Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams are the first couple of roots Americana. Campbell is a multi-instrumentalist musical director and producer of three Grammy-winning albums for the Band’s late Levon Helm. He toured for seven years with Bob Dylan and with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, among other career highlights. Williams is a powerful singer from Peckerwood Point, Tenn., who originated the role of Sara Carter for the musical about the Carter Family, Keep on the Sunny Side.
Twenty-seven years after they wed under a tree her great-great-grandmother planted in a yard on the road to Shiloh, they’ve finally released their first album — a self-titled offering getting rave reviews. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams opens with the warm and funky “Surrender to Love” and never loses its infectious way through eight originals and three well-chosen covers.
Campbell is a skilled songwriter, capturing the wry and roguish in “Aint’ Nobody for Me” and “Bad Luck Charm.” The album closes with an achingly beautiful version of “Attics of My Life,” the Grateful Dead classic the band played as its last encore for its final concert at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 5.
Campbell and Williams spoke with Isthmus in advance of their seated show at the High Noon Saloon on July 17.
What was your musical upbringing like?
Teresa Williams: We kind of made our own music. My mother would play classical piano, teaching herself, and my daddy played guitar. We’d harmonize in the living room after supper. Somebody was always playing music; my brother would even strap a radio to his belt for when we were in the field hoeing together.
Larry Campbell: My parents were broad thinkers, with deep artistic tastes. And their record collection was incredible, from mariachi to opera. There was music all day long.
One of the album’s vocal highlights is the Rev. Gary Davis’ classic “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” It’s got a pretty apocalyptic feel. What are you thinking while you’re singing?
TW: I was asked to address some Rev. Gary material by Jorma [Kaukonen, guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna] or I wouldn’t have approached it, out of reverence. But it kind of took hold of me, like the Baptist revivals my mother would take me to as a child. Everybody says it’s apocalyptic, but to me, it’s joyful.
Playing with Phil Lesh & Friends, did you pick up any pointers about making music in the moment?
LC: Certainly unconsciously. The beauty of playing with Phil is the latitude you get as a musician. I came to Phil pretty soon after those years with Bob, and as chaotic as it could be sometimes with Bob, there usually was a definite structure in what we were doing. With Phil, I immediately found he wanted everybody to take chances. And I had to forget all self-imposed rules I had put on myself and follow the music rather than lead the music. And man, it really...made a better musician out of me. You’d hit this thing as a band that you never even knew existed, a synchronicity that you didn’t even realize you were aiming for. And there’s no feeling in the world like that. I’ll always enjoy working with Phil just to hunt down those moments again.
Is it true you initially turned down the offer to join Dylan’s band?
LC: Yeah. I had just come off a tour with k.d. lang, and I didn’t want to be on the road anymore. I wanted to be a studio musician and producer in New York City. So of course the guy I wanted to work with more than anybody in the world calls me up and offers me a job. And I thought, no, I can’t do this, I’m staying here. Then I woke up the next day and thought, wait a minute — what did I just do? So I called back and said “Okay, I think I’ll do this.” And in that conversation they offered me more money. So I was playing hardball without even realizing it.
You were with him for seven years. What was that experience like?
LW: It was interesting — I can tell you that. It was as fulfilling and as benumbing as you can imagine. The great moments were wonderful, the low moments were low. It was certainly a roller-coaster ride. I’m very grateful for the experience. And when it was time to go, it was time to go.
What a joyous experience it must have been to make music with Levon Helm.
LC: Everything with Levon was a fulfillment of all my aspirations as a musician. And for Teresa, too. And we were together and playing music for the best reason, just the enjoyment of playing music.
TW: It was music utopia, and I cherish every moment of it.
For more on Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, listen to the July 7 broadcast of Books and Beats with Stu Levitan on 92.1 The Mic.