After decades of backing up some of the biggest names in American music, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams are making their own voices heard.
The husband-and-wife duo recently released a new self-titled album, harkening back to the great classic country duets while bringing in their own eclectic Americana sound. The record is also a testament to their unexpected and ongoing 30-year love story.
Campbell and Williams play Leesburg’s Tally Ho Theatre with Grammy-winning dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas on Thursday, Oct. 20.
Campbell and Williams have been singing together since their marriage in 1988. But for years, their duo work has been mostly for personal pleasure, taking a backseat to their work with musical greats like Bob Dylan (with whom Campbell toured for eight years in the late ’90s and early 2000s). Williams recalls visiting Campbell during his time on the tour and playing around with fellow traditional music lovers on the tour bus—but it was mostly just for fun.
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams
8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20
Tally Ho Theatre, downtown Leesburg
Tickets: $35 in advance, $40 at the door
“My career up until this point has been—in a very satisfactory way—just about backing up other people and creating music on a supportive level. That’s pretty much all I ever aspired to,” said Campbell, a sought-after multi-instrumentalist who has recorded with a long list of industry greats.
But the couple became inspired to record their own material after eight years of working with famed vocalist and actor Levon Helm (best known as the lead singer for The Band) starting in the mid-2000s as part of Helm’s Midnight Rambles concerts at his home/studio near Woodstock, NY.
Both Campbell and Williams were part of Helm’s band until his death from cancer in 2012, and Campbell won three Grammys for his production work with Helm. During that time, Helm and other band members encouraged the couple to perform some of the original material they’d been developing.
“When we’d sing together for the fun of it, it was this new kind of thing that was bringing me this joy that I hadn’t experienced before. And then in those years with Levon, it was perfect fertile ground to take the potential of what this could be and develop it,” Campbell said. “After we lost Levon, it just seemed organically natural for us to take this to the next step, and the record is a result of that.”
Both Campbell and Williams turned 60 this year, and there’s a sense of surprise and gratitude at truly coming into their own at this stage in life, with a new record label and a new tour. The new album draws from great country duets from greats like George Jones and Tammy Wynette but also from blues, gospel and other American roots music.
“We’re certainly drawing from tradition,” Campbell said. “The stuff that knocks me out and really has always influenced me is stuff that comes out of the soil. It’s what we now call the Americana genre—music that comes from a need or simple expression rather than cranial expression.”
For Williams, on a certain level, it was Dylan who was the inspiration for their album’s eclectic roots sensibility. Recalling the years Campbell spent on tour with the folk icon, she said, “He had all of it in his show and I was like ‘Oh, you can do that. You can put the kitchen sink in. I like Americana for that reason—it just includes the good stuff. You don’t have to limit yourself.”
Williams and Campbell are a bit of an odd couple. Campbell grew up in Manhattan with a lifelong passion for the music of the American South. Williams grew up in a musical family in west Tennessee where singing under the cedar tree on her grandmother’s farm was a way of life. They met in 1986 when a mutual friend called Campbell about playing a gig Williams was doing at the famous Bottom Line in New York’s Greenwich Village. Campbell was hesitant at first—it was the tail end of what he calls the “Urban Cowboy trend” and he was skeptical of country singer poseurs that still filled the clubs.
“First I saw Teresa and then after I got my jaw off the floor, I heard her sing and I thought, ‘Man this is the real thing,’” he said.
The pair have been together ever since and married in 1988, and their tight bond and mutual respect were clear in a conversation with this reporter. While working with a spouse can have its challenges, the musicians agree it’s absolutely worthwhile, and the critics seem to agree, with the new record drawing raves from the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal and other publications.
“For me it’s the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done as a musician,” Campbell said. “I never get tired of hearing Teresa sing. … It’s inspiring and to be able to do that with her—that in itself overrides any difficulties that might come up to make this happen.”
“Music is each of our cores. … That’s what got us together and that’s the glue, really, in our marriage,” said Williams, who recalls singing with family throughout her Southern childhood. “It’s just like breathing and to share that with your spouse—it’s only natural.”
[only run this if the info box doesn’t run. – DN]
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams play the Tally Ho Theatre with Jerry Douglas Thursday, Oct. 20, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door. For tickets and information, go to tallyholeesburg.com.