For most of their professional lives, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams have largely worked in the shadows, playing, singing or doing production work for a long list of famous names. But over the past few years, this married duo has carefully stepped into the limelight, carving out a joyful niche and finding satisfaction in ways they could have only once imagined.
Since 2015, the couple has released a pair of albums that define the Americana genre and display a captivating mix of talent. A multi-instrumentalist, Campbell is adept at providing a sensitive layer of sound forged by his affinity for stringed instruments. And Williams has an unmatched ability to sing heart-rending ballads but also belt out the most lonesome, mournful sounds. Her powerful voice is an instrument unto itself.
“What we’re doing is, basically, what I did sitting around in my parents’ living room, while growing up. It’s really just an extension,” says Williams, who was raised on a cotton farm in western Tennessee and learned to sing in church. (She and Campbell will come full circle, in a way, when they appear at the Outpost in the Burbs, Dec. 8 at 8 p.m., with Leslie Mendelson opening. The show will take place in the First Congregational Church at 40 S. Fullerton Ave. in Montclair; visit outpostintheburbs.org.)
Their journey has taken time. Campbell, a native New Yorker, is a musician’s musician. For many years, he did countless gigs backing others in the studio and on the road. For a while, he was a member of the Lone Star Café house band. Starting in 1997, he spent seven years as a sideman for Bob Dylan. Later, he produced albums for Levon Helm, an alumnus of The Band, and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame.
Meanwhile, Williams left Tennessee and moved to New York, where she developed a reputation as a go-to back-up singer, but detoured to the theater because she was mistrustful of the music business. She first met Campbell in 1986, when he was recruited by a mutual friend to play guitar for a gig she had at The Bottom Line. They married two years later, but led separate professional lives for years.
That changed when the couple began working with Helm, who, in the mid-2000s, had formed the Midnight Ramble band where he lived in Woodstock, N.Y. The live shows became renowned and, as time went by, Campbell and Williams worked with him on his final two albums, contributing songs, playing instruments, singing and producing. As Campbell describes it, this was a formative experience.
“Within a few months of leaving Bob’s band — it was the beginning of 2005 — I got a call from Levon and that began a series of very fortunate events. Teresa and I were now in the same place for a while and making music, doing the weekly Ramble shows. Levon was about the music-making community. We’re all in this together. And he was very encouraging about what we could potentially do together.
“That’s where it really started to develop. He provided the safety net of that great band and the sensibility surrounding him. And we had, basically, eight years to hone what we do.
“And so, after we lost Levon, we decided to do a record and see what happens. I didn’t have a concrete vision in my head about how this would work. I did wonder if I can write songs or find songs we can do together.”
And, he says, so far, so good.
“My whole career has been backing up other artists and getting paid well for it. And then you come to realize, when you reach a certain strata, that you’re now the guy who has to pay the musicians, and the agent, and the manager, and transportation and hotels and all that. It was much easier to make a profit as an accompanist than as the main artist,” he laughs. “But we’re doing fine.
“What’s been the rewarding part is that this is the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my entire musical career, because we’re also making our own way. We decide when and how we do things, and we’re doing it together. One of the pitfalls of being on the road is that you’re away from people you want to be with. So we found a way to counteract that. And we can be creative with no parameters. The only people we need to satisfy are ourselves.”
Adds Williams: “We’re flying without a net.”
They don’t really need a net, though. Their influences may be diverse — from Moby Grape and The Beatles to Flatt & Scruggs and Buck Owens — but their sound and stage presence is as authentic as it gets. Like most any musical act, they rely on a few well-honed lines during their onstage banter. Williams comes across as the more forceful personality, while Campbell maintains an “aw shucks” attitude, which is in keeping with the demeanor of a sideman. But you can also see genuine affection passing between them as they exchange glances and musical cues.
“Way back when we first sang together, it was just for the fun of it,” says Campbell. “There was no goal in mind or anything, but it woke up something in me that I didn’t even know was there, which was the pleasure of singing that was enhanced by playing with someone you love, who has an incredible voice. To me, that was incomparable to anything I’d experienced or heard up to that point. Still is.”
For a chance to win two tickets to the Outpost in the Burbs show, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight Dec. 6, with “Campbell/Williams” in the subject line.