We’re still getting over scars left by the pandemic and not being able to hear live music. But the documentary film series, It Was The Music, about the married duo Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, helped us get us through those dark days.
As we stayed sequestered, we got to watch a film directed by Mark Moskowitz showing footage of Campbell and Williams traversing the small venues of America and intermingling with fans in the months before we shut down. It was living vicariously and proved to be therapeutic as we envisioned a return to live music someday.
In 2023, three years after the mention of COVID-19 (and almost to the month before Campbell succumbed to a harrowing bout with the deadly virus) the duo is back on the road again.
But the pandemic distorted our sense of time that still persists. Take for example the duo’s new album Live at Levon’s. It was actually recorded four years ago but the duo has just released it and is getting to tour behind it.
The opening track on the album, the Reverend Gary Davis’ “Let Us Get Together,” has the feel of timelessness and conviction like we were back in church altogether like old times. As the couple takes to the road this month for an old fashioned tour with Shawn Mullins, it’s as if the time in between the recording and now was just a blur.
There was something special when Larry Campbell and Teresa Campbell made an early stop at the Richmond Music Hall. First, the intimacy of the brick-walled small room and the exemplary sound made it worthy of being a great listening room. But more important there was the sense that we were marking more steps to returning to normal.
As Williams repeated the lines of Davis’ gospel classic and Campbell picked at the melody, her voice filled the room, picking up intensity as the song gained momentum and built into a clap-along stomp.
Time has left its favor upon Campbell and Williams who have tightened their sound as a duo approaching almost a decade since their self-titled debut album. On “Surrender To Love,” the couple donned two acoustic guitars to support vocal harmonies that keep getting tighter with time. They had a decided pop power and old top forty sound that would sound great on a transistor radio.
“Surrender To Love” leads off their first album which emerged out of the couple’s work with the late Levon Helm. Campbell produced the Grammy winning Dirt Farmer which was born out of a desire to get back to playing the music loved by the Band’s drummer and founding member. The old rent parties held to pay Helm’s debts turned into midnight rambles and were reminiscent of the present as people sat in front of the stage. Stomping their feet along in 2023 to the music, Campbell remarked “That’s a good Friday night.”
Growing up in West Tennessee, Williams learned the traditional “Long Black Veil” from her father and when she relearned the Band’s version with Helm, the baton was handed down once again. “Now it’s your song baby,” Helm told Williams.
The thread of history permeates through the couple’s lives and in their set. In introducing their cover of The Louvin Brothers “You’re Running Wild,” Campbell recalled courting Williams when she moved to New York. It was the era of the burgeoning New York country scene of the 1980s in the post – ”Urban Cowboy” boom. In a bit of an Americana history lesson, Campbell traced the events of being in Buddy Miller’s band. When his wife Julie Miller left the band, Shawn Colvin joined. Colvin and John Leventhal started dating and became an item before Leventhal married Rosanne Cash. Years later Campbell had a melody floating in his head and gave a cassette to Julie Miller. She came back with lyrics that became the song “Midnight Highway” on the second side of the duo’s first album.
“Incestuous Americana history,” Campbell laughed in recalling the events.
Both Campbell and Williams are at heart students of roots music. Live at Levon’s is testament to this. Campbell grew up in New York City but was exposed at a young age by all of the artists passing through. Seeing Bill Monroe in Central Park left an indelible impression and was a pathway to the duo covering “Old Dangerfield” on the new record. Williams, who once played Sara Carter in a musical about the Carter Family, leads a rousing rendition of A.P. Carter’s “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.” She also leads a lovely reading of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darling Be Home Soon,” written by Woodstock neighbor and friend John Sebastian.
Campbell provided some color on the song which Sebastian performed alone on solo guitar in front at Woodstock when Tim Hardin couldn’t go on. “One guy and a guitar and 400,000 people,” Campbell says in amazement.
Campbell has talked of Earl Scruggs creating the standard for banjo playing, followed by the late Bill Keith. Campbell remembered playing in the Woodstock Mountain Revue when Keith introduced a song one night that sounded like it was created on the banjo. Campbell was surprised to learn it was Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” The live album gives a reading of Keith’s playing, with Campbell dazzling with his use of the entire electric fretboard as he turns it into a down-home folksy jam.
Onstage the names of legends fly by. Campbell mentions his years playing with Bob Dylan and Williams recounts being asked to take center stage singing with Jorma Kaukonen. Campbell’s soft spoken demeanor recounting their musical history and connections is less about boasting than the experiences that make up a lifetime and the numerous collaborations that have resulted. It reminds me of the words of the late Mac Wiseman that were immortalized by John Prine in “I Wrote The Song”: “It ain’t bragging if you’ve done it”
It’s also where the past meets the present. Consider the show stopping “Angel of Darkness” which Williams delivers in a sultry raucous show stopper and where the couple’s harmonies come alive onstage. Like with “Midnight Highway,” Campbell had the melody floating around and asked Kaukonen for help during sessions he produced for Hot Tuna. The next day Kaukonen handed him the finished lyrics. The song first appeared by Hot Tuna on Steady As She Goes but is now ingrained in the couple’s live sets.
Another is the link to the great soul music of the Sixties. “When I Stopped Loving You” is another centerpiece of Live at Levon’s that resulted from a writing collaboration with the great William Bell of Stax Records fame. Bell’s writing credits include “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” Their co-write is a defining vocal performance for Campbell.
In the documentary It Was The Music, you can almost see the gleam in William Bell’s eyes protruding from his dark sunglasses. It happens when he describes the life-changing night he first saw Sam Cooke. A similar moment comes when Campbell recounts being an eleven year-old coming upon a childhood friend playing his guitar on a baseball field playing the Beatles’ “You’ve Got a to Hide Your Love Away” and realized, “I want to do that.” And when Teresa Williams tells the story of seeing Linda Ronstadt as a bandleader it changed how she thought of her role as a singer.
Moscowitz, who saw the couple play at a show outside his native Philadelphia, finds inspiration and sets out on an odyssey following the couple on the road and into the studio for the making of their second album Contraband Love. He is like a politely obsessed fan who doubles between being a filmmaker and a musical archeologist, honing in on finding the magic of culturally defining moments of the American songbook. Along the way, he created ten episodes that come as close as you’ll get to an Americana reality show.
In an early scene, the director films Campbell going into a record store but leaves the cameras rolling as a discussion commences. The spontaneous unscripted scene that ensues is like being a fly on the for a town hall discussion. As Campbell flips back and forth between the influential records, tracing his own path from Moby Grape, to Flatt & Scruggs to the Byrds, anyone who has turned over an album to read credits will relate to the albums that are landmarks in the Americana lexicon long before it had a name.
These life defining moments are sprinkled throughout It Was The Music and they continue to manifest themselves when the couple performs onstage, as if they are quoting passages from the book of roots. But as much as there is to celebrate from the past, one gets the sense that the duo is just getting started.
As they look forward to a new studio album, it was great to get a glimpse of what is to come. Julie Miller penned a new song “I Love You” that already feels like a hit single. Onstage Campbell sang a song inspired by the comedians Laurel and Hardy entitled “A Little Better.” It’s a coming of age song written that every baby boomer will relate to and one of its great lines: “You might fool time and feel a little better.”
After the show as Campbell and Williams greeted fans at the merch table, a wide smile came over the guitarist who said he’d just written it a few days before. His look had that quiet confidence of someone who knew he nailed it.
As Williams talked with fans, there was still a slight reminder of the pandemic as she wore a face mask. But like their appearances in It Was The Music, we were back together and celebrating great music as an audience. We were moving on and it seemed like we were finally getting back to normalcy.
How does it feel?