The road in life does not always follow a linear path. As Teresa Williams stood onstage at Gypsy Sally’s, she admitted that as a girl from West Tennessee, she was somewhat in awe of being in the nation’s capital. Williams, who spent several decades in New York City, hails from the cotton country of Peckerwood Point. In a little geography lesson, she pointed out that it’s next to Lizard Lick. Back in the day, she reminisced that locals would put benches in the back of their trucks to take folks to the Grand Ole Opry.
To her right stood husband and guitarist Larry Campbell, dressed in the black color that he wore upon meeting his in-laws more than thirty years ago. His wife commented that blue denim might have been more apropos. But Campbell’s versatility on fiddle and string instruments won over her father, a guitar player himself, who overlooked his Yankee pedigree for the chance to discover and talk guitar chords.
The couple came to the swamp of D.C. and brought with them some tunes from the Tennessee songbook. There was “Turnaround,” the pre-rockabilly country song originally recorded by legend Carl Jackson who lived forty miles away from her family. Shifting across the state, the couple chose the Carter Family’s “Right That Wrong” in which Williams showed her chops, holding a note for what might have been a routine vocal workout but seemingly felt like infinity.
The couple’s vast roots playbook is built around staples like “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and “Samson and Delilah” by the Reverend Gary Davis and the Louvin’ Brothers “You’re Running Wild.” Mostly they focused on songs from their self-titled debut album and last year’s Contraband Love, an album Williams noted was released thirty years to the day of their first date.
“I don’t know about you but it seems weird out there,” Campbell mused in a reprise of a comment he made on their visit here last summer, just six months after the presidential election.
“It’s just Washington,” someone shouted not missing a beat.
As I looked behind me, I saw a copy of Bob Woodward’s book de jour, Fear. Woodward is a resident of the Georgetown neighborhood. Gypsy Sally’s is just a stones throw from the Watergate building where Woodward covered one of the most famous burglaries in history. The edgy “It Ain’t Gonna Be a Good Night” captures the underlying tone of the times.
Campbell assuaged the audience with his belief that music would once again get us through turbulent days. He put the focus back on the songs, particularly the couple’s stellar harmonies in show standouts like “The Other Side of Pain” and “When I Stop Loving You,” a song he co-wrote with William Bell, the famed Stax writer of “Born Under a Bad Sign.” His rich baritone was elevated as Williams came in on the chorus providing rich accompaniment. During the turbocharged “Wishing Well,” the band’s frenetic energy, propelled by drummer Justin Quip and bassist Jesse Murphy, channeled something that was a cross between Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” and the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.”
The couple’s partnership evolved out of their work with the late Levon Helm. Campbell donned fiddle to play “Poor Dirt Farmer,” the title track of Helm’s Grammy winning comeback album he co-produced. In the intimate club it was like having the quartet play in your living room or backyard.
Campbell, who played in Bob Dylan’s band for close to a decade, told a story about the day an envelope of Hank Williams’ unfinished lyrics arrived. They were sent by granddaughter Holly Williams. The goal was for Dylan to finish them but he eventually enlisted other writers like Lucinda Williams and tasked Helm and Campbell. The two finished “You’ll Never Be Mine” which was played tonight with Campbell on mandolin.
“I don’t know what old Hank thinks about it,” he mentioned.
“I hope we don’t find out too soon,” Williams shot right back.
Today Campbell and Williams call Woodstock, New York home. Early in his career, Campbell played in the Woodstock Mountain Revue. He gave a tribute to the late Bill Keith who was influential for modern day roots musicians like Bela Fleck. Campbell then dazzled, playing a bluegrass laced version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” punctuating the notes with precision and fluidity, playfully riffing off bassist Jesse Murphy and drummer Justin Quip.
Williams lamented that her friends in Hot Tuna had stolen drummer Guip who was on loan to the couple.
By night’s end the couple had covered two Reverend Gary Davis songs back to back with the closer “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” Williams seemed downright entranced singing the extended encore, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”
A few minutes later Campbell and Williams came out to sign autographs and talk with fans.
Someone asked about Lizard Lake.
“It’s Lizard Lick,” Campbell gently corrected in his soft-spoken way, enunciating the locale’s unlikely name. Perhaps the intrigue was sparked by his earlier comment that it makes Mayberry R.F.D. look like Atlanta.
The two were heading back south, this time to East Tennessee down the endless Route 81. There was a stop in Roanoke before they hit the state line to be part of the annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival.
Williams had once played the role of Sara Carter in the musical Keep On The Sunny Side. Now she would be onstage in the downtown streets of the city where the first Carter Family sides were made and the city that calls itself the birthplace of country music.
As the crow flies and the saying goes, they were bound for Bristol.
(Photo by Stevie Combs.)