The first time I met Larry Campbell he had a guitar in his hands. It was in the backyard of my grandmother’s’ house in Yonkers, NY, the place I liked to go the most as a child. I met so many people on my Mom’s side of the family that magical day. But I learned there was a big difference between he and I in the more than five years that separated us. While I was getting my babysitters to sneak their older sisters’ Beatles records to my house, my cousin was actually seeing them and could say he was there at Shea Stadium on what would be the Beatles’ last tour.
If I could have photoshopped the picture of Larry on that August day, there might have been a crystal ball on the table in front of him. When he peered in he’d be able to see himself playing one day with the same people he was then going to see as a teenager in his hometown of New York City – Bob Dylan, members of the Jefferson Airplane, the Band and the Grateful Dead. He also might have seen himself finishing a song from lyrics that Hank Williams left in the back of his car when he died one night in 1953. And he would also see the image of the future love his life on the cover of the record they would make together. The only thing is that it would take decades to occur – and the calendar would have to go into the next century until its release on the 23rd of June in the year 2015.
When I suggest if someone told him the above he never would have believed it, we both start laughing. Larry is in the car on a seven-hour trip from his home in Woodstock, NY to Pittsburgh one Sunday in May. He is going to meet local musicians playing on a new reality television show being produced by actor Paul Giamatti. The show is called “The Outsiders” and is about a family living in the mountains holding on to traditions in modern times. The music will be based on the family’s old time fiddle music. He is going to be working with local Pittsburgh musicians and has his producer’s hat on trying to find the connection to the soul of the music.
When he was younger, he used to do music for a lot of television and radio commercials. He became one of the most sought after session players and later won a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association. That was before he spent nine years touring with Bob Dylan and another fve with the late Levon Helm, the magnificent drummer of the Band with whom he revived his career and made three Grammy-winning albums. And it was before he discovered his role as a producer. Somewhere in that time, he and his wife Teresa discovered that they really enjoyed singing together. The record that they made will finally see its release on Red House Records.
Larry was saying how they did it with no set goal in mind and was very much like the approach with Levon. “We just set out to record some music, not to win Grammys.” Helm appears on “You’re Running Wild,” the cover of the Louvin Brothers song featuring a stellar arrangement of the duo’s gorgeous harmonies. The original track was recorded during the making of the Dirt Farmer record, the record that brought Levon back to his rightful place in the pantheon of American music. The approach demonstrates his way of framing the music, especially in showcasing the beauty of Teresa’s voice in “One More Time” and “Did You Love Me At All.” Larry was beaming about how Jackson Browne called asking the couple to join his Fall tour. Rather than risk being an opening act to empty theaters, Browne is going to incorporate them in his band and allow them to performer togetherin the middle of his set. They are currently on a stretch of dates in the Midwest in June before joining Browne’s tour beginning in September.
The folk, gospel and rollicking country influenced songs on the new album is like a catalogue of everything they’ve learned in years of playing 20th century roots music. The couple had their album release party at City Winery in New York which is as good a place to begin their story. For this we go back to a story that appeared in the New York Times.
“I was standing on the corner of 64th street and First Avenue with my friend Larry Campbell. I had a brand new, red, plastic transistor radio, and he tuned it to WABC AM and “Love Me Do” came on the air. The soundtrack of my life changed at that moment, with The Beatles becoming the recurring and dominant theme.”
It is Andrew Rosenthal, the Managing Editor of the New York Times writing in the paper February 5, 2014 on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America. He used to have Larry over to his family’s apartment where his father the late A.M. Rosenthal served as editor of the paper. Larry remembers the moment with his close grammar school friend and also the famous people he’d meet at the apartment like the historian Arthur Schlesinger and literary figure Bennett Cerf.
Seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, Larry remembers, changed everything for him. “I decided right then and there that I was determined to play music it if it killed me.” Larry began learning chord progressions, studying sheet music and trying to figure out George Harrison’s solo on “I Saw Her Standing There.” He reasoned if he could do it with the Beatles, he could also learn songs from the folk boom. He saw the Reverend Gary Davis on a Pete Seeger show on PBS. “He scared the hell out of me. I tried to learn his stuff but I couldn’t get it.”
On the new record, Teresa does a mesmerizing version of Davis’ traditional gospel blues song “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” which has appeared in some hymnals. The song recalls the plethora of country, blues, bluegrass and gospel that pervaded the Sixties and early Seventies and laid fertile ground for young musicians like Larry. He dissected it all.
“Isn’t that the guy who grew up in New York but did kind of a country thing?” Marshall Crenshaw said to me when I asked him if he knew Larry. I had won a radio contest while living in the city and met him before his show in Central Park. His comment spoke to Larry’s reputation for playing mandolin, banjo, fiddle and string instruments that might have made him more of a Nashvillian than a typical New Yorker. But it could also be said that he might have never been exposed to the people he was seeing in New York had he lived somewhere else. Where else could you see Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Jerry Garcia and guitarist Stephan Grappelli?
One day while walking in Central Park, he stopped by the bandshell and heard Jefferson Airplane, featuring a guitarist by the name of Jorma Kaukonen. The Fillmore auditorium was the place where he could be every weekend. It was there he saw Kaukonen’s new band called Hot Tuna, a trio founded on the folk, blues and roots music that continues to this day. Going back to the future, the producer of their 2012 album Steady As She Goes was one Larry Campbell.
In the post- Urban Cowboy era, New York had a bustling country scene and it was a good time for a young musician to find work. Larry remembers the popular country fashion of the day as both “beauty and horror.” He was hired by Buddy Miller who had a band with his wife Julie. Around this time a young singer from South Carolina named Jim Lauderdale approached him. “Y’all mind if I sing a song with you?” he remembered him saying in a softspoken Southern accent before playing “She Still Thinks I Care” that night.
When Larry and Teresa played the Cayamo Cruise two years ago, he recalled how he was the steel player in Miller’s band back in that era. Miller and wife Julie used to sing the Louvin Brothers song “You’re Running Wild,” the same song that appears on Larry and Teresa’s new album. Singer Shawn Colvin replaced Julie Miller and assumed her role. Sitting behind pedal steel, Larry told the story of how he made a decision one night saying “Someday I’m gonna get me a pretty girl and sing this song.”
Enter one Teresa Williams from Peckerwood Point, Tennessee who was known locally as “the girl who sang.” At the end of her senior year an advisor told her that she would need to go somewhere like Chicago and/or New York if she wanted to pursue her singing dreams. If she had any reservations, her father was particularly vehement: “I’d rather be caught dead as be caught in New York City” the man known as Daddy exclaimed. But he should have known that passing on country blues to his daughter would have ramifications. And there was the music from Memphis and American Bandstand and seeing Tina Turner. “I remember having my ears laid back the first time I saw Tina Turner on TV,” she told me. “I just couldn’t believe she really existed! Crazy fascinating and that jumped in between my skin and bones!”
She remembers coming in from the family’s cottonfield to clean up and watch Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on television on Saturday nights, along with The Wilburn Brothers Show and The Porter Wagoner show with Dolly Parton. The Johnny Cash Show was a big deal in the house.
If he came around wanting for what his daughter needed, leaving for a big city was a stretch for a girl who grew up leading a sheltered life on a cotton farm. “I come from a bunch of strong, hard working women and I mean hard physical labor, where there’s still talk of women who died merely from working themselves to death,” she told me about the seven generations that grew cotton. “My great-grandmother plowed with a mule and raised a crop while pregnant with my grandfather after her husband died and managed to keep the family farm and raise four children by herself.”
The two met at a rehearsal in New York in the mid-Eighties. “I guess you could say I was intrigued” is the way Larry puts it. When Teresa started to sing, it led to what he remembers as putting on a “full court press.” The couple spent many of their early years together apart. He went on the road with people like K.D. Lang, Cyndi Lauper and Bob Dylan. She in musical theater where she drew on her own family history to play Sara Carter in a musical play Keep On The Sunny Side. It was an original play at the historic Barter Theatre close to the Carter Family home in Southwest Virginia. Carter’s character struck an affinity with Teresa whose great-grandmother lived in a dirt floor cabin, similar to the way Sara started her married life.
“She was solid, liberated and self-confident,” Teresa says of the woman she played every night. “I was her staunch advocate while we were creating that piece, and I felt I was her advocate onstage every night. I felt I owed it to her somehow from across the great divide.” She recalled Sara being married to A.P. Carter, a man who she said seemed only to hear the call of music – not his family and their needs. Meanwhile Sara was home alone keeping hearth and home together, doing what she calls the dirty work, pulling logs down the mountain with a mule and running the mill while pregnant.
Larry joined Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour and band in the late Nineties. He’d spend the next eight years working with Dylan and contributing to the great Love and Theft. Along the way, he witnessed the mercurial bandleader’s tightrope between being a regular guy and eccentricity. Dylan would pull esoteric songs out of his catalogue like “Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” or “Hazel” on a moment’s notice, making the seemingly relentless travel rewarding. I remember how one night Larry told me he was standing onstage as Dylan played “Boots of Spanish Leather.” He said it hit him how “outerworldly” it was that Dylan could write about being in such a place at such a young age. And then there was the night in Brazil when he found himself onstage with both Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in front of more than 100,000 people.
When he left to pursue his long held desire to produce music, he began playing with Levon Helm, the famed drummer of The Band, the original Americana band before the name was invented. Helm had been recovering from cancer and Larry worked with him as he got his voice back. Growing up, Teresa didn’t know who The Band was but she knew the sound of Levon’s voice. “I just knew that voice was us, and that they were singing about us, which really did something to me.” When she realized that the father in the Loretta Lynn film Coal Miner’s Daughter was the same person as the voice on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, she said that was it for her. Never did she dream she’d meet him, much less work with him. But over five years, she’d not only be an integral part of his band with Larry and Levon’s daughter Amy, she’d be part of his family.
Larry’s production of Dirt Farmer recast Helm as one of the great American singers. For Teresa, Helm brought a little of home up to Woodstock. She said his speech sounded like all the people she grew up with. It was also a time for she and Larry to regroup as a couple, buying a house in Woodstock and reverting to a more typical married life than they’d led on the road all those years. There was a natural affinity with Levon for Teresa as both came from the cotton patch. When her parents would come to visit, he’d take a lot of time with them, talking up tractors to her father.
Larry recalls his relationship as a real deep friendship and that the two had a symbiotic understanding, with never a cross word spoken. Their years together are chronicled in film in Ain’t In It For My Health, a documentary that largely deals with the unresolved tensions between Helm and the Band’s guitarist Robbie Robertson. Larry says he only heard Levon’s side and only wishes he could have helped to resolve before his cancer re-emerged and he passed away.
In one poignant scene, Larry is seen studying lyrics that Hank Williams left in his car the night he died. He’ll never forget the day the envelope arrived in the mailbox with the opportunity to set music to them. He helped finish “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” with Levon Helm as part of a album called The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.
“The most difficult part of losing Levon, aside from the obvious personal loss to his family and to us and to having a piece of home in him there in Woodstock,” Teresa says, “was seeing how much he wanted to play and sing. To hear him, in the dressing room at that last show at Tarrytown Music Hall, say, ‘All I ask for is just those two hours,’ meaning onstage, of course. It was plaintive. At the same time it was heartbreaking, it was flat out inspiring to see him persevere.” Larry produced a benefit concert called Love For Levon that was filmed and shown on PBS and featured Roger Waters, Jakob Dylan, Grace Potter, Gregg Allman and many others.
Helm and his family used to invite the public for Saturday night “rambles” at The Barn on his property. Teresa saw parallels in Levon’s passing that she felt years earlier out of her experience in Keep On The Sunny Side. She told me the story of how when A.P. Carter was on his deathbed, he instructed his daughter Janette to carry on his work. Today, the music of that era is celebrated every weekend in Maces Springs at the Carter Fold. It’s run by Janette’s daughter Rita Forrester with whom Teresa became friends and provided some helpful advice for Teresa in the aftermath of Levon’s death. To this day, she and Larry still play at the Rambles and try to carry on what Larry calls the magic that Levon left behind.
Over the years, Larry and Teresa have played with Hot Tuna and Phil Lesh and Friends. The first Hot Tuna record that came out when Larry was just teenage includes Davis’ song “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” I saw Larry play with the jam band when Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes was the lead singer. I also had a chance to see Larry one night as part of Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello & The Impostors. It’s hard to remember how many times Larry has won Grammy and Americana Music Association awards as Instrumentalist of The Year. When he received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Americana Music Association, he was his usual modest self and turned his acceptance to thank the Executive Director Jed Hilly for all that he has done to elevate the genre.
A lot of what is considered Americana music today is music that many of the baby boom generation listened to on free-form FM radio. Teresa admits a lot of it by-passed her the first time around. It’s been a chance, she says, to get “way inside” the material of Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane, The Dead, The Band, music in some ways that is somehow still new to her.
At the City Winery album party, many people came up and told the couple how much they’ve felt listening to their songs. Upon the release of their first album, all these years later Teresa can reflect and realize music was her identity al along–but something she used to take for granted.
“I didn’t think people from around Peckerwood Point were the kind of people who ever got to do professionally the stuff we heard on T.V. and the radio. That was for some “other” people – not us. Not allowed. ‘Don’t get above your raisin’.’ And if you even had the thought that it might be you, you’d get a quick smack down from someone saying ‘Who does she think she is?”’with a nice sneer to make it really sink in.”
But there was that one teacher who urged her not to stop. Years late standing onstage at Madison Square Garden guesting with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead in Furthur, she’d think about how far she’d come from the cotton patch. Singing had helped her see the world with the great Eddy Arnold years earlier. “Something in me needed all that music,” she now realizes. “And it’s kind of never stopped.”
When the couple came on Don Imus’ morning show on the Fox Business Network to celebrate their new album, it was like a homecoming of sorts. Larry was always one of Don’s favorites when Imus was an AM radio icon and he played regularly on the show backing Helm, Delbert McClinton and various benefits for Imus’ children’s cancer ranch chairty. I always used to feel bad for the great instrumentalist Mark O’Connor. When his name was mentioned Imus would always say he couldn’t hold a candle to Larry. O’Connor might be a good musician but Larry was a genius in Imus’ eyes.
I was once listening to Meg Griffin on The Loft when she started talking about a party she’d attended with Larry’s mother Maggie. As she described it, Julie Miller, the wife of Buddy Miller, excused herself in the bathroom for ten minutes because she had to write a song which she called “Maggie.” “I thought she nailed it,” he said of Julie’s words when I recounted the story. He went to say how his mother helped Julie through a rough time but remained enigmatic herself. The song gets at some trauma she suffered as a child in Spain when the country was under the reign of the dictator Francisco Franco. “I could never get her to talk about it,” he says.
The new album concludes with a beautiful song called “Attics of My Life”. It’s arguably the best track on the album and is a stunning display of three-part harmony between Teresa, Larry and Amy Helm. It originally appeared on the Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty,” one of the records that mesmerized Larry growing up and brought him full circle to the epicenter of today’s Americana movement. The song is special to the couple and was first performed at the New York Guitar Festival at the Financial Center. They often play it with Phil Lesh, going back to the days of the Warfield in San Francisco before it shut down. It’s been sung at several memorials, including Levon’s, the service for Larry’s mother Maggie and the memorial at Terrapin Crossroads for Lesh’s long time road manager and assistant Kathy Sunderland. Teresa says the song is always full of grace and magic wherever and whenever it’s done.
Harmonies are powerful things and connect the generations together. When I see Larry and Teresa, I also see my family. I see his father Bill sitting on my grandmother’s couch with brothers Lindsey and Jim singing in perfect pitch to “Danny Boy” and centuries old folk songs from the family’s native Scotland. There’s an imprint of the Campbell clan in New York City. Larry’s grandfather (and my great-grandfather) James Campbell laid some of the original tile in Grand Central Station. Bill’s painting of the roof of the family’s apartment on 64th Street is preserved in the artwork of Larry’s first solo album Rooftops.
And as I listen to the new record that’s finally come after all these years, I still see my grandmother Margaret looking me in the eye and pointing her finger with fiery Scottish pride, telling me about what made her most proud of her nephew. As she liked to remind me, he never took a lesson.