With plenty to say about their debut album and upcoming tour, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams talk about their music, working with Levon Helm and how the married duo keeps everything “honest.”
Pollstar spoke with the couple last week via a three-way phone conversation with multi-instrumentalist Campbell in Woodstock, N.Y., and singer/guitarist Williams in her parent’s backyard in Tennessee. Although the geographical distance between the two artists was considerable, they talked, laughed and discussed their musical experiences as if they were in the same room. Coming across as two people completely in sync with each other, often one would often begin a sentence only to have the other finish it.
The couple met when Williams was singing at a New York City club and Campbell was backing her on pedal steel guitar. Since then the two of them have worked with several notables, including Paul Simon, Little Feat, Phil Lesh, Hot Tuna, and Emmylou Harris, who was moved to say, “The music Larry and Teresa make when they sing together is truly transcendent, with the blend of their voices on songs that are always deeply moving.”
You might have seen Campbell during his eight years playing with Bob Dylan on the latter’s “Never Ending Tour.” Or maybe you saw Williams performing as Sara Carter, a role she originated for the musical “Keep On The Sunny Side.” Or, if you journeyed to Woodstock,N.Y., you saw both of them performing with Levon Helm on one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s legendary Midnight Rambles. The couple spent seven years with the former drummer for The Band, a relationship that had Campbell filling the dual roles of bandleader and producer, and resulting in three Grammy awards.
Now, after years of performing live and appearing on other artists’ albums, Campbell and Williams are about to release their self-titled debut on Red House Records June 23. Chatting with Pollstar one week before their fall dates with Jackson Browne were announced, the couple talked about their live show and delved into various topics, including what they learned from playing with Phil Lesh to how they decided the order in which their names appear on the LP. But through the entire conversation they were clearly two peas in the same pod – soulmates in music as well as life.
During the recording of the album, were there any pitfalls you had perceived on other duo recordings that you wanted to avoid on your own record?
Larry Campbell: The only pitfall I was trying to avoid was getting into a fight with Teresa (laughs).
Teresa Williams: I was trying to avoid [listening to] other duo CDs before we did this. … It’s not like I was avoiding them, I just wasn’t seeking them out. There are other situations, too, where I’m working on a certain kind of music … maybe an artist has come out with something similar to what I’m working on. I really want to hear the new record but I won’t let myself open it until I finish the project I’m working on. … So you’re not unconsciously letting that get into your thing.
Campbell: One thing I was trying to avoid [while] writing and arranging the songs, a lot of times when there is a couple singing together, the song might be structured so that it’s [like] having a conversation … [which] could only be performed as a duo. Like, “You sing this line, I’ll sing that line.” That just seemed a little narrowing to me.
For instance, the first tune on the record: “Surrender To Love.” We could have gotten a little cuter on that where she sings a line to me and I sing a line to her, because the song is conducive to that. That’s a pitfall I was trying to avoid, so that these songs [are] a little more … about the song than about the performance.
Williams: I wasn’t even thinking about other duos. It just kind of evolved as our thing. That we were going to approach this song with whatever this song needs.
Did the two of you record this album live or take it one track at a time?
Campbell: The rhythm tracks – bass, drums and guitar – were done live. We started this years ago. In fact, we started it with Levon. One of those tracks – “You’re Running Wild” – ended up on the record. After we lost Levon we continued with Justin Guip on drums. We’d do the rhythm tracks and I’d take those home and start thinking about arrangements. Once I got a map of what was going to happen, instrumentally, then Teresa and I came in and sang. We sang them all together … she’s a better singer than I am, so it was easier to get a better performance out of her. Then I would come in and sing stuff on my own.
Is your home life as musical as your professional?
Campbell: In an abstract sense, yes.
Williams: That’s a good answer. This is kind of how we met, how, I like to say, courted. This is the glue of our marriage because we really get music the same way, like in different styles. We really tend to like the same stuff. If one of us likes something and the other doesn’t, we understand why the other one likes it. That’s really our glue, the symbiotic thing with music.
Campbell: We recognize the same honesty and dishonesty in a musical performance or creation. Like if I’m drifting off into something that seems disingenuous, I trust what Teresa has to say about it is something I should pay attention to.
Williams: And vice versa.
(Click on image for complete album cover)
While at home can the two of you still play for fun?
Williams: We play more for fun down here in Tennessee. We’ll play songs we have coming up … We’ll be dreading rehearsing but it ends up being a lot of fun. That’s on a good night.
Campbell: There’s a great, old-time music community where her family is in Tennessee. When we go down there we often get a chance to play with some of the local musicians.
Williams: Once we started dating, that’s how we started playing together.
Campbell: And that’s totally for relaxation.
Would someone visiting your home find two people who seem to have developed their own language in that you might finish each other’s sentences or just speak in small phrases that each other understands?
Campbell: I guess I’d have to concur. That’s pretty true. We have developed our own personal dynamic.
Williams: Even before he speaks … I’m already thinking about it. I’m just marveling about the fact that I was thinking the exact same thing before he said it.
Having worked with so many other people through the years, is it difficult creating your own material without drawing too much influence from the past?
Campbell: It’s a blessing and a curse. I am what I am because of the musical experiences that I’ve had. There’s no escaping that, and that’s a good thing. But you still have to find your own voice. I have tried in the past to consciously avoid exposing those influences when I’m writing. Then I’d get bogged down, [saying] “I can’t do this. It sounds too much like The Grateful Dead. I can’t do this. It sounds too much like The Band. I can’t do this. It sounds too much like Dylan.” I finally got to a point where [it was like], “Let it go and just write. Whatever comes out is you. Just forget about all that stuff.” … If it seems as if the influence is obvious, so be it. It’s who I am.
Williams: There are songs that I would prefer to rely on, different influences from my past as far as what it does to my voice. But … there are certain places in your voice that are dictated by growing up in rural Tennessee … versus other parts of my life. … Different veins of my life will color my voice in a different way. And trying to keep it honest. Really. Trying to keep dialing it back down to honesty and not trying to get too fancy or too this, that or the other, where I’m trying to do something, let the song be what it wants to be without too much thinking.
When working with different artists, do they sometimes require you to adjust or tailor your voice for them so that you might sing one way for one artist and another way for someone else?
Williams: It does. I think singers who are working singers have a lot of colors in their bag and they use more of one or another color depending on the setting. That’s when you’re being a hired gun. It’s fun to sing the different colors you have that way … but for something like this project I think the song pulls out of you ... what it needs from you.
Campbell: When Teresa and I played with Hot Tuna, she sang those iconic tunes, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love,” which they never performed as Hot Tuna, only as Jefferson Airplane. But as our personal and professional relationship with them evolved, we tried this, she sang them in Hot Tuna settings. The trick here was not to take this away from Grace Slick … but at the same time, put your own thing into it. I gotta say she managed to walk that tightrope with brilliance. Her renditions of those songs … you can hear she was very true to the original but it was her personality that’s coming out of it.
Williams: It’s iconic. How are you going to top [Slick]? I just tried to follow her thing as closely as I could, knowing it would come through my instrument, and that would take care of itself.
What do you think the listener will perceive as the strengths of the new album?
Campbell: For me, it’s Teresa’s voice. That, to me, is the major selling point of this whole thing. Other than that, I don’t know how to answer objectively except to say I hope this will be perceived as an honest attempt to express ourselves. It if is, then this honesty has a way of subconsciously grabbing the listener and drawing them into what we’re doing. If that honesty is missing, people are not going to be fooled by that.
Our only aim was to express ourselves and to enjoy expressing ourselves. … Just do it because this is who we are. This is what we feel, this is what we have to say. If we succeeded at that, that is absolutely the strength of the record.
Everything I’ve seen – the album and the live shows – you’re billed as Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. How did you decide which name comes first?
Campbell: Alphabetically (both laugh).
Williams: I’ll tell you what. This is the honest truth. … I did think about it. Typically, you put the female’s name first. It’s the polite thing to do, isn’t it? But it gets shortened all the time to “Larry & Teresa,” and I didn’t like “Teresa and Larry” because the “a” at the end of “Teresa” kind of bled into the “and.” That was my logic.
We toyed with the idea of trying to come up with a name. A lot of duos do have names for who they are and I like hearing the names that they picked. We toyed around with that notion … but just dropped back to our names, maybe by default, or maybe from not finding anything interesting. … We came up with all kinds of other titles for our record. Again, [our names] just seemed the easiest, cleanest thing we could do.
What are some of the duo names you considered?
Campbell: Sonny & Cher (laughs). … I know we briefly discussed it. But I know that anything I could think of was just missing the mark completely. As we were doing this thing, I wasn’t quite sure what it was other than Teresa and I doing something together. If you name that, if you come up with a name, it creates a certain branding of it. I just couldn’t find in my head something that would brand this …
Williams: That would encompass –
Campbell: -- The whole thing of what it is we do because I don’t completely understand everything we do here. Maybe we can get there at some point but for now this made perfect sense. This is who we are, these are our names.
Williams: I remember one I did toy with for a while, way back when we started to do rhythm tracks. My brother had given me a brochure of an old train schedule. I think it was trains of Alabama. I remember thinking about using the train as an image and calling it the “L&T” and I did go so far as to look up “L&T” and came up with some company in India. I was hoping there was an old train called “L&T.” Then you can get into connotations that you might not want, like train crash.
You’re playing City Winery in New York in a couple of weeks. Plus, you have appearances at festivals such Mountain Jam in Hunter, N.Y. What’s your touring configuration going to be like?
Campbell: Typically, it’s a four piece. Justin Guip on drums, Byron Isaacs on bass, both of them played on the record. When Byron has otherwise been occupied because he’s a busy guy, we have Jeff Hill playing bass with us, he’s fabulous. Justin also engineered the record. That’s the unit as it is right now. That’s what we’ll be touring with most of the time. We have a couple of shows where we’re opening for Tuna and that will be just Teresa and I as a duo. And one or two smaller places where we might just be a trio, Teresa and I with either Byron or Jeff.
Mountain Jam is going to be great because it’s our band with Justin and Byron, and [Little Feat’s] Bill Payne playing keyboards. … And he’s playing with us at The Falcon [Marlboro, N.Y.] the following week.
When the two of you are singing together on stage, what do each of you hear?
Campbell: In my monitor, I need Teresa’s voice as loud as mine because I rely on her … I gotta hear us blending. … I come to this singing game a little late and –
Williams: That’s not true. He was singing when I first met him and I was encouraging him to sing more.
Campbell: But doing it with conviction and in front of people –
Williams: He sounded great in front of people when I first met him. I loved the way he sang. When I would go out and hear him when we were dating, he would throw in a blues tune or two with whoever he was working with, and I thought he sounded fabulous. He had a unique and interesting voice. As he progressed with it, I was pushing him to sing more. … He has a lot of interesting colors in his voice.
Campbell: Be that as it may, when we’re up there performing … I am hanging on to her. It’s always very important to me that I have plenty of Teresa in my monitor. It’s a comfort zone.
Williams: I like to feel him there. I like to feel his harmony with me but not for it to be omnipresent when I sing. A lot of times I am on the lead. If it’s his lead, I like for him to be loud and strong so I can be loud and strong behind him. If it’s a situation where I’m not hearing his electric guitar loud enough, there are certain songs that drives what I’m doing, emotionally, and I will go over and bend over his amp to get more. It’s not normal that I won’t get enough of the electric, but if I’m not getting it, and I need some inspiration, I’ll lean over it to get the full surge (laughs) of something big.
Will the upcoming gigs draw mainly from the new album, or will you throw in some covers?
Campbell: It depends on how long the shows are at all these venues. If we do our regular 90-minute or longer show, we’ll do most of the record if not all of it. And some cover tunes. Teresa and I do Johnny Cash’s “Big River” as a duet. Teresa does an incredible version of “Sugaree” which we throw in every once in a while. Because of our association with Levon, we’ll do “Long Black Veil” once in a while, or “Chest Fever.” There’s a bunch more cover tunes that we throw in there … you got to feel it out with the crowd and what they’re responding to. You gotta sorta know your audience to figure out which tunes will work with them. But [the live set] will heavily rely on the record.
Can the two of you turn on a dime and play something spontaneously when the mood strikes?
Campbell: Oh, yeah. As long as we have the lyrics in front of us or it’s something that we can already sing but haven’t performed before, yeah, we’ll try it.
Williams: [He’ll be] feeling the crowd and it’s an abrupt left turn and he’s like, “Let’s do …” and out it comes.
Campbell: That’s something I gained license to do from our experiences with Phil Lesh. That whole thing to me was a lesson in seizing the moment and letting what happens, happen. Forget about plans, just have a vague kind of notion of where you want to go and get out there and do something. Phil gave us license to go to the moon if you want. Once I understood the value of that, it opened up this whole new world to me. In the moment improvisation was a great idea.
Having worked with so many people, what’s the best bit of advice any other musician has ever given either of you?
Williams: I’m not sure this is advice, but when Levon would say, “No matter how bad you’re feeling when you go out there or when you get here to play, if you’re sick, if you lost somebody, if you’re having troubles, the music will lift you up.” If you can get yourself, your ego, your pride, out of the way of the music, then it will really happen for you and the audience. That’s a pretty good reason to get up and do it.
I heard a famous opera singer, whose name I can’t recall, being interviewed on NPR, and she said almost the same words verbatim that Levon said. I think her huge debut, maybe at The Met in New York, she stepped out and fell. Her big entrance, her big opportunity, and she fell on the stage. And she was saying those exact words that Levon said, so I guess it cuts across all genres. That’s one of my favorite bits.
Campbell: One thing that came from Levon to me that was great advice was, “Make sure they can dance to it.” Literally that’s true. In the broader sense it’s true. Just make sure you’re connecting with these people. Make sure you make them want to feel something where they want to get up and move and react to what you’re doing.
“Even before he speaks … I’m already thinking about it. I’m just marveling about the fact that I was thinking the exact same thing before he said it.”
Upcoming dates for Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams:
May 18 – New York, N.Y., City Winery NYC
June 6 – Hunter, N.Y., Hunter Mountain (Mountain Jam Festival)
June 7 – Hunter, N.Y., Hunter Mountain (Mountain Jam Festival)
June 12 – Marlboro, N.Y., The Falcon
June 13 – Amagansett, N.Y., The Stephen Talkhouse
June 26 – Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Caffe Lena
June 27 – Katonah, N.Y., Caramoor Center (American Roots Music Festival)
July 10 – Plymouth, N.H., The Flying Monkey Movie House & Performance Center
July 11 – Beverly, Mass., The Cabot
July 12 – Truro, Mass., Payomet Performing Arts Center
July 15 – Evanston, Ill., SPACE
July 16 – Milwaukee, Wis., Shank Hall
July 17 – Madison, Wis., High Noon Saloon
July 18 – Minneapolis, Minn., Cedar Cultural Center
July 19 – Cedar Rapids, Iowa, CSPS
July 21 – St. Louis, Mo., Off Broadway Nightclub
July 22 – Franklin, Tenn., The Factory At Franklin (Music City Roots)
July 23 – Nashville, Tenn., City Winery Nashville
July 24 – Asheville, N.C., The Grey Eagle
July 26 – Charleston, W.Va., Mountain Stage
Sept. 5 – Highland Park, Ill., Ravinia Festival At Ravinia Park
Sept. 6 – Rochester, Mich., Meadow Brook Music Festival
Sept. 10-15 – Arrington, Va., Oak Ridge Farm (Lockn’ – Interlocking Music Festival)
Sept. 15 – Port Chester, N.Y., The Capitol Theatre
Sept. 16 – Port Chester, N.Y., The Capitol Theatre
Sept. 18 – Boston, Mass., Blue Hills Bank Pavilion
Sept. 19 – Bethel, N.Y., Bethel Woods Center For The Arts
Sept. 21 – Red Bank, N.J., Count Basie Theatre
Sept. 22 – Red Bank, N.J., Count Basie Theatre
Sept. 24 – Morristown, N.J., Mayo Performing Arts Center
Sept. 25 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Kings Theatre
Sept. 27 – Reading, Pa., Santander Performing Arts Center
Oct. 7 – Durham, N.C., Durham Performing Arts Center
Oct. 8 – Greenville, S.C., Peace Center Concert Hall
Oct. 10 – Atlanta, Ga., Chastain Park Amphitheatre
Oct. 11 – Nashville, Tenn., Ascend Amphitheater
Oct. 14 – Birmingham, Ala., Alabama Theatre
Oct. 15 – New Orleans, La., Saenger Theatre
Oct. 17 – Rogers, Ark., The Walmart AMP
Oct. 18 – Tulsa, Okla., Brady Theater
Oct. 20 – San Antonio, Texas, Majestic Theatre
Oct. 21 – Austin, Texas, Bass Concert Hall
Oct. 23 – Houston, Texas, Bayou Music Center
Oct. 24 – Thackerville, Okla., WinStar World Casino & Resort / Global Event Center
Oct. 27 – Tucson, Ariz., Tucson Music Hall
Oct. 28 – Phoenix, Ariz., Arizona State Fair Grandstand (Arizona State Fair)
Appearing with Hot Tuna July 10-12. Appearing with Jackson Brown Sept. 5-6 & Sept. 15-Oct. 28. For more information, please visit Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams’ Facebook page, Twitter feed and home on Vimeo.