30-year relationship with Teresa, but what’s it like working with her, professionally? What’s it like to know each other so deeply, in studio and on stage?

LC: We have always managed to keep our personal and professional relationship separate (to certain degrees of success). There are aspects of a personal relationship that can interfere with your creativity and then there are aspects that can enhance it greatly. Knowing and caring for each other as deeply as we do can infuse a degree of honest intimacy that might not be reached otherwise, and it seems that we both have enough professionalism that we can leave any disagreements in the dressing room before we hit the stage.

And Teresa, you’ve had a 30-year relationship with Larry, but what’s it like to work with him professionally? What’s it like to know each other so deeply, in studio and on stage?

TW: The first 15 or so years of our marriage we went in different directions professionally, not really seeing each other much at all.  A lot of people thought we were just dating. And I admit, when we were first married, I considered husband/wife duos sort of icky and not something I’d be interested in. Suddenly in 2005 or 2006 we were both working with Levon Helm and doing the Midnight Rambles:  living, working together 24/7.  That sort of formalized us working as a duo, as Levon had us out front a lot. Then when Levon died, we became serious about our own project – yes a whole new level of togetherness.  So, yes, being together full time was/is very, very different.  But we like it.  It would probably be easier for both of us  in some ways to have a neutral outside producer on our duo projects, but in other ways it’s lovely to create something from nothing, just us and the band. We are quite simpatico musically; that’s really what put us together when we met.  We don’t have children – we have music.

Larry, name one positive quality and one negative quality of Teresa.

LC: Teresa is one of those singers who is an open book when she performs. There is no distance between who she is and what she does on stage. That kind of pure expression is irresistible. If she has a defect it’s that she can be too self-critical.

Teresa, name one positive quality and one negative quality of Larry.

TW: Positive:  He is a very hard worker. Negative: He works too hard.

Let’s talk about “Contraband Love”: I’ve found it really various, an exhaustive trip through all the music you played along your career: blues, folk, country, rock, soul…and all their influences. Is it like that?

LC: I’m glad you see it that way, and this is a reason I’m glad we have the Americana genre. So many of us who grew up in the last century were exposed to a rich variety of musical styles and though I deeply admire many artists who have dedicated themselves to the lifestyle and purity of just one of these genres, I’ve always been interested in writing and performing music that mixes it all up.

TW: Yes, I think that’s accurate.  Just doing what we enjoy, what speaks to us.

Tell us about the choice of singing the standard “My sweetie went away”. Do you love Bessie Smith and the music of the twenties?

 TW: Yes, of course I love Bessie Smith, and yes, I have the box set!  I just love, love the way she sings that song and was smitten with it the first time I heard it.  I had to play it over and over and over. I love the words, just plain and honest and sad, but kind of funny too.  I have been singing it for years, did it at The Midnight Rambles too.  I’m happy Larry wanted it on this record.

This title, written on the cover of the album with you two together, make us think about your story. Is it a “Contraband Love”?

LC: Well, that title can mean whatever you want it to mean but the song is really about unconditional love. I was thinking about my own personal experience and the experiences of others with drug addiction and how it affects those who love you. Having been on both sides of that situation I realized that all you can really do for someone who’s lost in that world is continue to love them. You can and will try everything possible to get them to stop but ultimately they have to decide to live. Until that happens, you have to let them know that you love them and be there when they fall as much as they may not want to hear it.

TW: Ha!  In some ways, I suppose it is.  I think most relationships carry some issues that require each partner’s ability to overlook some stuff and love anyway, even when one partner is almost fighting that unconditional love.  That’s true love, isn’t it?  I said to Larry when you really love someone, I think you see them as God sees them – you see the best part of them.

Even the stories in the songs…seems you wanted to talk more about the real life, to give more emphasis to the words…

LC: I wanted to progress as a songwriter on this record, to dive a little deeper and explore some subject matter that I might have been uncomfortable with before. I’m relatively new to the songwriting game and on our first record, although there are a couple of emotional songs I was mostly concerned with keeping it light and fun. The writers that I admire most seem to have a signature style and a level of profundity that I don’t think I’ve reached yet. My goal is to keep progress in the endeavor.

TW: I do think Larry allowed himself to go deeper with these songs.  Going deeper is not always a pleasant prospect, so I think it takes real courage. 

Do you write songs together? Do you talk about how to “build” a new song?

LC: Technically I’ve written all the original material so far, but Teresa has been invaluable in helping me get these songs to the finish line. She has a really good honesty gauge and she won’t let me get away with nonsense. Then, once I hear her believe in and perform the tune it helps to guide me to a flavor and approach for an arrangement.

TW: He wants to, but I’m lazy – or don’t have the courage to reveal all that inner stuff to the world! He says he struggles with the lyrics, and finds it excruciating to write.  He focuses on melody first, while I hear words first.  I come from great storytellers on both sides of my family and the South is just the land of great storytellers! I love words.  So he often runs the lyrics by me to see if I hear any red flag spots, anything that might jar you out of the song.

Larry, you also wrote a song with the great William Bell. Are you friends? Can you tell us something about this experience?

LC: William’s manager Charles Driebe approached me a few years ago and asked if I’d be interested in co-writing with him. I, of course jumped at the opportunity and went down to Atlanta for a few days to work with William. I had the music and some of the lyrics to this tune and he helped me finish it. We got two others done that he had lyrics for and I put music to that I hope to get out in the world sometime. Working with William was one of the greatest creative experiences of my career and I’ll look forward to making the time to do it again. He’s truly a legend and an American treasure.

You were in the band of the legendary Levon Helm? Can you describe him in few words?

 LC: Two weeks after I left Bob’s band I got a call from Levon who was just beginning to stage these concerts in his barn that would become the Midnight Ramble. This was the beginning of the greatest, most fulfilling musical years of my life. Soon after I went up there, Levon’s daughter Amy suggest adding Teresa to the mix and very quickly all the pieces were in place for a fantastic musical journey. Levon was nothing but genuine and authentic as a musician and as a person. He wanted everyone to feel that we were all in this together. The only goal in making music in Levon’s barn was to have a good time doing it. There were no egos, no politics, no personal motives or anything to interfere with the pure joy of music making.

 TW: He, after my father, was my most important artistic touchstone for years before I ever met him.  I never dreamed I would meet this man, much less work with him.  (The Universe works in mysterious ways.) He was nothing if not authentic as a singer, drummer, guitar and mandolin player, and as an actor.  His performances are almost painful in their honesty.  And that’s what speaks:  honesty.

Larry – in Italy, many people know and appreciate you as Bob Dylan’s guitarist. What was it like to join him and his band?

LC: When I first was called to join Bob’s band I had just come off many months on the road with different artists and had made a decision that I was just gonna stay in New York and be a full time studio musician, so I thanked his manager Jeff Kramer for the call but turned him down. The next morning I woke up in a panic and realized what I had done. When I was first aspiring to be a musician, there was a kind of holy trinity of musical acts, the Beatles, The Stones and Bob Dylan and to turn down an offer from one of these artists was insanity. Fortunately when I called Kramer back the offer still stood. Working with Bob was a fabulous experience; the highs were as high as you could go and the lows were as low but to be able to immerse myself in that material for 8 years was life changing. After 8 years I realized that there were other things I wanted to do musically that would never happen with Bob’s road schedule.

Larry: you play lot of instruments. Which one was the first, and which one do you prefer to play?

LC: The first instrument I picked up was guitar; I wanted to be George Harrison. Then as I got deeper into music and the different genres that attracted me I was compelled to learn fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, banjo etc. I was driven, I ate, slept and drank music. It was all I wanted to do so the hard work wasn’t that hard. It’s impossible to say which one I love to play more, that changes every month but if I could only have one on a desert island I guess it would have to be guitar. It’s the most versatile for me.

You are not only a superb musician but also a great producer. How you became a studio genius? Which the albums you produce made you more proud?

LC: I was always more interested in recording than performing and interested in arranging songs in the studio. One of the first records that I was asked to produce was for a Norwegian artist, Stephan Ackles in the early eighties. This was a great experience and I realized that I wanted to do more of it. I think a prerequisite for doing something well artistically is loving it. It’s not up to me to say whether I’m a good producer or not but I certainly love doing it. It’s really satisfying to delve into an artist that you admire and to help them realize their vision. I’m really proud of all the records I’ve been involved with for different reasons but if I I had to choose one it would be the Dirt Farmer record with Levon because it came from such an organic place. Amy called me and asked if Teresa and I would come up and just sit around with her dad and play some tunes and roll the tape. Every minute of that experience was a joy.

“Ramble at Ryman” is one of my favorite all time live record. How was working with such a giants band and with “number ones” like John Hiatt and Sheryl Crow?

LC:That live Ryman show was thrilling. It was stressful in preparation, we did have a lot of great artists and as bandleader I didn’t want to mess anything up but it was a perfect example of what making music with Levon was all about. Again, no one showed up with an ego and everyone had a great time participating in making it a huge success.

TW: Working with Levon and the Levon Helm Band was music nirvana.  Levon was true North musically.  And that drew many of the greats of music to him.  To get to sing with those people every Saturday night was a great treat, but it all paled compared to singing with Levon, who was truly authentic.

In May you will be touring in Italy. Is it your first time touring here together with Teresa? Are you excited? Do you like Italy? Italian people? And Italian food?

LC: I’ve played Italy quite a few times with Bob and others and it is absolutely one of my favorite places in the world. The warmth that comes from the Italian people is unmatched anywhere else. It seems to me that people feel things deeply in Italy and when you make music you want it be absorbed as deeply as it will go. Everyone talks about the food which is unbeatable, the architecture, the scenery and I particularly love to hear Italian folk music. This will be our first time performing in Italy as Larry and Teresa and though I may be a little nervous about it; because it’s our stuff, I’m very much looking forward to the experience.

TW: It will be my first time performing in Italy, with or without Larry.  I LOVE Italy!  Yes, the people, the food, the art, the architecture, the countryside, the cities, the music, the films, the light, the history, the afternoon rests, the appreciation for stopping to enjoy the simple pleasures of life – all of it!

Larry, is it true that you came to Italy to play music for the first time with the Greg Trooper band? What do you remember of that experience?

LC: It is true, we went to Sicily in the summer of 1987, and though we were there for about 4 weeks through a series of purely Sicilian events we only managed to play one show. It was an oddly arranged excursion but we had a wonderful time while we were there. In so many ways Sicily is the most colorful place I’ve ever been to. One of the things I remember about that time is that I was waiting to get home so I could have my first date with Teresa.

After joining his band, did you keep in contact with Greg? Somebody is thinking about a tribute to his songs. Which one you’d like to sing and play?

LC: Greg and I were always in touch up until his unfortunate passing last year. I played on his last record a few weeks before he died which I hope will be out soon. He had so many great songs but I particularly like playing “Ireland’

Teresa, are you listening to any new female singers? Is there someone you like? Some names?

TW:Maybe not the newest kid on the block, but I love Lucinda Williams.

And who is your favorite songwriter nowadays? Is there anyone you’d like to sing with, apart from Larry?

TW: Lucinda Williams is a favorite songwriter.  And I’m always hoping Julie Miller will come out of her sort of pseudo retirement, cause selfishly I love her songwriting and her singing.  She suggested once that she and her husband, Buddy Miller, Larry and I do a project together – that would be a dream.

And Larry – who is your favorite songwriter nowadays?

LC: I don’t think I can narrow it down to one favorite writer, but one who I always cite as an inspiration is Rosanne Cash. She really has her own voice and seems to write with a balanced combination of impressionism and literalism. She always makes you feel something.

What’s it like living in the USA in the Donald Trump era? From Europe we are looking at you with a bit of anxiety and worry.

LC: I don’t quite know how to digest or understand this situation. I can’t figure out how we got here. We have a president who behaves in every way exactly how we teach our children not to behave. I’m relatively confident in the strength of our American democratic structure (checks and balances) but it seems he’s doing everything he can to erode those institutions. I just think that if we all as citizens start listening to each other and being more kind and considerate we’ll eventually get through this thing.

TW: As Larry says, if we all just listen to each other, be considerate and kind, and hold onto each other, we’ll get through this. Presidents come and go.  The democracy was built to survive.

Our usual last question: 5 records, 3 movies and 1 book to carry in a desert island…THANK YOU AND WELCOME TO ITALY!!

LARRY CAMPBELL:

RECORDS:

Beatles:Revolver

The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers

The Louvin Brothers: Satan is Real

Howlin’ Wolf: Chess Box Set

Hank Williams:Greatest Hits

MOVIES: The Wizard of Oz, Top Hat, King Kong(Original version)

BOOK:  Pillars of the Earth(Ken Follet)

TERESA WILLIAMS:

RECORDS:

Hank Williams:  box set (is that cheating?)

John Coltrane:  More John Coltrane for Lovers

Scarlatti:  Sonata in B Min. K. 87, Shirley Kirsten

Percy Sledge:  The Dark End of the Street

Rev. Gary Davis:  The Sun of Our Life – Solos Songs and Sermons 1955-57

MOVIES:  The Ten Commandments, Being There, The Quiet Man

BOOK:  The Bible (it’s long)

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