In the mid-Eighties, Teresa Williams came to New York City as a young country singer to play a gig at the Bottom Line. The venue supplied her with a pick-up band, and one musician in particular caught her ear: “He was playing pedal steel, and he was doing it just right. He was inside the music, and I was just, ‘How?‘”
The pedal-steel player was Larry Campbell, and after the show, the two stayed in touch. “Larry got big brownie points when he courted me with a Louvin Brothers mixtape,” says Willliams with a laugh. This past June, after nearly 30 years of marriage, the husband-and-wife team released their excellent first duo album, Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams.
Campbell and Williams married in 1988 on a Tennessee farm that has been in Williams’ family for seven generations, and they continued their musical careers separately; Williams has sung with Mavis Staples, Bonnie Bramlett, Emmylou Harris, Hot Tuna and Furthur. Campbell, meanwhile, was Bob Dylan’s right-hand sideman from 1997 to 2004. Campbell left Dylan’s band to spend more time with Williams, and they started making music together full-time as part of Levon Helm’s band.
Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams highlight Campbell’s endearingly raw delivery and Williams’ Tennessee-tent-revival-trained howl as they tackle mournful folk ballads and waltzes (“Down on My Knees,” “Did You Love Me at All?”) and raw rhythm & blues (“Bad Luck Charm,” “Ain’t Nobody For Me”). “After years of being mostly apart in our marriage, suddenly we’re working together all the time,” says Williams.
Campbell grew up a huge Dylan fan; he first saw him play a tribute to Woody Guthrie at Carnegie Hall in 1967. There was little Campbell couldn’t do in Dylan’s band; he played guitar, pedal steel and sang harmonies in an era Dylan hasn’t rivaled since in concert, with separate acoustic and electric sets, and left-field covers like “Brown Sugar.” Offstage on the backing musicians’ bus, Williams, Campbell and the rest of the band would stay up playing bluegrass and old-time music. “We would play at, like, three in the morning, just sitting in the back lounge,” says Williams.”
The job was full of surprises. Dylan and Campbell rehearsed old rock & roll and country covers for several days before Campbell’s first show. But when he showed up to the gig, none of those songs were on the set list. “There was a lot of off-the-cuff stuff going on,” says Campbell with a laugh. “There were periods when we would rehearse stuff to death at soundchecks, and there was no rhyme or reason to it. It was, you know, a very amorphous existence. There was no set way to do anything until there was, and then that was the only way to do it, but then the next day, it wasn’t anymore.”
Campbell offers a few details of his days on the road. A huge Grateful Dead fan, Dylan would use the band’s cover songs as templates for his own versions of songs like “Not Fade Away.” A Rolling Stone photo from 2001 captures Dylan and the band playing cards on a tour bus — and Campbell confirms that would actually happen. “That wasn’t uncommon,” he says. “There would be times at festivals where he would come up and we’d play cards or something.”
What is Dylan really like? “Mercurial,” Campbell says. “I mean, it’s in all the books about him, and you know, it’s all true. You can hang with him and everything — it’s like hanging with anybody else, and then it’s not. I mean, he’s a very complex guy – all the good and all the bad that goes along with that. There were huge, high moments with that tour and there were low, low moments with that tour.”
“Those eight years were a great experience,” adds Campbell. “It’s something I will never regret doing, it. You know, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were pretty much the Holy Trinity when I was growing up, and you can’t discount his vitality as an artist.”
Campbell left Dylan’s band after years of nonstop touring. “It certainly was challenging,” he says. “It’s difficult because you’re pursuing the thing that you feel like you were put on this earth to do, but pursuing that thing involves being away from the person you were put on this earth to be with.” Asked if he would ever return, he says, “Never say never, but the appropriate answer is no right now.”
Williams and Campbell teamed up and joined Levon Helm’s band, playing and co-writing with Helm for his comeback albums Dirt Farmer and the Grammy-winning Electric Dirt. After living in New York City, they moved to Woodstock be closer to Helm’s frequent Midnight Ramble concerts at his Woodstock barn. “I looked forward to every gig that was coming up. I couldn’t wait for the next one to happen,” says Campbell. Adds Williams, “The barn really reminded me of the revivals from home [in Tennessee], when we didn’t have electricity, all the windows were open. At the Ramble, you were just there to enjoy the music. There was no music-business stuff filtering into anything, you know?”
One of Campbell’s favorite Helm stories concerns the writing of Electric Dirt‘s “Growing Trade,” a ballad from the perspective of a hard-working conservative farmer forced to start growing marijuana to keep his land. “When it comes to labor, you’re not gonna get a whole lot of Levon,” says Campbell. “But I sat down with him, and went through the whole song and began talking about the subject matter with him, and he offered perspective and authenticity — reinforcement of the notion of the importance of that farmland. He grew up with that. One line I took from him was ‘The cotton field was like a view from heaven’s door,’ you know? He was incapable of being inauthentic.”
“That’s a fact, that’s a fact,” adds Williams.
One highlight of Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams is a cover of the Louvins’ “You’re Running Wild,” which features a Helm drum track recorded before he passed away. “It was a very poignant song for us because it was one of the first we sang together,” says Campbell.
The duo just kicked off a tour with Jackson Browne, opening for and backing up the singer-songwriter through November. Beyond that, they aren’t seeking huge commercial success. “I’ve come to a point,” Campbell says, “I think we both have here, for us, just getting this record done is a success.”