A year ago I wrote a retrospective article reviewing Kate Campbell‘s first five albums. A recent visit to her Web site showed two new albums, which are only available at shows or by mail order. Monuments has been released in Australia and is due shortly to come out in the U.S. This is an extraordinary collection of tunes. If you haven’t discovered this gifted singer-songwriter, Monuments is a great starting point. Backed by a solid band of seasoned pros, Campbell sings her songs of Southern angst and American life in a warm and engaging voice with a touch of twang. She sings of a “man with a yellow guitar, standing by the side of the road,” who makes a lasting impression on her as she picked him up hitch-hiking. She sings of electrons carrying her voice through the sound system, and the universe, in “Strangeness of the Day.” She makes a marvelous comparison of heavyweight champions of the world in “Joe Louis’ Furniture.”
The tunes are a bit melancholy, to complement the thoughtful lyrics. Her voice is filled with emotion and the supporting musicians add to the ambience. Walt Aldridge’s sensitive acoustic guitar playing, Larry Franklin’s fiddle, and Mike Johnson’s Dobro all contribute to a gloriously moving sound. The South is very much in Kate’s thoughts with this collection, as it is in all her work. She’s not a country singer, but country music means a lot to her – as we’ll see later. She is a talent to be reckoned with! I prefer her voice to Nanci Griffith’s and her songs are similarly literate and melodic. “The Way Home” is a heartbreaker with stunning piano work by Mark Normore. “If you’re ever in the Richmond jail, with no one around to go your bail, if you’ve lost your way it might help to know, Jesus is the way home.” There’s also a bluesy side to Campbell, some swampy slide guitar, and a deepness to her voice in songs like “Walk Among Stones.”
The second release emphasizes Kate Campbell’s country side, and pays tribute to the great female singers who influenced her. Twang on a Wire is “the embodiment of the belief that a great song well-sung will somehow connect with unseen strangers, and by doing so, we all become less strange to one another…[and] a loving thank you to the women whose own hard work inspired others to achieve their goals…feel free to sing along.” Well, that’s what the liner notes say. And I guess that’s how I feel about it too. It is fun to sing along with these marvelous classic songs!
I never imagined I would ever be singing along with “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” but it’s the first song and, sure enough, I couldn’t resist. Kate has chosen a small band for this quickly-recorded album, and they provide sympathetic support. Jeff Finlin (drums), Kevin Gordon (guitars), Dave Jacques on bass, Will Kimbrough (guitars, mandolin, accordion and keyboards) and more guitars from Jay Zdad avoid the lush orchestral sound of the source recordings and supply a contemporary framework for Kate’s vocals.
The songs come from an era (1968-1975) when women were breaking through in Nashville. Strong women’s voices were being heard all over, and especially on the radio in Mississippi and Tennessee where Kate Campbell grew up. Lynn Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, Donna Fargo, Tammy Wynette and more … these were Kate’s influences. “Would You Lay With Me In a Field of Stones,” “Down From Dover,” “Funny Face,” “Til I Can Make It On My Own” these are the songs she listened to; and these are the songs she chose to interpret. And does she interpret them! Sure, there are echoes of the original versions, but Kate’s hot band provides a new take on the tunes. Kevin Gordon fills in for Conway Twitty on a rollicking version of “Mississippi Woman, Louisiana Man.” The fact that Kevin hails from Monroe, Louisiana and Kate from Sledge, Mississippi adds a “truth in packaging” edge to the song. Jeff Finlin shadows Kate’s vocal on a haunting version of David Allan Coe’s spooky “Would You Lay With Me …” Kate never simply copies a song, she adds her own take and claims ownership of each one.
“Harper Valley PTA,” “Boulder to Birmingham,” and “Satin Sheets,” are among the other songs selected for this tribute. Then Kate wraps up her feelings for the singers and the songs with the one original tune on the album. “Twang On A Wire” closes the album in tribute to those brave ladies who came first. “Angels with flat-tops, they pick and they sing, playing those songs that pull on heart strings, and as long as I live I’ll never tire, of hearing the sound of a twang on a wire.” Actually this song concludes…then there’s a gap…and a surprise second version of “Funny Face” appears – slow and smoldering.
So here are two new albums, one original, one cover versions, by one of our best singer-songwriters. Kate Campbell deserves a broader audience. Twang on a Wire is fun and singable; Monuments is potent and moving, but both provide some solid listening. Discover Kate Campbell for yourself, she’s extraordinary.
(Large River Music, 2002)
(Large River Music, 2003)